Mike Munford

© 2003 Mike Munford

    Berlioz composed in many different styles. There is a world of difference between the style of Les Troyens and the style of Béatrice et Bénédict – even though they are both operas, written during the same period. There is obviously even more difference between the style of the Requiem and that of the Scène d’Amour in Roméo et Juliette.

    I think all admirers of Berlioz (and I am a very great admirer) will agree about these differences of style. But also I think we can carry the argument one stage further. I believe that one sometimes notices differences of style within a single work. I don’t mean by this the natural differences between music which, within a single work, express different situations, characters or emotions. Such differences are found throughout each of Berlioz’s works – of course they are – but in (say) Benvenuto Cellini or Béatrice et Bénédict, they are found within a constant style which is characteristic of the work as a whole. The differences of style I am trying to pinpoint are something else; and they are sometimes as great, within a single work, as the differences of style between works.

    I don’t include Lélio among the works. But what about Roméo et Juliette? I think it is arguable that Roméo contains within it at least four quite different styles, each of which is to a greater or lesser degree reminiscent of another work of Berlioz, and more reminiscent of that than it is of the rest of Roméo. The Scène d’Amour is not like anything else in Berlioz – except perhaps the song Le Spectre de la Rose. La reine Mab is nearest, I suppose, to Béatrice et Bénédict – especially to the overture. Friar Laurence’s finale is Berlioz opera, though not quite in the style of any of the operas Berlioz actually completed. And I have heard it suggested that the Convoi Funèbre, given Latin words, would be perfectly at home in the Requiem.

    Other works – particularly the other symphonies – have the same tendency to diversity of style, though not to the same degree. What a contrast there is between the Marche des pélerins and the Finale in Harold! The Fantastique is held together by the idée fixe – but how well? And even that unifying thread is transformed into something quite different in the finale.

    The operas, dramatic cantatas and church works are usually more unified. But even here there are some exceptions. The exceptions are often associated with Berlioz’s use of music originally composed for some other purpose. The expansion of Huit Scénes de Faust to become La Damnation de Faust was done whilst preserving a kind of Faustian continuity of style, even though the musical techniques of Faust’s soliloquies are very different from the simple melodies given to Marguerite and Méphistophélès. But what about the Marche Hongroise? The development of L’Enfance du Christ from the original Adieu des bergers was smooth enough, even though again we see a much greater complexity of melodic style. But what is the trio for two flutes and harp doing there?

    Now of course no admirer of Berlioz minds these changes of style. They do not detract in any way from the wonderful impact of the music. They may even enhance it. Roméo et Juliette is like a whole world of diverse Berliozian music brought together as a single consecutive experience. But perhaps they have implications for our understanding of Berlioz’s creative process. Also perhaps for the ways in which we should now perform Berlioz.

    Before going any further, let me suggest what to me is another very striking example of Berlioz’s occasional discontinuities of style. One of the ways in which we detect a discontinuity is by listening to a particular item and trying to imagine one has never heard it before and has been asked to guess which work of Berlioz it comes from. I have tried to do that for the Chasse Royale et Orage

    It is, of course, basically an orchestral piece, which makes it unlikely to be part of an opera. But does it really fit into the context of Les Troyens at all?

    If I was asked to listen to the Chasse and define its style, mood and probable context, I think I should say "This is an expression of solitude amidst nature. There are passions, but they are inner struggles, reflected in the turbulence of the elements. It would fit well into an undiscovered late Berlioz symphony, probably as the central movement. In fact the closest parallel, allowing for thirty years of creative development, is probably the Scène aux Champs in the Fantastique." If I was told that it was the music written for the consummation of Aeneas’s and Dido’s love, I should find the idea hard to accept.

    I feel I should stress that whatever discontinuities it may have (I can’t suggest any others) I personally regard Les Troyens as a very great masterpiece. And I think the Chasse Royale et Orage is a perfect and very powerful piece of orchestral music. But that does not alter my sense of discontinuity.

    In this particular case, Berlioz’s relationship with Virgil may be a factor. In the long love duet and the two ensembles which precede it, Berlioz seems increasingly to have forgotten Virgil. His attitude to the Aeneas/Dido relationship is Romantic and strongly influenced by Shakespeare. Virgil’s attitude was very different. Virgil’s Aeneas was not in love with Dido. Virgil’s Dido is possessed by an insane passion for Aeneas. She is the victim of a divine plot, a helpless mortal being exploited by the immortals for their own devious purposes:

                  Ardet amans Dido traxitque per ossa furorem 

                  (Dido is on fire with love; she has drunk the poison through her very bones)

    Virgil’s story of the consummation in the cave has nothing positive about it. It has been planned in advance, in minute detail, by Juno. The goddess explains:

        Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

        (Dido and the Trojan leader shall find their way to the same cave)

    To which Venus, who knows how little this will bind Aeneas, ‘nodded her assent with a smile at so ingenious a deception’.

    The mortals play their expected roles: Dido is passionately in love, Aeneas is a hero but also a normal man. The overall feeling when it has happened is of brazen sin and the inevitability of future trouble:

[...] ruunt de montibus amnes;
Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem
Deveniunt. Prima et Tellus et pronuba Iuno
Dant signum; fulsere ignes, et conscius aether
Conubiis, summoque ulularunt vertice Nymphae.
Ille dies primus leti primusque malorum
Causa fuit; neque enim specie famave movetur,
Nec iam furtivum Dido meditatur amorem.
Coniugium vocat; hoc praetexit nomine culpam.

(Torrents come streaming from the hills. Dido and the Trojan leader find their way to the same cave. Primeval Earth and Juno, Mistress of Marriage, give their sign. The sky connived at the union; the lightning flared; on their mountain peak nymphs raised their cry. On that day were sown the seeds of evil and death. Henceforward Dido cared no more for appearances or her good name, and ceased to take any thought for secrecy in her love. She called it marriage; she used this word to cover her sin.)

    The most significant line simply repeats, with tense changed from future to present, the words of the goddess 40 lines earlier in the poem:

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

(Dido and the Trojan leader find their way to the same cave)

    Thus Virgil makes it clear the absolute helplessness of mortals in the hands of fate.

    The passage is clearly the origin of the Chasse as presented (or intended by Berlioz to be presented) on stage. And the music is in some sense appropriate. But what has this to do with the Aeneas and Dido of the passionate love duet?

    Of course there may be other opinions about the Chasse. The main point I want to stress is that Berlioz, being after all a Romantic, did not always create perfectly integrated classical works of art. The whole of a given Berlioz work is not always necessarily greater than the sum of the wonderful parts.

    This means, I suggest, that the modern trend away from performing excerpts may be mistaken. Because if we are only to hear the Scène d’Amour in the concert hall when the whole of Roméo is being performed, we shall hear it much less often, and only when soloists and a chorus are available (and paid for). And we shall probably seldom hear (live) the wonderful arias in the operas at all. The performance of Berlioz excerpts – arias and movements as well as overtures – brings Berlioz before a wider audience. People go to hear the famous conductor or singer perform the well-known work, and they come away having experienced Berlioz also.

    Berlioz himself, in his concerts, performed excerpts regularly. Holoman’s biography contains the programmes of all Berlioz’s concerts. On my rough count, Berlioz performed the Fantastique as a whole 18 times, but each of the three central movements was performed almost as often separately. Harold was performed as a whole 26 times; but the Pilgrims’ March, a concert favourite, 29 times on its own. Berlioz himself established the tradition of performing Roméo mostly in excerpts: he performed the work as a whole only 8 times, but the Tristesse de Roméo ... Fête chez Capulet, the Scène d’Amour and La reine Mab were performed separately on 19, 18 and 21 times respectively (often, of course, they were performed together).

    Berlioz’s practice was more typical of his period than of ours, and we can if we wish attribute it to the barbarous taste of the period. But which of us would not give a great deal to have been able to attend one of these barbarous concerts of excerpts! The quality of the performance is far more important than the completeness of the production. And ease and frequency of performance are very important too.

    Perhaps we are coming round to seeing this. I was very pleased to read Berlioz vocal works: some programming ideas, by Melinda O’Neal, on this site. Perhaps in the recent past we have been too much influenced by the new phenomenon of recorded music. CDs are of a length to contain whole works, and their worldwide sales can be sufficient to pay the costs of a full-scale performance. By contrast, few live audiences outside major cities, and then only occasionally, can bring in enough to pay for the complete work and the necessary rehearsals. And when Berlioz works are performed live in major cities, performances are seldom remotely near perfection from start to finish. Often it would have been more enjoyable to hear only the good bits, performed by artists in sympathy with them who have consciously included them in their repertoire, rather than the whole work, with the inspiration spread a little thin. And then in the opera houses, we have the destructive tyranny of the producers! If anyone doesn’t know what I mean by that, may I suggest reading Alastair Bruce’s review of the ENO Troyens on this site.

    The extreme example of our modern tendency to perform only "whole works" of Berlioz, is Les Nuits d’été. There is no reason to think that Berlioz regarded Les Nuits d’été as a single work at all. It is correctly listed on this site as a "collection" – like Irlande. Berlioz wrote songs at odd times throughout his career, sometimes to please amateur singers, sometimes probably because he liked a poem. He published Les Nuits d’été originally as a collection for voice and piano. Subsequently he orchestrated the songs for concert use and published the orchestrated collection. He performed separate songs at concerts; Holoman and this site indicate that he never performed Les Nuits d’été all together and I think he would have been very surprised to find that he had written an "orchestral song cycle". Unfortunately this misunderstanding stops singers from even knowing that Berlioz wrote separate songs. Thus almost the only Berlioz works which do not require large resources are hardly ever performed. There are about 50 Berlioz songs for voice and piano and they contain some of his most beautiful music.

    Berlioz was a very great artist, and one whom even now, the world is only just starting to understand. In the early twentieth century, he was generally regarded as an eccentric, possibly even a charlatan. Things have changed, and now perhaps we are trying to fit him into a classical mould, along with the other great Bs. I think we shall find that he breaks out of it and goes his own way – as he always has done.

Mike Munford

We are most grateful to Mike Munford for this valuable contribution to the site.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 10 August 2003.

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