A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Berlioz, Hector
BERLIOZ, Hector, born Dec. 11, 1803, at La Côte Saint-André, near Grenoble, France; died March 9, 1869, at Paris.
He stands alone—a colossus with few friends and no direct followers; a marked individuality, original, puissant, bizarre, violently one-sided; whose influence has been and will again be felt far and wide, for good and for bad, but cannot rear disciples nor form a school. His views of music are practically if not theoretically adhered to by all eminent composers and executants since Beethoven; and if interpreted cum grano salis his very words could be used as watchwords which few musicians would hesitate to adopt. Take, for example, the following sentences, written at long intervals, yet forming a sort of profession of faith, to which Berlioz clung without flinching throughout the whole of his long career: 'Musique, art d'emouvoir par des combinaisons de sons les hommes intelligents et doués d'organes speciaux et exercés. … La musique, en s'associant à des idées qu'elle a mille moyens de faire naître, augmente l'intensité de son action de toute la puissance de ce qu'on appelle la poesie … réunissant à la fois toutes ses forces sur l'oreille qu'elle charme, et qu'elle offense habilement, sur le système nerveux qu'elle surexcite, sur la circulation du sang qu'elle accélère, sur le cerveau qu'elle embrase, sur le cœur qu'elle gonfle et fait battre à coups redoublés, sur la pensée qu'elle agrandit démesurément et lance dans les régions de l'infini: elle agit dans la sphère qui lui est propre, c'est-à-dire sur des êtres chez lesquels le sens musical existe réellement.' ('A travers chants,' p. 1.)
Berlioz's startling originality as a musician rests upon a physical and mental organisation very different from, and in some respects superior to, that of other eminent masters; a most ardent nervous temperament; a gorgeous imagination incessantly active, heated at times to the verge of insanity; an abnormally subtle and acute sense of hearing; the keenest intellect, of a dissecting analysing turn; the most violent will, manifesting itself in a spirit of enterprise and daring equalled only by its tenacity of purpose and indefatigable perseverance.
From first to last, from the 'Ouverture des Francs Juges' and the 'Symphonic fantastique' to 'Les Troyens,' Berlioz strove to widen the domains of his art; in the portrayal of varied and intense passions, and the suggestion of distinct dramatic scenes and situations, he tried to attain a more intimate connection between instrumental music and the highest poetry. Starting, as he did, on a voyage of discovery, no one need be surprised that he occasionally, nay perhaps frequently, sailed beyond his mark; and that he now and then made violent efforts to compel music to say something which lies beyond its proper sphere. But, be this as it may, his occasional failures do not render his works less interesting, nor less astonishing.
Berlioz was one of the most uncompromising champions of what, for want of a better name, has been dubbed 'programme music.' In his 'Symphonic fantastique' with its sequel 'Lelio,' and in 'Romeo et Juliette,' elaborate efforts are made, by means of programmes and superscriptions, to force the hearers' imagination to dwell on certain exterior scenes and situations during the progress of the music; and these efforts, it must be confessed, are not always successful. One either loses the musical thread and has to fly to the programme for explanation, or one dreams of the programme and misses the music. The really perfect specimens of Berlioz's instrumental works are in truth those in which the music speaks for itself, and the programme or superscription may be dispensed with. Such are, for instance, the 'Scène aux champs' and the 'Marche au supplice' in the 'Symphonie fantastique,' the 'Marche des Pélerins' in 'Harold,' the Overtures to 'King Lear,' 'Benvenuto Cellini,' 'Carnaval Romain,' 'Le Corsaire,' etc.
From a technical point of view certain of Berlioz's attainments are phenomenal. The gigantic proportions, the grandiose style, the imposing weight of those long and broad harmonic and rhythmical progressions towards some end afar off, the exceptional means employed for exceptional ends—in a word, the colossal, cyclopean aspect of certain movements, such as the 'Judex crederis' of his 'Te Deum,' or the 'Lacrymosa' and 'Dies irae' of his 'Requiem,' are without parallel in musical art. The originality and inexhaustible variety of rhythms, and the surpassing perfection of his instrumentation, are points willingly conceded even by Berlioz's staunchest opponents. As far as the technique of instrumentation is concerned it may truly be asserted that he treats the orchestra with the same supreme daring and absolute mastery with which Paganini treated the violin, or Liszt the pianoforte. No one before him had so clearly realised the individuality of each particular instrument, its resources and capabilities. In his works the equation between a particular phrase and a particular instrument is invariably perfect; and over and above this, his experiments in orchestral colour, his combination of single instruments with others so as to form groups, and again his combination of several separate groups of instruments with one another, are as novel and as beautiful as they are uniformly successful.
French art can show nothing more tender and delicately graceful, more perfect in shape and diction than certain of his songs and choral pieces—the duet between Hero and Ursule, 'Vous soupirez Madame,' from 'Béatrice et Bénedict,' and single numbers among his 'Nuits d'été' and 'Irlande.' Nothing more touching in its simplicity than 'L'adieu des bergers' and 'Le repos de la Sainte Famille,' from 'L'Enfance du Christ.'
But there is a portion of Berlioz's works from which many of his admirers, who are certainly not open to the charge of being musical milksops, recoil with instinctive aversion. One must draw the line somewhere, and the writer would draw it on the hitherside of such movements as the 'Orgies,' which form the finales of the 'La Symphonie fantastique' and 'Harold en Italie,' or the chorus of devils in the 'Damnation de Faust.' Bloodthirsty delirious passion such as is here depicted may have been excited by gladiator and wild beast shows in Roman arenas; but its rites, whether reflected through the medium of poetry, painting, or music, are assuredly more honoured in the breach than the observance. On the other hand, it cannot be overlooked that these same reprehensible pieces contain some of their author's most astonishing technical achievements.
No musician, unless he writes for the stage, can hope to live by his compositions in France; accordingly Berlioz was driven to the dubious 'métier' of beneficiaire—to conducting concerts of his own music whenever and wherever he could get a chance, and to journalism, 'feuilletonism.' A note of bitter complaint at the tortures hardly to be borne which the 'compte rendu' on matters musical he furnished weekly during a space of twenty years for the 'Journal des Débats' entailed on him, runs through all his prose. These newspaper scraps made a name for their author as the foremost musical critic and one of the most brilliant of French journalists; whilst the perfection of style and graphic narrative of his Memoires, have proved him the equal of the best modern prosateurs. Frenchmen only can say whether or not his verse is likely to live by its own merits, apart from the music to which he wedded it, in 'L'Enfance du Christ,' 'Béatrice et Bénedict,' and 'Les Troyens.'
Berlioz knew the principal works of Beethoven, Weber, Spontini, Mozart, in every respect, down to the smallest details, by heart, and he has always and very frequently spoken of them with contagious enthusiasm and convincing, eloquence. Yet he was by no means an erudite musician, his knowledge being restricted, like that of most men of genius, to the range of his personal sympathies. Of Handel, Bach, Palestrina, he knew little, and at times spoke in a manner to lay bare his ignorance.
Berlioz's father, a physician, wished him to follow the same career. At eighteen years of age, and much against his will, he was sent to Paris as a student of medicine; music however so engrossed him that, though he attended lectures and tried hard to overcome his repugnance to the dissecting room, his anatomical studies came to nothing, and he entered the Conservatoire as a pupil of Lesueur, after a violent quarrel with his parents, who stopped supplies and forced him to earn a scanty subsistence by singing in the chorus of an obscure theatre, Le Gymnase Dramatique. At the Conservatoire, which he once left in a huff and re-entered as a member of Reicha's 'classe de contrepoint,' he met with little encouragement from the dons, to whom his sentiments and beliefs, his ways and works were more or less antipathetic; and he was positively hated by the director, Cherubini. So that, in spite of his most remarkable attainments (the 'Ouverture des Francs Juges' and the ' Symphonic fantas- tique,' which he wrote whilst a pupil at the Conservatoire, are more than sufficient to show that he was then already the master of his masters, Cherubini of course excepted) it was only after having been repeatedly plucked that he was permitted, on the fourth trial, to take a prize for composition. In 1828 he took the second, and at last, in 1830, with the cantata 'Sardanapale,' the first prize—the 'Prix de Rome'—to which is attached a government pension, supporting the winner three years at Rome. On his return to Paris, finding it difficult to live by composing, he was driven to earn a livelihood by contributions to newspapers, and by occasional concerts and musical festivals, which he organised on a large scale. The story of his violent and eccentric passion for Miss Smithson—an Irish actress who came to Paris with an English troupe, and made a sensation as Ophelia and Juliet, whilst the enthusiasm for Shakspeare, kindled by Victor Hugo, was at its height—is minutely told in his 'Memoires,' published after his death. That sad book contains many a hint of the misery he subsequently endured with her as his wife, the prolonged fits of ill health, bad temper and ungovernable jealousy she was subject to; it tells how disgracefully she was treated by the very audience who had lauded her to the skies when she reappeared as Ophelia after the pseudo-enthusiasm for Shakspeare had blown over; how she fell from her carriage, broke a leg, and could act no more; how her losses as the manageress of an unsuccessful theatrical venture crushed him, and how they ultimately separated; Berlioz, with scrupulous fidelity, supplying her wants out of his poor pittance as a contributor to newspapers up to her melancholy death and interment.
Admired occasionally with an enthusiasm akin to adoration (for instance by Paganini, who, after hearing the 'Symphonic fantastique' at the Conservatoire, fell on his knees before Berlioz, kissed his hands, and on the following morning sent him a cheque for twenty thousand francs), always much talked of, but generally misunderstood and shamefully abused, Berlioz was not a popular man in France, and Parisians were curiously surprised at the success of his long 'Voyage musical,' when he produced his works in the principal cities of Germany and Russia. In 1852 Berlioz conducted the first series of the 'New Philharmonic Concerts' at Exeter Hall, and in the following year, on June 25, he conducted his opera 'Benvenuto Cellini' at Covent Garden.
He tried in vain to get a professorship at the Conservatoire. The modest appointment of librarian to that institute in 1839 [App. p.545 "He was appointed conservateur in 1839 and librarian in 1852"] and the cross of the Legion d'Honneur were the sole distinctions that fell to his lot.
His published works, fow in number but colossal in their proportions, are as follows:—
Op. 1. Ouverture de 'Waverley.'
Op. 2. Irlande; 9 melodies pour une et deux voix sur des traductions de Thomas Moore.
Op. 3. Ouverture des 'Francs Juges'
Op. 4. Ouverture du 'Roi Lear.'
Op. 5. 'Grande Messe des Morts' (Requiem).
Op. 6. 'Le 5 Mai.' Chant sur la mort de l'empereur Napoléon, pour voix de basse avec choeurs et orchestre.
Op. 7. 'Les nuits d'été.' Six mélodies pour une voix avec orchestre ou piano.
Op. 8. 'Reverie et caprice.' Romance pour le violon avec orchestre ou piano.
Op. 9. Le Carnaval Romain, Ouverture Caracteristique.
Op. 10. Grand Traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes. Avec supplément 'Le chef d'orchestre.'
Op. 11. 'Sarah la Baigneuse.' Ballade a trois chceurs avec orchestre.
Op. 12. 'La Captive.' Réverie pour mezzo soprano avec orchestre.
Op. 13. 'Fleurs des Landes.' Cinq mélodies pour une voix avec piano.
Op. 14. 'Episode de la vie d'un artiste.' Symphonie fantastique en cinq parties.
Op. 14 bis. Lelio, ou Le retour à la Vie.' Monodrame lyrique, 2e partie de l'episode.
Op. 15. Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale pour grande harmonie militaire, avec un orchestre d'instruments à cordes et un choeur ad libit.
Op. 16. 'Harold en Italie' Symphonie en 4 parties, avec un alto principal.
Op. 17. 'Roméo et Juliette.' Symphonie dramatique avec choeurs, solos de chant et prologue en récitatif choral.
Op. 18. 'Tristia.' 3 Choeurs avec orchestre. (Méditation religieuse, Ballade sur la Mort d'Ophélie, Marche funèbre.')
Op. 19, 'Feuillets d'Album.' 3 morceaux de chant avec piano.
Op. 20. 'Vox populi.' Deux grands choeurs avec orchestre. (La menace des Francs, Hymne à la France.)
Op. 21. Ouverture du 'Corsaire.'
Op. 22. 'Te Deum,' à trois choeurs avec orchestre et orgue concertants.
Op. 23. 'Benvenuto Cellini.' Opera en trois actes. Paroles de Leon de Wailly et August Barbier. (Partition de piano. Paris, Choudens.)
Op. 24. 'La Damnation de Faust.' Légende dramatique en quatre parties.
Op. 25. 'L'Enfance du Christ.' Trilogie Sacrée. 1. 'Le songe d'Herode.' 2. 'La fuite en Egypte.' 3. 'L'arrivée à Sais.
Op. 26. 'L'Imperiale.' cantate à deux choeurs et orchestre.
'Le Temple universel.' Choeur à quatre voix et piano.
'Prière du Matin.' Choeur a deux voix et piano.
'La belle Isabeau.' Conte pendant l'orage, avec choeur.
'Le Chasseur danois.' Pour voix de basse avec piano.
'L'Invitatlon à la valse de Weber.' Orchestration.
'Marche Marocaine' de L. de Meyer. Orchestration.
'Recitatives' pour 'le Freischütz.'
'Béatrice et Bénedict.' Opéra en deux actes imité de Shakespeare. Paroles de Hector Berlioz. (Partition de piano. Paris, Brandus.)
'Les Troyens.' Poème lyrique en deux parties: (1) 'La prise de Troie.' (MS.) (2) 'Les Troyens à Carthage' (Partition de piano. Paris, Choudens.)
Besides the 'Traité d'instrumentation,' with its sequel 'Le chef d'orchestre,' included above amongst his musical works as op. 10, the sub-joined literary productions have been issued in book-form:—
Voyage Musical … études sur Beethoven, Gluck et Weber, 2 vols Paris, 1844.
Les soirées de l'orchestre, 1853.
Les grotesques de la musique; 1859.
À travers chants; 1862,
Memoires, comprenant ses voyages, etc., 1803–1865. Paris, 1870.
Historiettes et Scenes musicales;
Les musiciens et la musique.
Advertised by M. Levy frères in 1872, but not yet published.
[ E. D. ]