Hector Berlioz

“Which power raises man the higher? Love or music? It is a great question. It seems to me that love alone cannot give an idea of music, but music can give an idea of love – why separate them? They are the twin wings of the soul.” So once declared Hector Berlioz, and his life, all permeated with love and music, was certainly a demonstration of that sentence.

To striving, ambitious musicians there cannot be a more inspiring figure than Hector Berlioz. His whole life was a continuous struggle, a battle against critics, public, musicians of the old school. If he succeeded in overcoming the most discouraging, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the most obdurate adverse criticism, there is no doubt that everybody else, also possessed of the same amount of pertinacity, energy and diligence, will be able to do the same.

From earliest youth he had to fight against the narrow-mindedness of his parents. His father, Louis Berlioz, was a country doctor with a large practice, and his mother, devout in all religious observance, looked upon an artistic career as a terrible temptation and shrank in horror from the idea of a life so little in accord with the traditions of respectability.

They wanted him to study medicine; they boy, on the contrary, showed interest only for music, for instruments. He found a flageolet in a neglected drawer and made such dire noises that his father in self defense taught him to play. After that he discovered a flute and later a guitar – a peculiar omen for the future master of modern instrumentation.

A Strong Musical Inclination

Dr. Berlioz observed those symptoms with growing concern. When the time was drawing near for the choice of a profession, he called Hector and handed him a voluminous treatise on anatomy and promised him to buy him a beautiful flute if he would be assiduous in the study of medicine. That was a dangerous weapon, but for the time being Berlioz busied himself reluctantly with Aesculapius only, of course, to acquire the coveted instrument. In 1822, when he was nineteen years old, he was sent to Paris to enter the medical school, feeling, however, in his heart like a condemned criminal. But the first day of the dissecting room was too much for him, and he declared that he would rather die than return to that charnel house. A visit to the Academy of Music, where they were playing Salieri’s Danaide, determined him to break totally with the hated medical career. He established himself in the public library of the Conservatoire and began devouring Gluck’s scores; he read and reread them; he learned them by heart; he forgot to eat, drink or sleep, and swore that despite father, mother, relations and friends, a musician he would be and nothing else!

But here new obstacles grew in his way. The director of the Conservatoire, Cherubini, had issued an edict that men and women were to enter the building from opposite sides. Berlioz did not conform to the order and presented himself at the wrong door and brushing aside the servant who tried to stop him made himself at home in the library. Cherubini became furious and forbade Berlioz to use the library. Things were smoothed down afterwards, but from that time dated a mutual aversion between the famous master and the hot-headed young artist. A greater difficulty was the cessation of the monthly allowance for 120 francs from his father. He had to live in a garret, dined upon bread and dates, and taught anyone who would learn of him.

Then came the long struggle for recognition. Five times in five consecutive years (1826-1830) he entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, failing four times but never losing courage and faith in his own power, and gaining the prize at his fifth effort, with his Sardanapalus.

In this time falls his first meeting with Henrietta Smithson. An English company had come over to Paris to perform Shakespeare, and at their first performance of “Hamlet” he saw, as Ophelia, Miss Smithson, who was going to play such a momentous role in his life. The impression made upon Berlioz’s heart and mind was equaled only by the agitation into which he was plunged by the poetry of the drama. He became a martyr to insomnia, he lost all taste for the best-loved studies and got sever spells of deathlike torpor.  An English writer has stated that, in seeing Miss Smithson at the performance of Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz said: “I will marry Juliet and will write my greatest symphony on the play.” He did both, but at that time he never would have dared to think of the realization of those dreams, comparing the brilliant triumphs of Miss Smithson, the darling of Paris, and his sad obscurity. However, he decided that she should hear of him; she should know that he also was an artist. He would give a concert of his own compositions. But where find the money for the musicians and the hall? Cherubini, the arbiter of the Salle du Conservatoire, the only one appropriate to his purpose, was opposed to giving the concert, but Berlioz, after a persistent fight, succeeded in securing the orchestra, the hall, chorus and parts and he gained a decided success. “Nothing is lacking to my success, not even the criticism of Panseron and Brugnieres, who say my style is not to be encouraged.”

What fiber of a man! Even adverse criticism he considered as a part of success.

But his hope that Miss Smithson would hear of him was not fulfilled. She was not present. “This passion will be my death; how often all the English papers ring with her praises; I am unknown. When I have written something great, something stupendous, I must go to London to have it performed. Oh, for success! success under her very eyes!”

Berlioz in Rome

A passionate nature like Berlioz’s, burning with love and ambition, is downright whipped into enthusiasm and inspiration. No wonder that the immediate result of this elated mood was one of his masterworks, the Symphonie Fantastique, Episodes de la vie d’un artiste. As the winner of the Prix de Rome he went to Rome and took up his abode at the French Academy, where he was applying himself more to riotous amusements than to serious study.

They had there what they called “English concerts.” Every one of the artists living there chose a different song and sang it in a different key beginning at a sign one after another; as the concert in twenty-four keys went on crescendo, the frightened dogs in the pincio kept up a howling obligato and the barbers on the Piazza di Spagna down below winked at each other, saying slyly: “French music.” Some bad tongue affirmed that the influence of these uproarious performances is to be noticed in Berlioz’ compositions.

While living at the Academy he contracted a friendship with Crispino, one of the villagers. “He got me balls, powder, and even percussion caps. I won his affection by helping to serenade his mistress and by signing a duet with him to that untamable young person, then by a present of two shirts and a pair of trousers. Crispino could not write, so, when he had anything to tell me, he came to Rome. What were thirty leagues for him? Once he appeared:

“Hello, Crispino! what brings you here?” “To tell the truth, I’ve got no money.” “You have no money? What business is that of mine, oh, mightiest of scamps?” “I am no scamp. If you call me a scamp because I have no money you are right, but if it is because I was two years at Civita Vecchia you are wrong. I wasn’t sent to the galleys for stealing, but just for good honest shots at strangers in the mountains.”

He was hurt in his feelings and, to be appeased, would only accept “three piasters, a shirt and a neckerchief.” So relates Berlioz in his memoirs.

One of the obligatory works he sent to Paris was a part of a mass performed at St. Roch several years before he got the Rome prize. The “powers” said that he had made great progress.

In a letter to Ferrand (April, 1830) he tells the story which he tries to express in his Symphonie Fantastique.

“The opening adagio presents a young artist with a lively imagination and a sensitive temperament, plunged in that half-morbid reverie which French writers express as the beson d’aimer” In the allegro which follows he meets his fate; the woman who realizes the ideal of beauty and charm for which his heart has yearned; and give himself up to the passion with which she inspires him. His love is typified by a sentimental melody given in full at the opening of the movement, and repeated in various thematic forms throughout the whole work. The second movement proper is an adagio in which the artist wanders alone through the fields, listening to the shepherd’s pipe and mutterings of a distant storm and dreaming of the new-born hope that has come to sweeten his solitude. Next comes a ballroom scene, in which he stands apart, silent and preoccupied, watching the dancers with a listless, careless gaze and cherishing in his heart the persistent melody. In a fit of despair he poisons himself with opium, but the narcotic, instead of killing him, produces a horrible vision in which he imagines that he has killed his mistress and that he is condemned to die. The fourth movement is the march to the scene of execution, a long, grim procession, winding up with the idee fixe and the sharp flash of the guillotine. Last comes the Pensee d’une tete coupee, a hideous orgy of witches and demons who dance round the coffin, perform a burlesque “Dies Irae” as in funeral rite, and welcome with diabolic glee a brutalized and degraded version of the original subject. And so the symphonie ends with an indescribable scene of chaos and fury.

His Tremendous Orchestral Effects

I have quoted in detail the program of this work, as it gives a characteristic of Berlioz’ individuality. His fantasy and his other music have something morbid and chaotic, which borders on insanity. Even the extravagant orchestral masses he uses in his works are a symptom of his abnormality. In his smaller works he usually writes for an orchestra of more than usual size, using by preference four bassoons instead of two and reinforcing his trumpets with cornets a piston. In the Requiem and Te Deum his forces are enormous; the wind doubled, an immense number of strings, and for the Tuba mirum and Lacrymosa, four small bands of brass instruments and eight pairs of kettledrums in addition to big drums, gongs and cymbals. To get the right effect in the Tuba mirum Berlioz prescribed that the four brass bands were placed one at each corner of the body of instrumentalists and choristers. As they join in, the tempo doubles to represent the “titanic cataclysm,” the Last Judgment.

“Si j’ etais menace de voir bruler mon ocuvre entiere, moin une partition, c’est pour le Requiem que je demanderaiss grace.” (If I were Threatened with the burning of my entire works, less one, it is for the Requiem I would beg exemption.) Thus wrote Berlioz in one of his last letters (11 Jan., 1867).

I remember at a performance of the Requiem at the Philharmonie in Berlin the public came chiefly to hear the “explosion” of the band of kettledrums. The rest made very little impression.

As I remarked in the course of this article, most of Berlioz’s works betray a preference for the gigantic – for the prodigious. Whoever expected to meet in the music of his last opera, The Trojans, those extravagances which shock us so often in his symphonies, would be, however, disappointed. I witnessed a performance of Les Trojens in Carlsruhe under Mottl’s direction, and I was surprised to find a very tame Berlioz. The opera is performed in two evenings; 1. The Conquest of Troy; 2. The Trojans in Carthage. In the first part the elegiac mood prevails. Cassandra’s mournful tidings are splendidly seconded by the orchestra; further, we notice an original march and a remarkable octet. The ballet in the second part lacks the swing which we naturally expect of a Frenchman. On the other hand, the sextet which immediately follows, and a duet by Dido and Aeneas show Berlioz at his best. A pitiful sight was the famous wooden horse, which used to arouse our deepest interest when we were still keeping school benches warm.

What an attractive task for the stage manager to produce the huge quadruped in whose bowels the Greek host lies! Frankly, it was a sad disappointment. The rickety, tottering pasteboard monster which filled the entire breadth of the stage was a ludicrous view and gave evidence of one of the most unsuccessful efforts of stage craft.

Berlioz’ specialty is no doubt the masterful orchestration, as exemplified in his famous Traite d’ Instrumentation. About the way he acquired such pre-eminence he writes in his memoirs: “I always took the score of the work to be performed and read it carefully during the performance, so that in time I got to know the sound – the voice, as it were – of each instrument and the part it filled; although, of course, I learned nothing of either its mechanism or compass. Listening so closely, I also found out for myself the intangible bond between each instrument and true musical expression. Careful investigation of rare or unused combinations, the society of virtuosi, who kindly explained to me the powers of their several instruments, and a certain amount of instinct have done the rest for me.”

Berlioz’ Critics

The daring innovator aroused also the wrath of the conservative musicians like Boieldieu (the author of the opera “La Dame Blanche”) and Halevy (the composer of “La Juive”). In his third attempt to win the Prix de Rome Berlioz had composed a cantata, “Cleopatra” Boieldieu, who was one of the judges, said to Berlioz: “But, my dear boy, how could I possibly approve it? I who like nice, gentle music – cradle music, one might say.” “But , monsieur, could an Egyptian queen, passionate, remorseful and despairing, die in mortal anguish of body and soul to the sound of cradle music?” “And then” – Boieldieu went on – “why do you introduce a totally new rhythm in your accompaniments?” “I did not understand, monsieur, that we were not to try new modes if we were fortunate enough to find the right place for them.”

Berlioz himself puts his case in the clearest possible way: “The value of my melodies, their distinction, novelty and charm, may, of course, be disputed. It is not for me to estimate them; but to deny their existence is unfair and absurd. The prevailing characteristics of my music are passionate expression, intense ardor, rhythmical animation and unexpected effects.”

“Berlioz; music,” says Heine in his Lutece, “has something primitive or primeval about it. It makes me think of vast mammoths or other extinct animals, or of fabulous empires filled with fabulous crimes, and other enormous impossibilities.”

Mendelssohn was still more severe in his judgment of Berlioz. “He is a perfect caricature, without one spark of talent,” he wrote in one of his letters.

Peculiarly enough, Berlioz himself felt very keenly extravagance and exaggeration in the music of other composers. Of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” he wrote: “Wagner is turning singers into goats . . . he is decidedly mad; he will die of apoplexy after all. Liszt, who was expected, never came. I think he expected a fiasco. The second performance was worse than the first. No more laughter – the audience was too furious and, regardless of the presence of the Emperor and Empress, hissed unmercifully. Coming out Wagner was vituperated as a scoundrel, an idiot, an impertinent wretch.”

And to Madame Massart (a distinguished pianist, wife of the violinist Massart) he wrote: “Ah, God in Heaven! what a performance! what peals of laughter! The Parisians have shown themselves under a quite new light; they laughed at the indecency (polissonerios) of a farcical orchestration; they laughed at the naivete of a hoboe; at least they understand that there is a style in music. As to the horrors, they have hissed them splendidly.”

However, there were two famous musicians who recognized Berlioz’s genius and even made great efforts to enforce public recognition of his works. Liszt, always ready to help young striving talent, cooperated often in Berlioz’s concerts and even spent great sums of money to have Schlesinger, the Paris publisher, print his “Symphonie Fanstastique”; and Paganini, the famous violinist, after hearing that work sent him the following letter: “Dear friend – Only Berlioz can remind me of Beethoven, and I who have heard that divine work – so worthy of your genius – beg you to accept the enclosed 20,000 (twenty thousand) francs as a tribute of respect. Believe me ever your affectionate friend, Nicolo Paganini “Paris, 18 Dec., 1838.”

At least he had the satisfaction that some of his illustrious fellow artists championed him with word and deed, and he got fresh courage to fight on. “No, a thousand times, no!” – he writes – “no man living has a right to try and destroy the individuality of another, to force him to adopt a style not his own, and to give his natural point of view. If a man is commonplace let him remain so; if he be great – a choice spirit set above his fellows – then in the name of all the gods bow humbly before him and let him stand erect and alone in his glory!”

A puzzle in Berlioz’s life is the “plural” attachments to several young beauties; to Estelle “with the pink slippers” to the English “divinity” Henrietta Smithson, to his “Ariel,” as he calls Marie Plegel, and the Mlle. Recio, a mediocre but very ambitious singer, whom he married later on. Consecutive love affairs are not uncommon in some, but Berlioz loved several charmers at the same time. He was raving for “Ariel” and had ready loaded pistols to kill her and her whole family for not responding to his entreaties; but this trifle (!) did not prevent him from throwing his hand and heart at the feet of Miss Smithson and marrying her. Artists’ hearts, of course, are not to be measured by normal standards.

He showed even a touching loyalty, after ten years had passed since the death of Henrietta, in a gruesome scene thus described by Berlioz: “I was officially notified that the small cemetery at Monmorte, where Henrietta lay, was to be closed and that I must remove her dear body. I gave the necessary orders and one gloomy morning set out alone for the deserted burial ground. A municipal officer awaited me, and as I came up a sexton jumped down into the open grave. The then years’ buried coffin was still intact with the exception of the cover decayed by damp, and the man, instead of lifting it to the surface, pulled at the rotten boards, which, tearing asunder with a hideous noise, left the remains exposed. Stooping, he took in his hands that fleshless head, dis-crowned and gaunt; the head of poor Ophelia, and placed it in the coffin lying on the brink of the grave – alas, alas! Again he stooped and raised the headless trunk, a black, repulsive mass in its discolored shroud – it fell with a dull, hopeless sound into its place. The officer, a few paces off, stood watching. Seeing me leaning against a cypress tree, he cried: ‘Come nearer, M. Berlioz, come nearer.’ In a few moments we followed the hearse down the hill to the great cemetery where the new vault yawned before us. Henrietta was laid within.”

A Brilliant Writer

Berlioz was also a brilliant and witty critic and feuilletoniste. He was for many years music critic of the Journal des Debats, and he left some entertaining writing in his Grotesques de le musique, Voyage musical and Soirees de lOrchestre; but he always held in abhorrence his duties as a critic. “I hate circumlocution, diplomacy, trimming and all half measures and concessions,” he said. “Why can I not remember that the good, the beautiful, the true, the false, the ugly are not the same to everyone??” A hint to the adherents of “standardization” in music.

A constant reader of his articles once remarked to him: “You don’t look a firebrand, but from your articles I should have expected quite a different sort of man, for, devil take me, you write with a dagger – not with a pen!”

Some anecdotes and bon mots:

An autograph collector stole Berlioz’s hat. “It was such a shabby one,” he said, “that I can’t ascribe the theft to any other motive.”

When Berlioz finished his l’Enfance du Christ, a kind of Christmas Carol, he invented a seventeenth century “Maitro du Chapelle” by name “Pierre Duche” and had the work performed as his. All Paris fell into the trap. Even Felis, who as an historian might have been expected to know better, led the chorus of praise. All the critics applauded the antique severity of the style, and some one went so far as to declare that Berlioz could never write a work like that. When the approbation was at its height, Berlioz acknowledged the authorship, to the consternation of his opponents.

Adelina Patti requested him to write something in her album. He wrote: Oportet pati (one must suffer!) and as she asked him what it meant, he answered “it was kitchen Latin and meant: Apportez le pate (bring on the pie!”)

When his opera The Trojans was first produced a friend came to him confidentially and told him. “Old fellow, do something to please me – suppress ‘Mercury.’ Those wings on his head and his heels are really comical. No one saw anybody with wings on their heels.” “Ah, you have seen people with wings on their shoulders? I have not, but I can quite understand that wings in unexpected places are awkward.”

Adelina Patti was a great favorite with Berlioz, “I went to hear that delicious little Patti sing Martha the other day,” he writes: “When I came out I felt creepy all over. I told the little prodigy that I would forgive her making me listen to such platitudes.”

“Certain things should never be said, and still less should they be written,” he used to say.

Now for a resume of Berlioz’s life and the elements of his success:

Pertinacity is his aim to become a musician in spite of all obstacles and disappointments.

Pertinacity in striving to obtain the Prix de Rome in spite of four consecutive failures.

Pertinacity in striving to become famous and conquer the heart of beautiful Henrietta Smithson.

Battle royal with public, critics and musicians of the old school during his whole career.

Mastering of orchestration upon a never before attempted scale.