The Potency of Berlioz in Modern Music
When Berlioz reflected, as he must often have done in bitterness of spirit, that he suffered contemporary neglect precisely because he was too great, too new, for his own generation, he may have consoled himself with the thought that posterity would do him the justice denied him in his lifetime. There are few things in the history of art more pathetic than the falsification of these hopes of the weary and disappointed old musician. For if he had but a smart following among the men of his own day, it must in truth be said that it stands but very little better with the bulk of his work now at the end of the century.
To appreciate him properly, and at the same time to understand the comparative disregard of his music by the present generation, we have to consider both the peculiar bent of his mind and the historical position which he occupies. In the battle that was fought on behalf of Romanticism in the third and fourth decades of this century there was no more strenuous combatant than Berlioz, none who deserved more fully to be regarded as a pioneer of the new order of things esthetic; Theophile Gautier, Victor Hugo, and Eugene Delacroix are not more representative of militant Romanticism than he. When he first went to Paris in 1821, a fiery young warrior of eighteen, the new corrodents were everywhere at work in the old structure. The influence of David was declining in the studios; Gros had set the example of observing the form and color of life at first hand, and of representing stirring, living scenes with less and less of the old academic formalism; the young Gericault was making his superb studies of horses and of military types; and the vigorous Delacroix was flying in the face of all the pedantic professors of the pseudo-antique. The new generation of poets and prose-writers was not only making speech an ever closer garment of the idea, but expanding and vitalizing the idea by the intrusion into it of sensations and emotions unknown to the previous generations; they tasted life with all their senses, went out to meet new sensations, to be intoxicated with them, instead of attempting to sum up their ideas and feelings, their experience of life and the world, under a few decayed classic formulas. At the same time artists of all orders, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, novelists, critics, were exchanging impressions with an intimacy and a vivacity till then unheard of.
But the struggle must have been harder for the musician than for any of his fellows. On all other lines the new men could find some links of connection and support in what had gone before them; but what was there in common between the young Berlioz and the French musicians either of his own or of the preceding century? In Germany, the Romantic movement in music was not at all a disruption with the older schools, but simply the natural and consistent development of them under the stimulus of new emotional needs. In France, the new musician had not only to make his bricks to his own pattern, but he had peculiar difficulty in finding his straw. So that here, at the very outset, the flamboyant young revolutionist stood at an immense disadvantage. And what was there, in himself or in his training, that would be likely to smooth his path for him, to clarify his ideas, to make easier the thorny path from conception to impression? Unfortunately, his musical education really began very late, and he was plunged into the atmosphere of the biggest German music of the time, his excitable brain seething with all kinds of half inchoate emotions, before he had the proper artistic grip of his ideas, before he had learned to speak easily and fluently in the new language. With a passion for color and movement equal to that of Delacroix, he was dreaming of monstrous orchestral works at a time when he should have been patiently and modestly cultivating the garden of his imagination, uprooting the too many vicious weeds that were growing there. He knew very little of the piano, at the very time when to have worked out his tumultous ideas in terms of the piano would have been an invaluable education to him in musical logic. He knew, indeed, practically nothing of the piano works of Beethoven, although he knew the symphonies by heart; and Hiller tells us that his knowledge of music, apart from that of his idols, Beethoven, Gluck, Weber, and one or two others, was never very extensive; Bach was always an abomination to him.
On the musical side, then, his imagination was from his youth up over stimulated by the colossal works he devoured so ravenously. On the intellectual side he received a full measure of the influences that acted on all the other Romanticists. He was not well up in the classics, despite his frequent references to Virgil; his main reading lay among Shakespeare, Cervantes, De Foe, Florain, Moore, Goethe, Fenimore Cooper, Schott, Byron, Hoffmann, and the French Romanticists of his own day. One very marked trait in him, his passion for books of travel, is correlative with all his other tendencies towards the grandiose and the inaccessible. His prose style, again, is remarkable for a curious inflation, a longing to express himself in the biggest adjectives, the biggest similes, of which the language is capable. Altogether, here was the mind of a man innately predisposed to exaggeration of idea and feeling and to dilatation of utterance, coming under the influence of all that was vivid, all that was strenuous, all that was highly colored in the life around him and in the literature of other epochs.; and at the same time feeling himself to be different from all other musicians of the past or present.
The result might have been foreseen. Conceiving emotion so much more poignantly, so much more poetically, than the great German symphonists, he aimed at a symphonic form that should express actual life in all its color, all its movement. This ideal was, indeed, before his eyes in all his works, and it is the secret at once of his strength and of his weakness. I sometimes get the impression that his was not entirely a musical mind, not a mind, that is, that thought surely and solely and inevitably in music. I have often, indeed, felt the value of Schumann’s warning that one only gets the send in time of many of Berlioz’s melodies after one has sung them frequently; but even so I cannot help feeling at times that his brain has not quite worked up the emotion into music pure and simple. Add to this his unfortunate desire to be original at any cost, and you have the explanation of most that is uninspired and most that is repellent in his music. Here, of course, as in his best moments also, he is the true child of epoch; he was only donning the familiar red waistcoat of the young Ramonticists both when he hurled his absurd defiances at good taste and common sense, and when he made his orchestra vibrate with colors and passions hitherto unknown to music.
His claim to immortality, I think, finally rests on something else than his actual achievement as it appears to us today. One only perceives his real greatness when one looks at him sympathetically in relation to his epoch; when one considers what music was when he took it up and what it was when he laid it down. consider that between 1827 and 1834 he had produced the overtures to “Waverley”, to the “Frances-Juges” and “King Lear”, the “Eight Scenes from Faust”, the “Symphonie Fantastique”, the “Lelio”, and the “Harold”, and that in the last named year he was only thirty-one, and you will realize the enormous momentum of that fiery young imagination. In those seven years he had said many things that had never been spoken in music before; he, and he alone, had brought French music at one bound into line with all the new work that was being done in poetry, in prose and in art. To say that then, as again in the later years, he frequently failed to accomplish what he had aimed at, is simply to say that he suffered the inevitable fate of the pioneer. “I have taken up music where Beethoven left it”, he said to Fetis in 1828, when he was in his twenty-fifth year. The modern world has come to recognize some justice in the claim. the great development of music in the nineteenth century has consisted in the vitalizing of the purely musical imagination by the touch of the more concrete sides of life. It was the good fortune of Berlioz that his impetuous, barrier-forcing intellect sought and found expression in an epoch when the correct line and the statuesque pose were being ousted in favor of vigor and variety of movement and truth and vivacity of color. The bloodless music current in the France of Berlioz’s youth was the equivalent of the wax work repose and finish of the pseudo-classical school in painting. To musicians and public alike, everything that spoke of actual breathing man was incomprehensible, unendurable; Beethoven, to the few who had heard anything of him, was the great uncouth barbarian of music. It was the function of Berlioz to familiarize the modern world with the music expression of fiercer, tenderer, more palpitating emotions than had ever been experienced in music before. It was his misfortune that partly from the disorderly violence of his epoch, partly from his own peculiar deficiencies, the actual work he did frequently failed to achieve complete, unquestionable beauty; and so it has come to pass that on many lines his work has been supplanted by the men who came after, who profited by the best of him and steered clear of his mistakes. But it is safe to say that had he not lived, had he not done for music what Delacroix did for painting, what Gautier and Hugo did for prose and poetry, our modern music would have found its development arrested along half a dozen paths. It is no small merit for a man to have injected new life into the veins of the opera, of the symphony, of the mass, of the song, of the oratorio, even if his actual work has been surpassed in each department by men who nevertheless took their lead from him.