Introduction

This interview was conducted for the Swiss journal Scènes Magazine. But given the limited scope of the article for Scènes Magazine, to which thanks are due**, we thought it would be of interest to the viewers of the Hector Berlioz Website to read the interview with Sir Colin in its entirety. Courteous and stylish as ever, this great champion of Berlioz met us in Paris between two rehearsals for Roméo et Juliette, which was performed under his direction at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 26 and 27 October 20061.

Pierre-René Serna

This interview is also available in French

Pierre-René Serna: Things are changing in France for Berlioz. At the moment we have les Troyens at the Opéra Bastille, and simultaneously at the Opéra in Strasbourg. Les Troyens is receiving twelve performances at the Bastille under the direction of Sylvain Cambreling [in reality ten performances – twelve is a slip of the tongue].

Sir Colin Davis: I could not do that twelve times, but good luck to you.

P-R S: This is an interview for the Swiss journal Scènes Magazine. If you wish I can put the questions in French and Olivier Teitgen will translate them into English. You may of course reply in English.

You are conducting Roméo et Juliette with the Orchestre national de France. Can you tell us about this symphony?

C D: Romeo and Juliet? I have been conducting it for a long time!

P-R S: Do you regard this work as a masterpiece?

C D: It is an amazing piece altogether. It’s a unique piece, and there is nothing quite like it. Of course there are the famous orchestral pieces which practically everybody knows, but (also) the other things that people don’t know, like the Scene in the tomb, which Berlioz suggests we don’t play, because it is too difficult. And (then there are) beautiful things in the Introduction. The idea of this small chorus introducing that story and the two interludes, one with the alto and one with the tenor. I think it is extraordinary, very, very moving in many ways.

Olivier Teitgen: Is it a difficult work to conduct?

C D: I mean, one, two, three is not difficult. But that’s not conducting. You have got to find the right way. We were rehearsing this morning with the soloists, and it is a question of finding a romantic declamation, because you can sing it correctly, particularly in the "Strophes", and it can be terribly boring. So you have to invent with the French language another atmosphere altogether, when it is not boring, but there is magic. There is a little rubato, there is the use of the words.

P-R S: Do you get on well with the players of the Orchestre national de France?

C D: I think they are very good, very good indeed. They do splendidly and play very well, so I don’t anticipate any difficulty there. We have already had a chorus rehearsal, (and) that was quite good too.

P-R S: It seems to be the case, and I have heard it said, that your relations with the staff of Radio France, the musicians of the Orchestre national, and the chorus of Radio France, could not be better. Do you have any other plans with this orchestra?

C D: Well I think so, but I can’t remember what they are. This one is so big that it eclipses whatever may happen next.

P-R S: And what plans do you have with them for next year?

C D: I have some plans, but I really can’t remember what they are. It’s a long way away. There is one big plan there, to play the Requiem in Saint Denis2, with all the bones of the kings. And that should be a big undertaking.

O T: To return to Roméo et Juliette, what do you think of the way Berlioz marries Shakespeare’s text with music?

P-R S: You are English…

O T: And Shakespeare is your national author.

C D: Shakespeare is an extraordinary man.

O T: Did Berlioz understand Shakespeare well?

C D: Well of course... he fell in love with Shakespeare and with Ophelia, it’s very famous. But I think what he liked about Shakespeare was freedom, because the French theatrical tradition was very narrow and dominated by the classical pieces of Racine and Corneille, and everything had to be organised according to Aristotle (and other authorities), and Shakespeare took no notice of any of these, he did just what he liked, which is precisely what Berlioz did in les Troyens. And so he would change the scene, he would have two comic sentries, he would have a sailor boy Hylas. He would move about. He would do this amazing scene with Andromache. So there is no doubt that he had an enormous inspiration from Shakespeare and had tremendous respect for him. But, as he rightly said, what would be the use of setting Shakespeare’s text to music? Admittedly it was tried by one or two other composers, (but) he could not possibly compete with that. So he left out the text and tried to (re)produce the essence of the Love Scene, and came up with one of the most beautiful pieces of music that has ever been written, probably the most beautiful piece in 19th century music that France produced. And when you think that is 18373, that’s before Wagner had written anything; it shows you how in advance Berlioz is, it is the first real impressionist piece. And then (there is) of course the Fête and Roméo seul. It’s very much built on the same lines as the first movement of the Fantastic Symphony – the Introduction, a wonderful melody, and then the riot of the ball. But comically enough one of the most difficult scenes is the scene where Romeo finds Juliet dead. That’s not Shakespeare, of course, it’s Garrick, who had Juliet wake up before Romeo was dead. Shakespeare does not do that. Romeo is dead, Juliet wakes up, finds him dead, and stabs herself. He wanted a meeting between the two lovers, and if you read Garrick’s text, it’s just appalling. But that does not matter because we don’t have a text. So the idea of these two lovers meeting is no disrespect to Shakespeare.

O T: The fight between love and hatred remains to this day a topical subject.

C D: The fight between love and hatred? You mean the hatred of the families and the love of the children? Well, the human race is like that, isn’t it? All this fighting that is going on, all these people killing one another, for I don’t know what. The tragedy is huge, so when we see it in the story of these two children it’s terribly moving.

P-R S: Does the final scene not ring like a call for peace between peoples?

C D: Of course it is, and it’s bigger. That’s not Shakespeare either – it’s an invention of Berlioz, but it is to take an oath, to stop all this nonsense, but people take no notice of their great men.

P-R S: Berlioz is one of your favourite composers, among others…

C D: Yes, and many others.

P-R S: Can you tell us about Berlioz and your favourite works? In your view what is the foundation of Berlioz’s aesthetic?

C D: The aesthetic? Good heavens! That sounds a little academic for me.

P-R S: And his originality?

C D: His originality? Well the thing that strikes one first about Berlioz is his capacity to write melodies, but melodies not like anybody else’s melodies. They are not Teutonic in any sense, they begin and they develop, they soar away and some time later they flutter down to a very simple cadence. And I think that has put a lot of people off Berlioz, because they are not prepared to go with him. They want nice tidy German antecedents. You have only got to compare Berlioz’s melodies with – excuse me for saying so – Gounod … rubato, legato, a tempo … and you see what an original man he was. Saint-Saëns realised that, he was a great admirer of Berlioz, and Berlioz, of course, influenced all the French composers who came after, although they mostly vilified him and were rude about him. That’s one thing. The second thing about him which strikes me is that he is really a very, very classical composer, he uses the old language but in a very original way, but it’s still the same. His heroes were Gluck (among others); as we all know he loved that music, and he admitted when he had written The Trojans that he hoped Gluck would have called him a good son, or something like that. Then of course there is the use of the orchestra, which is quite extraordinary, and also the wild contrasts of the expression. What people made of the Fantastic Symphony in 1830 we have no idea, but we must not forget how early on in the 19th century (this was). For me summing it up, he is the first and only true Romantic. His freshness and his discovery of all this territory, this landscape, this country that was partly his own invention – he is amazing. When Wagner began composing he began composing operas just like Weber, they do not have much character. But (with) Berlioz, it does begin straight away with the Fantastic Symphony. The man who comes to Paris at the age of 17 and has never heard a symphony, that’s genius of an extraordinary kind, I think. We could go on but we are not going to.

P-R S: The Berlioz repertoire is now conquering the scene in France, largely thanks to you. Are you aware of this?

C D: It’s not just to do with me; there were so many other people involved in this. I was on the battlefield, let’s put it that way.

P-R S: Apart from Berlioz you have other favourite composers. You love Mozart and Sibelius. What are the other great monuments in music that you are committed to championing?

C D: Such rubbish is written about Mozart these days that one feels one has to rescue him from so much nonsense. Sibelius is not played enough on the continent, in Germany, or France, or Italy. I don’t know why. Perhaps he is too dark. Berlioz, for example, is very high music, not a heavy bass. In Sibelius there are very few sounds from the piccolo. But then what about Verdi, and Falstaff and Otello? Amazing pieces. Great music is great music, and there is no reason why we should not enjoy as much of it as we can. The absurdity was that nobody believed Berlioz was a great composer. Because people have written such nonsense, complete nonsense, and our only achievement was to make it possible for everybody to hear what he had actually written, then they can make up their own minds.

P-R S: Do you see other composers who do not at the moment enjoy their rightful place?

C D: Not Sibelius; many people play Sibelius, but I think he is wonderful. There are certain works by, for example, Vaughan Williams, or William Walton which should be performed but aren’t, or Elgar. And if it’s great music, I like to play it. When you go to an orchestra, what do they want – they want to play Mahler, again! Everybody plays Mahler, so what’s the point? I have nothing to say about Mahler, and much better they say it. But I have something to say about maybe Sibelius, or Elgar, and so I try to bring pieces which are not so (well known).

P-R S: Do you prefer conducting in the concert hall or at the opera?

C D: I think what I like most is conducting opera on the concert stage.

P-R S: Does this mean that you find staging an opera to be a hindrance?

C D: Very often. I am disappointed that people see the orchestras as (being) in a fossa, the Latin for a ditch. The only reason we go to the opera is because of the music, and we don’t hear it properly. Everybody is looking and they are not listening. You put it on the stage and you realise that everything about the opera is in the music. You can hear the singers, and the drama is explained by the orchestra, and so it is wildly exciting to hear a concert performance of, say, Otello. We all know damn well what happens in Otello, but this music is diabolical in its intensity and it makes such a huge impression.

P-R S: Do you therefore conduct fewer staged operas these days?

C D: Very, very little. I like to do Mozart. But then you don’t need great stars for Mozart, you need very good, intelligent singers, and then it is possible to make an ensemble.

P-R S: What are your forthcoming plans for concerts or operas?

C D: Well, you will be very pleased to hear it’s Benvenuto Cellini4, and this time we shall make a recording of it with the London Symphony Orchestra, which we did not manage to do before. So I hope I survive long enough to do that. In December of this year we are going to play l’Enfance du Christ5 and make a recording of it with the London Symphony Orchestra. We are good friends.

P-R S: Are you at the moment honorary conductor or guest conductor of the LSO?

C D: I am the principal conductor. But that comes to an end at the end of this year and then I shall be the président. Now that is so awkward, because if you are the president normally speaking you do nothing, but they kick me upstairs then they invite me down again. We have lots of projects.

P-R S: And apart from the LSO…

C D: In London only the LSO.

P-R S: And elsewhere?

C D: I do less travelling; I am getting a bit old for these journeys and these regulations. Going to America, and finger-prints … that’s horrible all that.

P-R S: For you music seems important, even fundamental…

C D: Well at the risk of telling a lie, I would say yes. Because I can’t manage what is called reality without music and literature. Music is an ideal world, as is also literature, and I am just not able to deal with reality all day long. It isn’t reality, I don’t know what it is – all the papers, the Internet, I have no interest in all that. Human beings are impossible. Let’s have an ideal world in our pockets so that we can run away from all this rubbish. I know it sounds very feeble psychology, but I think you are exactly the same, I am quite sure, and if you took music away from me I would be lost, because it is a lifeline, I understand life from the music.

P-R S: Music in other words is a form of spirituality, or religion…

C D: Well, you can’t use those words any more. Of course it is. You are perfectly correct. They are trying to destroy us as human beings, there is no such thing as spirit, nothing there except pipes, and water, and God knows what. And now no young people are taught to admire the great men any more, they do not read any literature, they are given this deplorable music all day long, they have not got a thought into their heads. It’s small wonder they behave like idiots, you can say that! But fortunately I’m old enough to have been brought up to admire the greatest brains, the greatest spirits, let’s say.

P-R S: Faced with the catastrophic world which is awaiting us, perhaps in the very near future, Berlioz’s music and his personality must constitute a refuge…

C D: Of course, and so is the music of Mozart and Beethoven, and so is Fidelio. And Falstaff is a wonderful protest against the idiocy of people. But if people don’t listen to them and don’t appreciate them they will be cut off, it seems to me, from this fantastic legacy which Europe has left us. And if you cut yourself off from that, what have you got? You haven’t got anything. Given such a fantastic treasure how can people turn their backs on it? I don’t understand. Neither do you.

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* The interview was conducted by Pierre-René Serna and Olivier Teitgen; Olivier Teitgen and Michel Austin assisted in the transcription and translation of the original text.

Editors’ notes

1. The performers were: the Orchestre national de France, Chœur de Radio France, Isabelle Cals (mezzo-soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), and Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone). See also October 2006 in the Archive of performances of Berlioz’s music around the world.

2. The concert will take place at Saint-Denis Cathedral, Paris in June 2008.

3. Roméo et Juliette was in fact premièred in 1839.

4. Benvenuto Cellini was performed (in concert) at the Barbican Hall in London on 26 and 29 June 2007. See also June 2007 in the Archive of performances of Berlioz’s music around the world.

5. L’Enfance du Christ was performed at the Barbican Hall in London on 3 December 2006. See also December 2006 in the Archive of performances of Berlioz’s music around the world.

** We are most grateful to Pierre-René Serna and Olivier Teitgen for making this interview available, and to Scènes Magazine for granting us permission to publish it on this site.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 23 November 2006.

© Pierre-René Serna, Olivier Teitgen, Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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