”Nothing in my artistic career hurt me more deeply than this unexpected indifference. It was a painful discovery, but it was at least salutary, in that I learnt from it, and from then on I have not gambled even twenty francs on the popularity of my music with the Parisian public. […]” ( Hector Berlioz ) His work was that of sensation, emotion and memory; a quest for the feminine ideal, that could not end but in tragic betrayal and sacrifice in the best of the romantic tradition.
Connoisseurs of Berlioz ( 1803-1869 ) know him as a profoundly literate man of broad yet discerning opinion, so they know his puritanical detractors as, in like degree, illiterate. All his life, Hector Berlioz tried to set the musical world straight and win acceptance for music that ” sets in vibration the most unexplored depths of the human soul”. Mostly, however, he frightened everyone , and as such, spent much energy trying to defend himself against tedious misconceptions,slanders and half-truths; in particular that he was a right-wing reactionary. More than one hundred and fifty years after his death, he continues to be marginalized.
” The accurate description of Berlioz’ attitude toward the tumult of French politics in the mid-Nineteenth Century is that he had taught himself by his early thirties to disdain the recurrent fervor of an indefinite succession of soi-disant revolutions punctuated by bouts of sclerotic dirigisme. Berlioz despised Napoleon III, who summarized the trend, as a cultureless farceur in uniform. Berlioz’ judgment of the governing classes thus hardly qualifies him as reactionary although political agitation for radical causes and revolutionary movements against the traditional dispensation does, as practiced by the Left, qualify one as reactionary. Near the end of his life, indeed, Berlioz described his attitude toward politics and politicians in a letter to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, a one-time paramour and late-in-life confidant: “Those pathetic little gangsters known as great men rouse me only to disgust – Caesar, Augustus, Antony, Alexander, Peter [the Great] and all the rest of those glorified brigands.” ( www.brusselsjournal.com, Thomas F. Bertonneau )
Musicologist Martin Cooper has written in French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951) that Berlioz, like Baudelaire, sought refuge from secular disappointment in his “private world” of artistic endeavor. Berlioz lived in the French polity, right in its metropolis, perforce but he sought no redemption in politics; he necessarily communicated with ministers of state and even kings and emperors, as did Beethoven in Austria and Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union – that is to say with reluctance and distaste. The composer’s characterization of Caesar and Augustus as “brigands” illuminates the argument of Les Troyens. Berlioz’ opera declares Fate and Empire to be, if not outright delusions, then derailments of constructive life, inimical both to private happiness and to love. The composer’s first important work, the Symphonie fantastique (1830), is a unified five-moment orchestral composition on the topics of love and betrayal. His final and greatest opus, Les Troyens, is a unified five-act opera on the same two topics, based on Virgil’s incomplete Latin epic, the Aeneid.
On the podium, in front of an orchestra, he sometimes experienced a sort of rapture of the deeps, ”a peal of bells in my heart, a mill wheel in my head , my knees knocking against each other…” That was when he was most truly in his element, but the chance did not come nearly often enough, for Paris, that ”musicians’ inferno” had no real use for a virtuoso conductor. The doors of the opera houses and orchestral societies, all run by his rivals, remained resolutely closed to him for many years. The upshot was that he had to pay for the priviege of playing his own music, often hiring the hall, singers and instrumentalists out of his own pocket.
Musically, there was one advantage to being the perpetual outsider: he could disregard the practical limits of symphony orchestras as they existed and compose experimentally on any scale he pleased. Financially, however, the results were usually disastrous. ”Our art as we understand it, is an art of millionaires,” he wrote bitterly to Liszt.
There were times he almost envied Liszt his easy access to the public ear. Unable to make money on the concert platform or as a composer of operatic hits, a la Meyerbeer, Berlioz had to fall back on writing articles for a living; a fate worse than Sisyphus’s . Though at first it gave him a certain influence in the community, the chore of turning out his regular feature for the ”Journal des Debats” gradually became a form of ”penal servitude” that poisoned his existence. The issue is compicated by the fact that he did it brilliantly. For thirty years, rain or shine, he had significant things to say about the state of music in Paris, ”that barbarous city” , and about concert life elsewhere in Europe.
Some of these essays were later incorporated into his ”Memoirs” , one of the great classics of French autobiography, and into collections like ”Les Soirees de L’Orchestre” and ”Les Grotesques de la Musique” . No ther critical essays, not even those by Bernard Shaw, can hold a candle to them, just as Berlioz collected letter, in Flaubert’s estimation, ”surpass the correspondence of Balzac by 36,000 arms’ lengths,” so his essays surpass all other writing on music by 72,000 arms’ lengths. That may not be saying very much, for music criticism is probably the dreariest branch of literature , but Berlioz’s belongs in a totally different category: it is witty, informative, profound, poetic, generous, and the only music criticism in history that is exciting to read. The trouble was that it cost him, a musician, a terrible price to make it so since he could never seem to resist aiming a few barbs at his enemies in the musical establishment.
”Let them give me scores to write, orchestras to conduct, rehearsals to direct: let me stand eight or ten hours at a time, baton in the hand , training choirs without accompaniment and singing the missing parts myself, beating time until I spit blood and till my arm is paralyzed by cramp, let me carry desks, double basses, harps, remove steps, nail planks like a commissionare or a carpenter, and then by way of rest, let me correct proofs or copies at night. All this I have done and will do. It is part of my life as a musician…But everlatingly to write newspaper articles for one’s bread… This is the lowest depth of degradation! Better to be finance minister of a republic!”
Berlioz’s father, Dr. Louis-Joseph Berlioz, had planned a more prosperous and predictable career for him; he was to have succeeded to the doctor’s flourishing practice as a small-town physician in La Cote Saint-Andre , which lies between Grenoble and Lyon in that beautiful region of France where the western Alps begin. Both parents came from well-to-do families , and Dr. Berlioz, a freethinker who distrusted the local schools , chose to educate the boy himself. In the ”Memoirs” he is gratefully remembered as a ”patient, unwearied, carful, clever teacher of languages, literature, history and geography.”
It was from his father that Berlioz had his first flute lessons and acquired a taste for Latin literature . The epic poetry of Virgil ”first kindled my smouldering imagination” , he says, and he recalls how his voice shook and his heart throbbed while translating the fourth book of the ”Aenid” with his father. When he came to Dido’s death and the despairing cries of the dying queeen, he broke down completely. ”That will do my boy, I’m tired,” the doctor said tactfully, closing the book, and Hector rushed away ”to vent my Virgilian grief in solitude”.
Sent to Paris at eighteen to study medicine, he attended lectures long enough to become a bachelor ofscience, but he was seen at the opera house more often than in the anatomy theatre. The time was better spent in the library of the Paris Conservatoire, where he could memorize the scores of Gluck’s operas. Within a year Berlioz’s name was entered on the rolls of the Conservatoire, there to remain until he departed in 1830 with the first prize in composition.
”True to its history, the French establishment acknowledged its stellar musical son only in a mean-spirited way. The absurd rancor of politically correct persons against a composer more than a century and a half deceased had two foci: A plan by admirers to remove Berlioz’ remains from their private grave and re-inter them in the Panthéon, the shrine for the illustrious dead in Paris; and the announcement by managers of the Théatre de Chatelet that they intended to stage the great work that Berlioz saw as the summation of his creative life but never actually saw in performance in a complete or adequate way – his Virgilian opera Les Troyens.
As reporter Hugh Schofield wrote at the time, the plan to move Berlioz’ mortal remains “met with unexpectedly harsh opposition from many of the composer’s own fans, as well as from critics who say Berlioz was a right-winger with no place in France’s Republican Valhalla.” Schofield quotes Berlioz biographer Joël-Marie Fauquet as asserting in an editorial in Le Monde: “The Berlioz who invented the modern orchestra also showed himself in his life to be an ardent reactionary.” A committee supervising the Bicentenary celebrations referred the matter to then Président Jacques Chirac, who by his silence and inaction sided with the Fauquet position. Berlioz remained in the ground at Montmartre.
The Parisian productions of Les Troyens, then in the planning stage, became an opportunity for additional censorious agitation. Historian of ideas Paul Gottfried summarizes the spasm of righteousness, as it appeared in Paris newspapers: “Since Berlioz had based his opera Les Troyens on Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic that celebrates Latin antiquities, honoring Berlioz would be tantamount to glorifying Mussolini and his brand of Italian fascism.” According to Gottfried, when Left-leaning culture-Brahmins like Jean Kahn, Philippe Olivier, and Gottfried Wagner (great-grandson of the composer) argued publicly against staging Les Troyens, it was to be understood that they saw themselves as savvy guardians of morality “battling fascist residues.” The vigilantes of political correctness in the European Community had already lobbed the f-word-grenade against Berlioz and Les Troyens on the occasion of the annual Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2000, when conductor Sylvain Cambreling and scene-designer Herbert Wernicke mounted a new production. It was this version that had elicited the screed from Gottfried Wagner, who trotted it out again in Paris three years later.”
The program Berlioz wrote for Symphonie Fantastique reads, in part:
“A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination in a paroxysm of love-sick despair has poisoned himself with opium. The drug too weak to kill plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by strange visions. His sensations, feelings, and memories are translated in his sick brain into musical images and ideas.”