© 2007 Pierre-René Serna
Translation by Michel Austin
© 2007 Michel Austin
is also available in the original French
It should be made clear at the outset that there is no conclusive proof, only a series of presumptions, that Berlioz is the author of The Lice and the Spider, a classic of barrack-room songs.
Barrack-room songs belong to tradition, a French tradition that is at present more or less on the point of extinction. These are saucy, indeed salacious songs, peculiar to students of medicine which are often taken up by their colleagues at the Beaux-Arts, and performed at gatherings where drinks flow freely. This custom seems to have originated before the XIXth century. The songs are in general anonymous. Following the changes and vagaries of live performance, they often undergo variations and modifications, which are consecrated by new habits. They may even be published, though generally in an underhand manner, but essentially this is a repertory that relies on oral transmission.
That is why in the case that concerns us there is apparently no source that is strictly reliable. Our only references come from various minor works, among them some old record sleeves, notably the collection le Plaisir des dieux, volume 1, which was first published in 1946, and the record Columbia CO62 34010, Chansons d’atelier, published in 1969; in these the music is regularly ascribed to Berlioz and the words to Alfred de Musset. This attribution has also been related to us by persons, sometimes quite old, who were familiar with this repertory or practised it. The fact that this assertion is repeatedly made, and stated in variety of ways and forms, is at any rate suggestive. In the circles where these songs are in vogue custom thus required, rightly or wrongly, that these two authors should be named for The Lice and the Spider. And that is about the sum of what is known on the subject.
THE FLEA AND THE RAT
Yet this was a genre which was not alien to Berlioz, as may be seen from the ribaldry and drinking songs of the Flea and Rat, or the students’ song and the chorus of soldiers, in the Damnation of Faust.
Should this be seen as an echo of his youthful student years? We should remember that he was a student of medicine, and probably frequented places where barrack-room songs were appropriate. It is not hard to imagine Berlioz, who frequently did not hesitate to go over the top, whether on his own or in company, joining in the merry singing.
The composer also provided other examples of these little jokes improvised on the corner of a table: Chasse à la grosse bête [Hunt for big beasts], Chœur de 402 voix en langue celtique inconnue [Chorus for 402 voices in an unknown Celtic language], Salut matinal improvisé en langue et musique kanaques [Morning greeting improvised in Kanak language and music]… [H 93 and 140] It was in fact in this impromptu manner that l’Enfance du Christ came into being.
We may add another argument of some significance, which more than any other strengthens our conviction and leads us to believe that we may be on the right track: the melodic line of the couplet of The Lice and the Spider has a flavour of its own (apart from the refrain) and moves in unexpected directions to create a quasi-modal musical atmosphere. Let us venture to assert that in its brevity and simplicity it need not fear comparison with the work of the author of the King of Thule ballad. Admittedly this is a personal opinion, and the reader will decide for himself.
BERLIOZ AND MUSSET
There remain some subsidiary questions, among them that of the collaboration between Berlioz and Musset. While acknowledging the poet, Berlioz does not seem to have felt any particular liking for Musset the man, as shown by these words in a letter of 7 May 1857: "The Académie française has just lost a true poet, Alfred de Musset. He died as a result of his passion for absinth, or rather the drunkenness caused by this drink. What a pitiful way of using your life! He was a rather ungracious savage. I detested him. This is a very unpleasant feeling, and one would like to love the people one admires." [Correspondance Générale no. 2230] They were not friends, but as this letter also shows, they were nevertheless acquainted and came into contact with each other. Berlioz even wrote, and this is a certainty, a piece sung on other short verses written by Musset: Aubade, which is listed as H 78 in Holoman’s Catalogue.
Musset was an assiduous frequenter of cafés (and even a notorious alcoholic), and this seems to have been an addiction on his part: he was also credited with some famous gems among these songs, such as les Filles de Loth. It cannot be excluded that one day, thanks to a chance meeting (around a drink?), they together ventured to perpetrate this bêtise. It must be admitted that subsequently neither of them laid claim formally to it: it was an inconsequential indiscretion, and its triviality did not provide any incentive to boast about it and shout from the rooftops. Equally they may have both forgotten this momentary collaboration. We are in the realm of speculation.
FUTURE LINES OF ENQUIRY?
The matter thus remains a possibility, despite the present lack of indisputable evidence to prove or disprove it. The circumstances involved do not encourage any hope of finding one day a manuscript source, which might attest the signature of Berlioz or Musset, or both. But who knows?
It is not in itself surprising that Berlioz experts, numerous as they are, have not to the best of our knowledge come across this piece. The opposite would in fact have been astonishing. Nowadays the majority of them are not French, and have consequently remained far removed from this very special repertory, and even if they were French, musicologists whose concern is erudite music generally ignore these coarse and bawdy songs. Rumour thus remained confined to the closed circle where this tradition of song is practised, a circle far removed from the normal preoccupations of music lovers, and where it is very unlikely that there should be any close interest in Berlioz. Besides the tradition is remote in time, to the point of being largely forgotten by the present practitioners of this repertory.
We believe all the more that this deserves to be noted, if only to preserve its traces. This might also act as a stimulus to future research – provided the subject matter of this small investigation, tenuous as it is, is worth the effort.
To conclude this topic I might be allowed a small personal anecdote: I have lost count of the comments that have been made to me verbally about The Lice and the Spider by those who have read my book Berlioz de B à Z (Van de Velde, 2006). I find this amusing, and if I may be forgiven this immodest reference, and with all due allowance, I would like to think that Berlioz would have been the first to appreciate its delightful irony. And yet it would have justifiable for me to believe naïvely that the other entries in my reference work would have caused more debate…
For the text of the song see the French version of this page.
See also on this site:
Scores not included in the New Berlioz Edition
The Hector Berlioz Website was created on 18 July 1997 by Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb; this page created on 16 June 2007.
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