IT MAY seem a paradox to say that no musician is so little known as Berlioz. The world thinks it knows him. A noisy fame surrounds his person and his work. Germany disputes with France the glory of having nurtured and shaped his genius. Russia, whose triumphal reception consoled him for the indifference and enmity of Paris, has said, through the voice of Balakirev, that he was “the only musician France possessed.” His chief compositions are often played at concerts, and some of them have the rare quality of appealing both to the cultured and the crowd; a few have even reached great popularity. Works have been dedicated to him, and he himself has been described and criticized by many writers. He was popular even to his face; for his face, like his music, was so striking and singular that it seemed to show you his character at a glance. No clouds hide his mind and its creations, which, unlike Wagner’s, need no initiation to be understood; they seem to have no hidden meaning, no subtle mystery; one is instantly their friend or their enemy, for the first impression is a lasting one.
That is the worst of it; people imagine that they understand Berlioz with so very little trouble. Obscurity of meaning may harm an artist less than a seeming transparency; to be shrouded in mist may mean remaining long misunderstood, but those who wish to understand will at least be thorough in their search for the truth. It is not always realized how depth and complexity may exist in a work of clear design and strong contrasts in the obvious genius of some great Italian of the Renaissance as much as in the troubled heart of a Rembrandt and the twilight of the North.
That is the first pitfall; but there are many more that will beset us in the attempt to understand Berlioz. To get at the man himself one must break down a wall of prejudice and pedantry, of convention and intellectual snobbery. In short, one must shake off nearly all current ideas about his work if one wishes to extricate it from the dust that has drifted about it for half a century.
Above all, one must not make the mistake of contrasting Berlioz with Wagner either by sacrificing Berlioz to that Germanic Odin or by forcibly trying to reconcile one to the other. For there are some who condemn Berlioz in the name of Wagner’s theories; and others who, not liking the sacrifice, seek to make him a forerunner of Wagner or kind of elder brother, whose mission was to clear a way and prepare. a road for a genius greater than his own. Nothing is falser. To understand Berlioz one must shake off the hypnotic influence of Bayreuth. Though Wagner may have learned something from Berlioz, the two composers have nothing in common; their genius and their art are absolutely opposed; each one has ploughed his furrow in a different field.
The classical misunderstanding is quite as dangerous. By that I mean the clinging to superstitions of the past and the pedantic desire to enclose art within narrow limits, which still flourish among critics. Who has not met these censors of music? They will tell you with solid complacence how far music may go and where it must stop and what it may express and what it must not. They are not always musicians themselves. But what of that? Do they not lean on the example of the past? The past! A handful of works that they themselves hardly understand. Meanwhile, music by its unceasing growth gives the lie to their theories and breaks down these weak barriers. But they do not see it, do not wish to see it; since they cannot advance them-selves, they deny progress. Critics of this kind do not think favorably of Berlioz’ dramatic and descriptive symphonies.
How should they appreciate the boldest musical achievement of the nineteenth century? These dreadful pedants and zealous defenders of an art that they understand only after it has ceased to live are the worst enemies of unfettered genius and may do more harm than a whole army of ignorant people. I doubt if Berlioz would have obtained any consideration at all from lovers of classical music in France if he had not found allies in that country of classical music, Germany”the oracle of Del-phi,” “Germania alma parens,” as he called her. Some of the young German school found inspiration in Berlioz. The dramatic symphony that he created flourished in its German form under Liszt; the most eminent German composer of today, Richard Strauss, came under his influence; and Felix Weingartner, who with Charles Malherbe edited Berlioz’ complete works, was bold enough to write: “In spite of Wagner and Liszt we should not be where we are if Berlioz had not lived.” This unexpected support, coming from a country of traditions, has thrown the partisans of classic tradition into confusion and rallied Berlioz’ friends.
But here is a new danger. Though it is natural that Germany, more musical than France, should recognize the grandeur and originality of Berlioz’ music before France, it is doubtful whether the German nature could ever fully understand a soul so French in its essence. It is perhaps what is exterior in Berlioz, his positive originality, that the Germans appreciate. They prefer the Requiem to Roméo. A Richard Strauss would be attracted by an almost insignificant work like the Overture to King Lear; a Weingartner would single out for notice works like the Symphonic fantastique and Harold and exaggerate their importance. But they do not feel what is intimate in him. Wagner said over the tomb of Weber: “England does you justice, France admires you, but only Germany loves you; you are of her own being, a glorious day of her life, a warm drop of her blood, a part of her heart. . . .” One might adapt his words to Berlioz; it is as difficult for a German really to love Berlioz as it is for a Frenchman to love Wagner or Weber. One must therefore be careful about accepting unreservedly the judgment of Germany on Berlioz; for in that would lie the danger of a new misunderstanding. You see how both the followers and opponents of Berlioz hinder us from getting at the truth. Let us dismiss them.
Have we now come to the end of our difficulties? Not yet, for Berlioz is the most illusive of men, and no one has helped more than he to mislead people in their estimate of him. We know how much he has written about music and about his own life, and what wit and understanding he shows in his shrewd criticisms and charming Mémoires. One would think that such an imaginative and skillful writer, accustomed in his profession of, critic to express every shade of feeling, would be able to tell us more exactly his ideas of art than a Beethoven or a Mozart. But it is not so. As too much light may blind the vision, so too much intellect may hinder the understanding. Berlioz’ mind spent itself in details; it reflected light from too many facets and did not focus itself in one strong beam which would have made known his power. He did not know how to dominate either his life or his work; he did not even try to dominate them. He was the incarnation of romantic genius, an unrestrained force, unconscious of the road he trod. I would not go so far as to say that he did not understand himself, but there are certainly times when he is past understanding himself. He allows himself to drift where chance will take him, like an old Scandinavian pirate laid at the bottom of his boat, staring up at the sky; and he dreams and groans and laughs and gives himself up to his feverish delusions. He lived with his emotions as uncertainly as he lived with his art. In his music, as in his criticisms of music, he often contradicts himself, hesitates, and turns back; he is not sure either of his feelings or his thoughts. He has poetry in his soul and strives to write operas; but his admiration wavers between Gluck and Meyerbeer. He has a popular genius but despises the people. He is a daring musical revolutionary, but he allows the control of this musical movement to be taken from him by anyone who wishes to have it. Worse than that: he disowns the movement, turns his back upon the future, and throws himself again into the past. For what reason? Very often he does not know. Passion, bitterness, caprice, wounded pride these have more influence with him than the serious things of life. He is a man at war with himself.
Then contrast Berlioz with Wagner. Wagner, too, was stirred by violent passions, but he was always master of himself, and his reason remained unshaken by the storms of his heart or those of the world, by the torments of love or the strife of political revolutions. He made his experiences and even his errors serve his art; he wrote about his theories before he put them into practice; and he launched out only when he was sure of himself and when the way lay clear before him. And think how much Wagner owes to this written expression of his aims and the magnetic attraction of his arguments. It was his prose works that fascinated the king of Bavaria before he had heard his mu-sic; and for many others also they have been the key to that music. I remember being impressed by Wagner’s ideas when I only half understood his art, and when one of his compositions puzzled me, my confidence was not shaken, for I was sure that the genius who was so convincing in his reasoning would not blunder, and that if his music baffled me, it was I who was at fault. Wagner was really his own best friend, his own most trusty champion; and his was the guiding hand that led one through the thick forest and over the rugged crags of his work.
Not only do you get no help from Berlioz in this way, but he is the first to lead you astray and wander with you in the paths of error. To understand his genius you must seize hold of it unaided. His genius was really great, but, as I shall try to show you, it lay at the mercy of a weak character.
Everything about Berlioz was misleading, even his appearance. In legendary portraits he appears as a dark southerner with black hair and sparkling eyes. But he was really very fair and had blue eyes, and Joseph d’Ortigue tells us they were deep-set and piercing, though sometimes clouded by melancholy or languor. He had a broad forehead furrowed with wrinkles by the time he was thirty, and a thick mane of hair, or, as E. Legouvé puts it, “a large umbrella of hair, projecting like a movable awning over the beak of a bird of prey.” His mouth was well cut, with lips compressed and puckered at the corners in a severe fold, and his chin was prominent. He had a deep voice, but his speech was halting and often tremulous with emotion; he would speak passionately of what interested him, and at times be effusive in manner, but more often he was ungracious and reserved. He was of medium height, rather thin and angular in figure, and when seated he seemed much taller than he really was. He was very restless and inherited from his native land, Dauphine, the mountaineer’s passion for walking and climbing and the love of a vagabond life which remained with him nearly to his death. He had an iron constitution, but he wrecked it by privation and excess, by his walks in the rain and by sleeping out-of-doors in all weathers, even when there was snow on the ground.
But in this strong and athletic frame lived a feverish and sickly soul that was dominated and tormented by a morbid craving for love and sympathy, “that imperative need of love which is killing me…” To love, to be lovedhe would give up all for that. But his love was that of a youth who lives in dreams; it was never the strong, clear-eyed passion of a man who has faced the realities of life and who sees the defects as well as the charms of the woman he loves. Berlioz was in love with love and lost himself among visions and sentimental shadows. To the end of his life he remained “a poor little child worn out by a love that was beyond him.” But this man who lived so wild and adventurous a life expressed his passions with delicacy; and one finds an almost girlish purity in the immortal love passages of Les Troyens or the “nuit sereine” of Romeo et Juliette. And compare this Virgilian affection with Wagner’s sensual raptures. Does it mean that Berlioz could not love as well as Wagner? We only know that Berlioz’ life was made up of love and its torments. The theme of a touching passage in the introduction of the Symphonic fantastique has been identified by Julien Tiersot, in his interesting book, with a romance composed by Berlioz at the age of twelve when he loved a girl of eighteen “with large eyes and pink shoes”Estelle, Stella montis, Stella matutina. These wordsperhaps the saddest he ever wrotemight serve as an emblem of his life, a life that was a prey to love and melancholy, doomed to wringing of the heart and awful loneliness; a life lived in a hollow world among worries that chilled the blood; a life that was distasteful and had no solace to offer him in its end. He has himself described this terrible “mat de l’isolement” which pursued him all his life, vividly and minutely. He was doomed to suffering, or, what was worse, to make others suffer.
Who does not know his passion for Henrietta Smithson? It was a sad story. He fell in love with an English actress who played Juliet. (Was it she or Juliet whom he loved?) He caught but a glance of her, and it was all over with him. He cried out, “Ah, I am lost!” He desired her; she repulsed him. He lived in a delirium of suffering and passion; he wandered about for days and nights like a madman, up and down Paris and its neighborhood without purpose or rest or relief until sleep over-came him wherever it found himamong the sheaves in a field near Villejuif, in a meadow near Sceaux, on the bank of the frozen Seine near Neuilly, in the snow, and once on a table in the Café Cardinal, where he slept for five hours, to the great alarm of the waiters, who thought he was dead. Meanwhile, he was told slanderous gossip about Henrietta, which he readily believed. Then he despised her and dishonored her publicly in his Symphonie fantastique, paying homage in his bitter resentment to Camille Moke, a pianist, to whom he lost his heart without delay.
After a time Henrietta reappeared. She had now lost her youth and her power; her beauty was waning, and she was in debt. Berlioz’ passion was at once rekindled. This time Henrietta accepted his advances. He made alterations in his symphony and offered it to her in homage of his love. He won her and married her, with fourteen thousand francs’ debt. He had captured his dreamJuliet! Ophelia! What was she really? A charming Englishwoman, cold, loyal, and sober-minded, who understood nothing of his passion; and who, from the time she became his wife, loved him jealously and sincerely and thought to confine him within the narrow world of domestic life. But his affections became restive, and he lost his heart to a Spanish actress (it was always an actress, a virtuoso, or a part) and left poor Ophelia and went off with Marie Recio, the Ines of Favorite, the page of Comte Orya practical, hardheaded woman, an indifferent singer with a mania for singing. The haughty Berlioz was forced to fawn upon the directors of the theater in. order to get her parts, to write flattering notices in praise of her talents, and even to let her make his own melodies discordant at the concerts he arranged. It would all be dreadfully ridiculous if this weakness of character had not brought tragedy in its train.
So the one he really loved and who always loved him remained alone without friends in Paris, where she was a stranger. She drooped in silence and pined slowly away, bedridden, paralyzed, and unable to speak during eight years of suffering. Berlioz suffered too, for he loved her still and was torn with pity”pity, the most painful of all emotions.” But of what use was this pity? He left Henrietta to suffer alone and to die just the same. And what was worse, as we learn from Legouvé, he let his mistress, the odious Recio, make a scene before poor Henrietta. Recio told him of it and boasted about what she had done. And Berlioz did nothing”How could I? I love her.”
One would be hard upon such a man if one was not disarmed by his own sufferings. But let us go on. I should have liked to pass over these traits, but I have no right to; I must show you the extraordinary feebleness of the man’s character. “Man’s character,” did I say? No, it was the character of a woman without a will, the victim of her nerves.
Such people are destined to unhappiness; and if they make other people suffer, one may be sure that it is only half of what they suffer themselves. They have a peculiar gift for attracting and gathering up trouble; they savor sorrow like wine and do not lose a drop of it. Life seemed desirous that Berlioz should be steeped in suffering, and his misfortunes were so real that it would be unnecessary to add to them any exaggerations that history has handed down to us.
People find fault with Berlioz’ continual complaints, and I, too, find in them a lack of virility and almost a lack of dignity. To all appearances he had far fewer material reasons for unhappiness thanI won’t say BeethovenWagner and other great men, past, present, and future. When thirty-five years old he had achieved glory; Paganini proclaimed him Beethoven’s successor. What more could he want? He was discussed by the public, disparaged by a Scudo and an Adolphus Adam, and the theater only opened its doors to him with difficulty. It was really splendid!
But a careful examination of facts, such as that made by Julien Tiersot, shows the stifling mediocrity and hardship of his life. There were, first of all, his material cares. When thirty-six years old “Beethoven’s successor” had a fixed salary of fifteen hundred francs as assistant keeper of the Conservatory library, and not quite as much for his contributions to the Débatscontributions which exasperated and humiliated him and were one of the crosses of his life, as they obliged him to speak any-thing but the truth. That made a total of three thousand francs, hardly gained, on which he had to keep a wife and child”meme deux,” as Tiersot says. He attempted a festival at the Opéra; the result was 360 francs’ loss. He organized a festival at the 1844 Exhibition; the receipts were thirty-two thousand francs, out of which he got eight hundred francs. He had the Damnation of Faust performed; no one came to it, and he was ruined. Things went better in Russia, but the manager who brought him to England became bankrupt. He was haunted by thoughts of rents and doctors’ bills. Toward the end of his life his financial affairs mended a little, and a year before his death he uttered these sad words: “I suffer a great deal, but I do not want to die nowI have enough to live upon.”
One of the most tragic episodes of his life is that of the symphony which he did not write because of his poverty. One wonders why the page that finishes his Mémoires is not better known, for it touches the depths of human suffering.
At the time when his wife’s health was causing him most anxiety, there came to him one night an inspiration for a symphony. The first part of itan Allegro in two-four time in A minorwas ringing in his head. He got up and began to write, and then he thought:
“If I begin this bit, I shall have to write the whole symphony. It will be a big thing, and I shall have to spend three or four months over it. That means I shall write no more articles and earn no money. And when the symphony is finished, I shall not be able to resist the temptation of having it copied (which will mean an expense of a thousand or twelve hundred francs), and then of having it played. I shall give a concert, and the receipts will barely cover half the cost. I shall lose what I have not got; the poor invalid will lack necessities, and I shall be able to pay neither my personal expenses nor my son’s fees when he goes on board ship. . . . These thoughts made me shudder, and I threw down my pen, saying, `Bah! tomorrow I shall have forgotten the symphony.’ The next night I heard the Allegro clearly and seemed to see it written down. I was filled with feverish agitation; I sang the theme; I was going to get up . . . but the reflections of the day before restrained me; I steeled myself against the temptation and clung to the thought of forgetting it. At last I went to sleep; and the next day, on waking, all remembrance of it had indeed gone forever.”
That page makes one shudder. Suicide is less distressing. Neither Beethoven nor Wagner suffered such tortures. What would Wagner have done on a like occasion? He would have written the symphony without doubtand he would have been right.
But poor Berlioz, who was weak enough to sacrifice his duty to love, was, alas! also heroic enough to sacrifice his genius to duty.
And in spite of all this material misery and the sorrow of being misunderstood, people speak of the glory he enjoyed. What did his compeers think of himat least those who called themselves such? He knew that Mendelssohn, whom he loved and esteemed and who styled himself his “good friend,” despised him and did not recognize his genius. The large-hearted Schumann, who was, with the exception of Liszt, the only per-son who intuitively felt his greatness, admitted that he used sometimes to wonder if he ought to be looked upon as “a genius or a musical adventurer.” Wagner, who treated his symphonies with scorn before he had even read them, who certainly under-stood his genius, and who deliberately ignored him, threw him-self into Berlioz’ arms when he met him in London in 1855. “He embraced him with fervor and wept; and hardly had he left him when The Musical World published passages from his book, Oper and Drama, where he pulls Berlioz to pieces mercilessly.” In France the young Gounod, doli fabricator Epeus, as Berlioz called him, lavished flattering words upon him but spent his time in finding fault with his compositions or in trying to supplant him at the theater. At the Opéra he was passed over in favor of a Prince Poniatowski. He presented himself three times at the Academy and was beaten the first time by Onslow, the second time by Clapisson, and the third time he conquered by a majority of one vote against Panseron, Vogel, Leborne, and others, including, as always, Gounod. He died before the Damnation of Faust was appreciated in France al-though it was the most remarkable musical composition France had produced. They hissed its performance? Not at all; “they were merely indifferent”it is Berlioz who tells us this. It passed unnoticed. He died before he had seen Les Troyens played in its entirety though it was one of the noblest works of the French lyric theater that had been composed since the death of Gluck.
But this is not all. What was the bitterness of failure compared with the great anguish of death? Berlioz saw all those he loved die one after the other: his father, his mother, Henrietta Smithson, Marie Recio. Then only his son Louis remained. He was the captain of a merchant vessel; a clever, good-hearted boy, but restless and nervous, irresolute and unhappy, like his father. “He has the misfortune to resemble me in everything,” said Berlioz; “and we love each other like a couple of twins.” “Ah, my poor Louis,” he wrote to him, “what should I do with-out you?” A few months afterward he learned that Louis had died in faraway seas.
He was now alone. There were no more friendly voices; all that he heard was a hideous duet between loneliness and weariness, sung in his ear during the bustle of the day and in the silence of the night. He was wasted with disease. In 1856 at Weimar following great fatigue, he was seized with an internal malady. It began with great mental distress; he used to sleep in the streets. He suffered constantly; he was like “a tree with-out leaves, streaming with rain.” ” At the end of 1861 the disease was in an acute stage. He had attacks of pain sometimes lasting thirty hours, during which he would writhe in agony in his bed. “I live in the midst of my physical pain, overwhelmed with weariness. Death is very slow.”
Worst of all, in the heart of his misery there was nothing that comforted him. He believed in nothingneither in God nor immortality.
“I have no faith…. I hate all philosophy and everything that resembles it, whether religious or otherwise. . . . I am as incapable of making a medicine of faith as of having faith in medicine.
“God is stupid and cruel in his complete indifference.”
He did not believe in beauty or honor, in mankind or himself.
“Everything passes. Space and time consume beauty, youth, love, glory, genius. Human life is nothing; death is no better. Worlds are born and die like ourselves. All is nothing. Yes, yes, yes! All is nothing…. To love or hate, enjoy or suffer, admire or sneer, live or die-what does it matter? There is nothing in greatness or littleness, beauty or ugliness. Eternity is indifferent; indifference is eternal.
“I am weary of life, and I am forced to see that belief in absurdities is necessary to human minds and that it is born in them as insects are born in swamps.
“You make me laugh with your old words about a mission to fulfill. What a missionary! But there is in me an inexplicable mechanism which works in spite of all arguments; and I let it work because I cannot stop it. What disgusts me most is the certainty that beauty does not exist for the majority of these human monkeys.
“The unsolvable enigma of the world, the existence of evil and pain, the fierce madness of mankind, and the stupid cruelty that it inflicts hourly and everywhere on the most inoffensive beings and on itselfall this has reduced me to the state of unhappy and forlorn resignation of a scorpion surrounded by live coals. The most I can do is not to wound myself with my own dart.
“I am in my sixty-first year, and I have no more hopes or illusions or aspirations. I am alone, and my contempt for the stupidity and dishonesty of men and my hatred for their wicked cruelty are at their height. Every hour I say to Death, `When you like!’ What is he waiting for?”
And yet he fears the death he invites. It is the strongest, the bitterest, the truest feeling he has. No musician since old Roland de Lassus has feared it with that intensity. Do you remember Herod’s sleepless nights in L’Enfance du Christ, or Faust’s soliloquy, or the anguish of Cassandra, or the burial of Juliette? Through all this you will find the whispered fear of annihilation. The wretched man was haunted by this fear, as a letter published by Julien Tiersot shows:
“My favorite walk, especially when it is raining, really raining in torrents, is the cemetery of Montmartre, which is near my house. I often go there; there is much that draws me to it. The day before yesterday I passed two hours in the. cemetery;
I found a comfortable seat on a costly tomb, and I went to sleep. . Paris is to me a cemetery and her pavements are tombstones. Everywhere are memories of friends or enemies that are dead. . . . I do nothing but suffer unceasing pain and unspeakable weariness. I wonder night and day if I shall die in great pain or with little of it I am not foolish enough to hope to die without any pain at all. Why are we not dead?”
His music is like these mournful words; it is perhaps even more terrible, more gloomy, for it breathes death. What a contrast: a soul greedy of life and preyed upon by death. It is this that makes his life such an awful tragedy. When Wagner met Berlioz he heaved a sigh of reliefhe had at last found a man more unhappy than himself.
On the threshold of death he turned in despair to the one ray of light left him: Stella montis, the inspiration of his childish loveEstelle, now old, a grandmother, withered by age and grief. He made a pilgrimage to Meylan, near Grenoble, to see her. He was then sixty-one years old and she was nearly seventy. “The past! The past! 0 Time! Nevermore! Nevermore!”
Nevertheless, he loved her and loved her desperately. How pathetic it is. One has little inclination to smile when one sees the depths of that desolate heart. Do you think he did not see, as clearly as you or I would see, the wrinkled old face, the indifference of age, the “triste raison,” in her he idealized? Remember, he was the most ironical of men. But he did not wish to see these things, he wished to cling to a little love which would help him to live in the wilderness of life.
“There is nothing real in this world but that which lives in the heart. . . . My life has been wrapped up in the obscure little village where she lives. . . . Life is only endurable when I tell myself: This autumn I shall spend a month beside her. I should die in this hell of a Paris if she did not allow me to write to her, and if from time to time I had not letters from her.”
So he spoke to Legouvé; and he sat down on a stone in a Paris street and wept. In the meantime, the old lady did not understand this foolishness; she hardly tolerated it and sought to undeceive him.
“When one’s hair is white one must leave dreams, even those of friendship. … Of what use is it to form ties which, though they hold today, may break tomorrow?”
What were his dreams? To live with her? No, rather to die beside her; to feel she was by his side when death should come.
“To be at your feet, my head on your knees, your two hands in mineso to finish.”
He was a little child grown old and felt bewildered and miserable and frightened before the thought of death.
Wagner, at the same age, a victor, worshiped, flattered, and if we are to believe the Bayreuth legendcrowned with prosperity; Wagner, sad and suffering, doubting his achievements, feeling the inanity of his bitter fight against the mediocrity of the world, had “fled far from the world” and thrown himself into religion; and when a friend looked at him in surprise as he was saying grace at table, he answered: “Yes, I believe in my Savior.”
Poor beings! Conquerors of the world, conquered and broken!
But of the two deaths, how much sadder is that of the artist who was without a faith and who had neither strength nor stoicism enough to be happy without one, who slowly died in that little room in the Rue de Calais amid the distracting noise of an indifferent and even hostile Paris, who shut himself up in savage silence, who saw no loved face bending over him in his last moments, who had not the comfort of belief in his work, who could not think calmly of what he had done, nor look proudly back over the road he had trodden, nor rest content in the thought of a life well lived, and who began and closed his Memoires with Shakespeare’s gloomy words, and repeated them when dying:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
Such was the unhappy and irresolute heart that found itself united to one of the most daring geniuses in the world. It is a striking example of the difference that may exist between genius and greatness-for the two words are not synonymous. When one speaks of greatness, one speaks of greatness of soul, nobility of character, firmness of will, and, above all, balance of mind. I can understand how people deny the existence of these qualities in Berlioz, but to deny his musical genius, or to cavil about his wonderful power is lamentable and ridiculous. Whether he attracts one or not, a thimbleful of some of his work, a single part in one of his works, a little bit of the Fantastique or the overture of Benvenuto, reveal more geniusI am not afraid to say itthan all the French music of his century. I can understand people arguing about him in a country that produced Beethoven and Bach; but with us in France, whom can we set up against him? Gluck and César Franck were much greater men, but they were never geniuses of his stature. If genius is a creative force, I cannot find more than four or five geniuses in the world who rank above him. When I have named Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Handel, and Wagner, I do not know who else is superior to Berlioz; I do not even know who is his equal.
He is not only a musician, he is music itself. He does not command his familiar spirit, he is its slave. Those who know his writings know how he was simply possessed and, exhausted by his musical emotions. They were really fits of ecstasy or convulsions. At first “there was feverish excitement; the veins beat violently and tears flowed freely.” “Then came spasmodic con-tractions of the muscles, total numbness of the feet and hands, and partial paralysis of the nerves of sight and hearing; he saw nothing, heard nothing; he was giddy and half faint.” And in the case of music that displeased him, he suffered, on the contrary, from “a painful sense of bodily disquiet and even from nausea.”
The possession that music held over his nature shows itself clearly in the sudden outbreak of his genius. His family op-posed the idea of his becoming a musician; and until he was twenty-two or twenty-three years old his weak will sulkily gave way to their wishes. In obedience to his father he began his studies in medicine at Paris. One evening he heard Les Danaldes of Salieri. It came upon him like a thunderclap. He ran to the Conservatory library and read Gluck’s scores. He forgot to eat and drink; he was like a man in a frenzy. A performance of Iphigénie en Tauride finished him. He studied under Lesueur and then at the Conservatory. The following year, 1827, he composed Les Francs-Juges; two years afterward the Huit scènes de Faust, which was the nucleus of the future Damnation; three years afterward, the Symphonie fantastique (commenced in 1830). And he had not yet got the Prix de Rome! Add to this that in 1828 he had already ideas for Roméo et Juliette and that he had written a part of Lélio in 1829. Can one find elsewhere a more dazzling musical debut? Compare that of Wagner who, at the same age, was shyly writing Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. He wrote them at the same age, but ten years later; for Die Feen appeared in 1833 when Berlioz had already written the Fantastique, the Huit scènes de Faust, Lélio, and Harold; Rienzi was first played in 1842, after Le Requiem (1837), Benvenuto (1838), Roméo (1839), La Symphonic funebre et triomphale (1840)that is to say, when Berlioz had finished all his great works and after he had achieved his musical revolution. And that revolution was effected alone, without a model, without a guide. What could he have heard beyond the operas of Gluck and Spontini while he was at the Conservatory? At the time he composed the Overture to Les Francs-Juges even the name of Weber was unknown to him, and of Beethoven’s compositions he had heard only an Andante.
Truly he is a miracle and the most startling phenomenon in the history of nineteenth-century music. His audacious power dominates all his age; and in the face of such a genius who would not follow Paganini’s example and hail him as Beethoven’s only successor? Who does not see what a poor figure the young Wagner cut at that time, working away in laborious and self-satisfied mediocrity? But Wagner soon made up for lost ground; for he knew what he wanted, and he wanted it obstinately.
The zenith of Berlioz genius was reached when he was thirty-five years old with the Requiem and Roméo. They are his two most important works and are two works about which one may feel very differently. For my part, I am very fond of the one, and I dislike the other; but both of them open up two great new roads in art, and both are placed like two gigantic arches on the triumphal way of the revolution that Berlioz started. I will return to the subject of these works later.
But Berlioz was already getting old. His daily cares and stormy domestic life, his disappointments and passions, his commonplace and often degrading work soon wore him out and, finally, exhausted his power. “Would you believe it?” he wrote to his friend Ferrand, “that which used to stir me to transports of musical passion now fills me with indifference or even disdain. I feel as if I were descending a mountain at a great rate. Life is so short; I notice that thoughts of the end have been with me for some time past.” In 1848, at forty-five years old, he wrote in his Mémoires: “I find myself so old and tired and lacking inspiration.” At forty-five years old Wagner had patiently worked out his theories and was feeling his power; at forty-five he was writing Tristan and The Music of the Future. Abused by critics, unknown to the public, “he remained calm in the belief that he would be master of the musical world in fifty years’ time.”
Berlioz was disheartened. Life had conquered him. It was not that he had lost any of his artistic mastery; on the contrary, his compositions became more and more finished; and nothing in his earlier work attained the pure beauty of some of the pages of L’Enfance du Christ (1850-1854), or of Les Troyens (1855-1863). But he was losing his power, and his intense feeling, his revolutionary ideas and his inspiration (which in his youth had taken the place of the confidence he lacked) were failing him. He now lived on the pastthe Huit scènes de Faust (1829) held the germs of La Damnation de Faust (1846); since 1833 he had been thinking of Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) ; the ideas in Les Troyens were inspired by his childish worship of Virgil and had been with him all his life. But with what difficulty he now finished his task! He had taken only seven months to write Roméo, and “on account of not being able to write the Requiem fast enough, he had adopted a kind of musical shorthand”; but he took seven or eight years to write Les Troyens, alternating between moods of enthusiasm and disgust, and feeling indifference and doubt about his work. He groped his way hesitatingly and unsteadily; he hardly understood what he was doing. He admired the more mediocre pages of his work: the scene of the Laocoon, the finale of the last act of the Les Troyens a Troie, the last scene with Aeneas in Les Troyens a Carthage. The empty pomposities of Spontini mingle with the loftiest conceptions. One might say that his genius became a stranger to him: it was the mechanical work of an unconscious force, like “stalactites in a dripping grotto.” He had no impetus. It was only a matter of time before the roof of the grotto would give way. One is struck with the mournful despair with which he works; it is his last will and testament that he is making. And when he has finished it, he will have finished everything. His work is ended; if he lived another hundred years he would not have the heart to add anything more to it. The only thing that remainsand it is what he is about to dois to wrap himself in silence and die.
Oh, mournful destiny! There are great men who have outlived their genius, but with Berlioz genius outlived desire. His genius was still there; one feels it in the sublime pages of the third act of Les Troyens a Carthage. But Berlioz had ceased to believe in his power; he had lost faith in everything. His genius was dying for want of nourishment; it was a flame above an empty tomb. At the same hour of his old age the soul of Wagner sustained its glorious flight, and having conquered everything, it achieved a supreme victory in renouncing every-thing for its faith. And the divine songs of Parsifal resounded as in a splendid temple and replied to the cries of the suffering Amfortas by the blessed words: “Selig in Glauben! Selig in Liebe!”
Berlioz work did not spread itself evenly over his life; it was accomplished in a few years. It was not like the course of a great river as with Wagner and Beethoven; it was a burst of genius whose flames lit up the whole sky for a little while and then died gradually down. Let me try to tell you about this wonderful blaze.
Some of Berlioz musical qualities are so striking that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here. His instrumental coloring, so intoxicating and exciting, his extraordinary discoveries concerning timbre, his inventions of new nuances (as in the famous combining of flutes and trombones in the “Hostias et preces” of the Requiem, and the curious use of the harmonics of violins and harps), and his huge and nebulous orchestra all this lends itself to the most subtle expression of thought. Think of the effect that such works must have produced at that period. Berlioz was the first to be astonished when he heard them for the first time. At the Overture to Les Francs-Juges he wept and tore his hair and fell sobbing on the kettledrums. At the performance of his Tuba minim in Berlin he nearly fainted. The composer who most nearly approached him was Weber, and, as we have already seen, Berlioz knew him only late in life. But how much less rich and complex is Weber’s music, in spite of its nervous brilliance and dreaming poetry. Above all, Weber is much more mundane and more of a classicist; he lacks Berlioz’ revolutionary passion and plebeian force; he is less expressive and less grand.
How did Berlioz come to have this genius for orchestration almost from the very first? He himself says that his two masters at the Conservatory taught him nothing in point of instrumentation:
“Lesueur had only limited ideas about the art. Reicha knew the particular resources of most of the wind instruments, but I think that he had not very advanced ideas on the subject of grouping them.”
Berlioz taught himself. He used to read the score of an opera while it was being performed.
“It was thus,” he says, “that I began to get familiar with the use of the orchestra and to know its expression and timbre as well as the range and mechanism of most of the instruments. By carefully comparing the effect produced with the means used to produce it, I learned the hidden bond which unites musical expression to the special art of instrumentation, but no one put me in the way of this. The study of the methods of the three modern masters, Beethoven, Weber, and Spontini, the impartial examination of the traditions of instrumentation and of little-used forms and combinations, conversations with virtuosos, and the effects I made them try on their different instruments, together with a little instinct, did the rest for me.”
That he was an originator in this direction no one doubts. And no one disputes, as a rule, “his devilish cleverness,” as Wagner scornfully called it, or remains insensible to his skill and mastery in the mechanism of expression and his power over sonorous matter, which make him, apart from his creative power, a sort of magician of music, a king of tone and rhythm. This gift is recognized even by his enemiesby Wagner, who seeks with some unfairness to restrict his genius within narrow limits and to reduce it to “a structure with wheels of infinite ingenuity and extreme cunning . . . a marvel of mechanism.”
But though there is hardly anyone that Berlioz does not irritate or attract, he always strikes people by his impetuous ardor, his glowing romance, and his seething imagination, all of which makes and will continue to make his work one of the most picturesque mirrors of his age. His frenzied force of ecstasy and despair, his fullness of love and hatred, his perpetual thirst for life, which “in the heart of the deepest sorrow lights the Catherine wheels and crackers of the wildest joy”these are the qualities that stir up the crowds in Benvenuto and the armies in the Damnation, that shake earth, heaven, and hell and are never quenched but remain devouring and “passionate even when the subject is far removed from passion, and yet also express sweet and tender sentiments and the deepest calm.”
Whatever one may think of this volcanic force, of this torrential stream of youth and passion, it is impossible to deny them; one might as well deny the sun.
And I shall not dwell on Berlioz’ love of Nature which, as Prudhomme shows us, is the soul of a composition like the Damnation and, one might say, of all great compositions. No musician with the exception of Beethoven has loved Nature so profoundly. Wagner himself did not realize the intensity of emotion which she roused in Berlioz and how this feeling impregnated the music of the Damnation, of Roméo, and of Les Troyens.
But this genius had other characteristics which are less well known though they are not less unusual. The first is his sense of pure beauty. Berlioz’ exterior romanticism must not make us blind to this. He had a Virgilian soul; and if his coloring recalls that of Weber, his design has often an Italian suavity. Wagner never had this love of beauty in the Latin sense of the word: Who has understood the southern nature, beautiful form, and harmonious movement like Berlioz? Who since Gluck has recognized so well the secret of classical beauty? Since Oleo was composed, no one has carved in music a bas-relief so perfect as the entrance of Andromache in the second act of Les Troyens a Troie. In Les Troyens a Carthage the fragrance of the Aeneid is shed over the night of love, and we see the luminous sky and hear the murmur of the sea. Some of his melodies are like statues, or the pure lines of Athenian friezes, or the noble gesture of beautiful Italian girls, or the undulating profile of the Albanian hills filled with divine laughter. He has done more than felt and translated into music the beauty of the Mediterraneanhe has created beings worthy of a Greek tragedy. His Cassandra alone would suffice to rank him among the greatest tragic poets that music has ever known. And Cassandra is a worthy sister of Wagner’s Briinnhilde, but she has the advantage of coming of a nobler race and of having a lofty restraint of spirit and action that Sophocles himself would have loved.
Not enough attention has been drawn to the classical nobility from which Berlioz’ art so spontaneously springs. It is not fully acknowledged that he was of all nineteenth-century musicians the one who had in the highest degree the sense of plastic beauty. Nor do people always recognize that he was a writer of sweet and flowing melodies. Weingartner expressed the surprise he felt when, imbued with current prejudice against Berlioz’ lack of melodic invention, he opened by chance the score of the overture of Benvenuto and found in that short composition, which barely takes ten minutes to play, not one or two but four or five melodies of admirable richness and originality:
“I began to laugh, both with pleasure at having discovered such a treasure and with annoyance at finding how narrow human judgment is. Here I counted five themes, all of them plastic and expressive of personality; of admirable workman-ship, varied in form, working up by degrees to a climax, and then finishing with strong effect. And this from a composer who was said by critics and the public to be devoid of creative power! From that day on there has been for me another great citizen in the republic of art.”
Before this, Berlioz had written in 1864:
“It is quite easy for others to convince themselves that, without even limiting me to take a very short melody as the theme of a compositionas the greatest musicians have often doneI have always endeavored to put a wealth of melody into my compositions. One may, of course, dispute the worth of these melodies, their distinction, originality, or charmit is not for me to judge thembut to deny their existence is either unfair or foolish. They are often on a large scale, and an immature or shortsighted musical vision may not clearly distinguish their form; or, again, they may be accompanied by secondary melodies which, to a limited vision, may veil the form of the principal ones. Or lastly, shallow musicians may find these melodies so unlike the funny little things that they call melodies that they cannot bring themselves to give the same name to both.”
And what a splendid variety there is in these melodies: there is the song of Gluck’s style (Cassandra’s airs ), the pure German lied (Marguerite’s song, “D’amour l’ardente flamme”), the Italian melody, after Bellini, in its most limpid and happy form (arietta of Arlequin in Benvenuto), the broad Wagnerian phrase (finale of Roméo), the folk song ( chorus of shepherds in L’Enfance du Christ), and the freest and most modern recitative (the monologues of Faust), which was Berlioz’ own invention, with its full development, its pliant outline, and its intricate nuances.
I have said that Berlioz had a matchless gift for expressing tragic melancholy, weariness of life, and the pangs of death. In a general way, one may say that he was a great elegist in music. Ambros, who was a discerning and unbiased critic, said: “Berlioz feels with inward delight and profound emotion what no musician except Beethoven has felt before.” And Heinrich Heine had a keen perception of Berlioz’ originality when he called him “a colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle.” The simile is not only picturesque but of remarkable aptness. For Berlioz’ colossal force is at the service of a forlorn and ten-der heart; he has nothing of the heroism of Beethoven or Handel or Gluck, or even Schubert. He has all the charm of an Umbrian painter, as is shown in L’Enfance du Christ, as well as sweetness and inward sadness, the gift of tears, and an elegiac passion.
Now I come to Berlioz’ great originality, an originality which is rarely spoken of though it makes ‘him more than a great musician, more than the successor of Beethoven or, as some call him, the forerunner of Wagner. It is an originality that en-titles him to be known, even more fitly than Wagner himself, as the creator of “an art of the future,” the apostle of a new music which even today has hardly made itself felt.
Berlioz is original in a double sense. By the extraordinary complexity of his genius he touched the two opposite poles of his art and showed us two entirely different aspects of musicthat of a great popular art and that of music made free.
We are all enslaved by the musical tradition of the past. For generations we have been so accustomed to carry this yoke that we scarcely notice it. And in consequence of Germany’s monopoly of music since the end of the eighteenth century, musical traditionswhich had been chiefly Italian in the two preceding centuriesnow became almost entirely German. We think in German forms: the plan of phrases, their development, their balance, and all the rhetoric of music and the grammar of composition comes to us from foreign thought, slowly elaborated by German masters. That domination has never been more complete or heavier since Wagner’s victory. Then reigned over the world this great German perioda scaly monster with a thousand arms, whose grasp was so extensive that it included pages, scenes, acts, and whole dramas in its embrace. We can-not say that French writers have ever tried to write in the style of Goethe or Schiller, but French composers have tried and are still trying to write music after the manner of German musicians.
Why be astonished at it? Let us face the matter plainly. In music we have not, so to speak, any masters of French style. All our greatest composers are foreigners. The founder of the first school of French opera, Lully, was Florentine; the founder of the second school, Gluck, was German; the two founders of the third school were Rossini, an Italian, and Meyerbeer, a German; the creators of opéra-comique were Duni, an Italian, and Grétry, a Belgian; Franck, who revolutionized our modern school of opera, was also Belgian. These men brought with them a style peculiar to their race, or else they tried to found, as Gluck did, an “international” style by which they effaced the more individual characteristics of the French spirit. The most French of all these styles is the opéra-comique, the work of two foreigners, but owing much more to the opéra-bouffe than is generally admitted, and, in any case, representing France very insufficiently. Some more rational minds have tried to rid themselves of this Italian and German influence but have mostly arrived at creating an intermediate Germano-Italian style, of which the operas of Auber and Ambroise Thomas are a type.
Before Berlioz’ time there was really only one master of the first rank who made a great effort to liberate French music: it was Rameau, and despite his genius, he was conquered by Italian art.
By force of circumstance, therefore, French music found it-self molded in foreign musical forms. And in the same way that Germany in the eighteenth century tried to imitate French architecture and literature, so France in the nineteenth century acquired the habit of speaking German in music. As most men speak more than they think, even thought itself became Germanized; and it was difficult then to discover through this traditional insincerity the true and spontaneous form of French musical thought.
But Berlioz’ genius found it by instinct. From the first he strove to free French music from the oppression of the foreign tradition that was suffocating it.
He was fitted in every way for the part, even by his deficiencies and his ignorance. His classical education in music was incomplete. Saint-Saens tells us that “the past did not exist for him; he did not understand the old composers as his knowledge of them was limited to what he had read about them.” He did not know Bach. Happy ignorance! He was able to write oratorios like L’Enfance du Christ without being worried by memories and traditions of the German masters of oratorio. There are men like Brahms who have been nearly all their life but reflections of the past. Berlioz never sought to be anything but himself. It was thus that he created that masterpiece, La Fuite en Egypte, which sprang from his keen sympathy with the people.
He had one of the most untrammeled spirits that ever breathed. Liberty was for him a desperate necessity. “Liberty of heart, of mind, of soulof everything. . . . Real liberty, absolute and immense!” And this passionate love of liberty, which was his misfortune in life since it deprived him of the comfort of any faith, refused him any refuge for his thoughts, robbed him of peace, and even of the soft pillow of skepticism this “real liberty” formed the unique originality and grandeur of his musical conceptions.
“Music,” wrote Berlioz to Lobe in 1852, “is the most poetic, the most powerful, the most living of all arts. She ought to be the freest, but she is not yet. . . . Modern music is like the classic Andromeda, naked and divinely beautiful. She is chained to a rock on the shores of a vast sea and awaits the victorious Perseus who shall loose her bonds and break in pieces the chimera called Routine.”
The business was to free music from its limited rhythms and from the traditional forms and rules that enclosed it; and above all, it needed to be free from the domination of speech and to be released from its humiliating bondage to poetry. Berlioz wrote to the Princess of Wittgenstein in 1856:
“I am for free music. Yes, I want music to be proudly free, to be victorious, to be supreme. I want her to take all she can, so that there may be no more Alps or Pyrenees for her. But she must achieve her victories by fighting in person and not rely upon her lieutenants. I should like to have, if possible, good verse drawn up in order of battle; but, like Napoleon, she must face the fire herself and, like Alexander, march in the front ranks of the phalanx. She is so powerful that in some cases she would conquer unaided; for she has the right to say with Medea: `I, myself, am enough.
Berlioz protested vigorously against Gluck’s impious theory and Wagner’s “crime” in making music the slave of speech.
Music is the highest poetry and knows no master. It was for Berlioz, therefore, continually to increase the power of expression in pure music. And while Wagner, who was more moderate and a closer follower of tradition, sought to establish a compromise (perhaps an impossible one) between music and speech and to create the new lyric drama, Berlioz, ‘who was more revolutionary, achieved the dramatic symphony, of which the unequaled model today is still Roméo et Juliette.
The dramatic symphony naturally fell foul of all formal theories. Two arguments were set up against it: one derived from Bayreuth, and by now an act of faith; the other, current opinion, upheld by the crowd that speaks of music without under-standing it.
The first argument, maintained by Wagner, is that music cannot really express action without the help of speech and gesture. It is in the name of this opinion that so many people condemn a priori Berlioz’ Roméo. They think it childish to try to translate action into music. I suppose they think it less childish to illustrate an action by music. Do they think that gesture associates itself very happily with music? If only they would try to root up this great fiction which has bothered us for the past three centuries; if only they would open their eyes and seewhat great men like Rousseau and Tolstoy saw so clearlythe silliness of opera; if only they would see the anomalies of the Bayreuth show. In the second act of Tristan there is a celebrated passage where Isolde, burning with desire, is waiting for Tristan; she sees him come at last, and from afar she waves her scarf to the accompaniment of a phrase repeated several times by the orchestra. I cannot express the effect produced on me by that imitation (for it is nothing else) of a series of sounds by a series of gestures; I can never see it without indignation or without laughing. The curious thing is that when one hears this passage at a concert, one sees the gesture. At the theater either one does not “see” it, or it appears childish. The natural action becomes stiff when clad in musical armor, and the absurdity of trying to make the two agree is forced upon one. In the music of Rheingold one pictures the stature and gait of the giants, and one sees the lightning gleam and the rainbow reflected on the clouds. In the theater it is like a game of marionettes; and one feels the impassable gulf between music and gesture. Music is a world apart. When music wishes to depict the drama, it is not real action which is reflected in it; it is the ideal action trans-figured by the spirit and perceptible only to the inner vision. The worst foolishness is to present two visionsone for the eyes and one for the spirit. Nearly always they kill each other.
The other argument urged against the symphony with a pro-gram is the pretended classical argument (it is not really “classical at all). “Music,” they say, “is not meant to express definite subjects; it is only fitted for vague ideas. The more indefinite it is, the greater its power, and the more it suggests.” I ask, what is an indefinite art? What is a vague art? Do not the two words contradict each other? Can this strange combination exist at all? Can an artist write anything that he does not clearly conceive? Do people think he composes at random as his genius whispers to him? One must at least say this: A symphony of Beethoven’s is a “definite” work down to its innermost folds; and Beethoven had, if not an exact knowledge, at least a clear intuition of what he was about. His last quartets are descriptive symphonies of his soul and very differently carried out from Berlioz’ symphonies. Wagner was able to analyze one of the former under the name of “A Day with Beethoven.” Beethoven was always trying to translate into music the depths of his heart, the subleties of his spirit, which are not to be explained clearly by words but which are as definite as wordsin fact, more definite; for a word, being an abstract thing, sums up many experiences and comprehends many different meanings. Music is a hundred times more expressive and exact than speech; and it is not only her right to express particular emotions and subjects, it is her duty. If that duty is not fulfilled, the result is not music it is nothing at all.
Berlioz is thus the true inheritor of Beethoven’s thought. The difference between a work like Roméo and one of Beethoven’s symphonies is that the former, it would seem, endeavors to express objective emotions and subjects in music. I do not see why music should not follow poetry in getting away from introspection and trying to paint the drama of the universe. Shakespeare is as good as Dante. Besides, one may add, it is always Berlioz himself that is discovered in his music; it is his soul starving for love and mocked at by shadows which is revealed through all the scenes of Roméo.
I will not prolong a discussion where so many things must be left unsaid. But I would suggest that, once and for all, we get rid of these absurd endeavors to fence in art. Do not let us say: Music can music cannot express such-and-such a thing. Let us say rather, if genius pleases, everything is possible; and if music so wishes, she may be painting and poetry tomorrow. Berlioz ha§ proved it well in his Roméo.
This Roméo is an extraordinary work: “a wonderful isle, where a temple of pure art is set up.” For my part, not only do I consider it equal to the most powerful of Wagner’s creations, but I believe it to be richer in its teaching and in its resources for artresources and teaching which contemporary French art has not yet fully turned to account. One knows that for several years the young French school has been making efforts to deliver our music from German models, to create a language of recitative that shall belong to France and that the leitmotif will not overwhelm; a more exact and less heavy language, which in expressing the freedom of modern thought will not have to seek the help of the classical or Wagnerian forms. Not long ago, the Schola Cantorum published a manifesto that pro-claimed “the liberty of musical declamation . . . free speech in free music . . . the triumph of natural music with the free movement of speech and the plastic rhythm of the ancient dance”thus declaring war on the metrical art of the past three centuries.
Well, here is that music; you will nowhere find a more perfect model. It is true that many who profess the principles of this music repudiate the model and do not hide their disdain for Berlioz. That makes me doubt a little, I admit, the results of their efforts. If they do not feel the wonderful freedom of Berlioz’ music and do not see that it was the delicate veil of a very living spirit, then I think there will be more of archaism than real life in their pretensions to “free music.” Study not only the most celebrated pages of his work, such as the “Scène d’amour” (the one of all his compositions that Berlioz himself liked best). “La Tristesse de Roméo,” or “La Fete des Capulets” (where a spirit like Wagner’s own unlooses and subdues again tempests of passion and joy), but take less well-known pages, such as the “Scherzetto chanté de la reine Mab,” or the “Réveil de Juliette” and the music describing the death of the two lovers. In the one what light grace there is, in the other what vibrating passion, and in both of them what freedom and apt expression of ideas. The language is magnificent, of wonderful clearness and simplicity; not a word too much and not a word that does not reveal an unerring pen. In nearly all the big works of Berlioz before 1845 ( that is up to the Damnation) you will find this nervous precision and sweeping liberty.
Then there is the freedom of his rhythms. Schumann, who was nearest to Berlioz of all musicians of that time and therefore best able to understand him, had been struck by this since the composition of the Symphonie fantastique. He wrote:
“The present age has certainly not produced a work in which similar times and rhythms combined with dissimilar times and rhythms have been more freely used. The second part of a phrase rarely corresponds with the first, the reply to the question. This anomaly is characteristic of Berlioz and is natural to his southern temperament.”
Far from objecting to this, Schumann sees in it something necessary to musical evolution.
“Apparently music is showing a tendency to go back to its beginnings, to the time when the laws of rhythm did not yet trouble her; it seems that she wishes to free herself, to regain an utterance that is unconstrained and raise herself to the dignity of a sort of poetic language.”
And Schumann quotes these words of Ernest Wagner: “He who shakes off the tyranny of time and delivers us from it will, as far as one can see, give back freedom to music.” Remark also Berlioz’ freedom of melody. His musical phrases pulse and flow like life itself. “Some phrases taken separately,” says Schumann, “have such an intensity that they will not bear harmonizingas in many ancient folk songsand often even an accompaniment spoils their fullness.” These melodies so correspond with the emotions that they reproduce the least thrills of body and mind by their vigorous workings-up and delicate reliefs, by splendid barbarities of modulation and strong and glowing color, by gentle gradations of light and shade or imperceptible ripples of thought which flow over the body like a steady tide. It is an art of peculiar sensitiveness, more delicately expressive than that of Wagner; not satisfying itself with the modern tonality but going back to old modesa rebel, as Saint-Saëns remarks, to the polyphony which had governed music since Bach’s day, and which is perhaps, after all, “a heresy destined to disappear.”
How much finer, to my idea, are Berlioz’ recitatives, with their long and winding rhythms, than Wagner’s declamations, whichapart from the climax of a subject where the air breaks into bold and vigorous phrases whose influence elsewhere is often weaklimit themselves to the quasi-notation of spoken inflections and jar noisily against the fine harmonies of the orchestra. Berlioz’ orchestration, too, is of a more delicate temper and has a freer life than Wagner’s, flowing in an impetuous stream and sweeping away everything in its course; it is also less united and solid but more flexible; its nature is undulating and varied, and the thousand imperceptible impulses of the spirit and of action are reflected there. It is a marvel of spontaneity and caprice.
In spite of appearances, Wagner is a classicist compared with Berlioz; he carried on and perfected the work of the German classicists; he made no innovations; he is the pinnacle and the close of one evolution of art. Berlioz began a new art; and one finds in it all the daring and gracious ardor of youth. The iron laws that bound the art of Wagner are not to be found in Berlioz’ early works, which give one the illusion of perfect freedom.
Berlioz other great originality lay in his talent for music that was suited to the spirit of the common people recently raised to sovereignty and the young democracy. In spite of his aristocratic disdain, his soul was with the masses. Hippeau applies to him Taine’s definition of a romantic artist: “The plebeian of a new race, richly gifted and filled with aspirations, who, having attained for the first time the world’s heights, noisily displays the ferment of his mind and heart.” Berlioz grew up in the midst of revolutions and stories of imperial achievement. He wrote his cantata for the Prix de Rome in July 1830 “to the hard, dull noise of stray bullets which whizzed above the roofs and came to flatten themselves against the wall near his window.” When he had finished this cantata, he went, “pistol in hand, to play the blackguard in Paris with the sainte canaille.” He sang the Marseillaise, and made “all who had a voice and heart and blood in their veins” sing it too. On his journey to Italy he traveled from Marseilles to Livorno with Mazzinian conspirators who were going to take part in the insurrection of Modena and Bologna. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he was the musician of revolutions; his sympathies were with the people. Not only did he fill his scenes in the theater with swarming and riotous crowds, like those of the Roman Carnival in the second act of Benvenuto ( anticipating by thirty years the crowds of Die Meistersinger), but he created a music of the masses and a colossal style.
His model here was Beethoven; Beethoven of the Eroica, of the C minor, of the A major, and, above all, of the Ninth Symphony. He was Beethoven’s follower in this as well as other things and the apostle who carried on his work. And with his understanding of material effects and sonorous matter, he built edifices, as he says, that were “Babylonian and Ninevitish,” “music after Michelangelo,” “on an immense scale.” It was the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale for two Orchestras and a choir, and the Te Deum for orchestra, organ, and three choirs which Berlioz loved ( whose finale Judex crederis seemed to him the most effective thing he had ever written), as well as the Imperiale, for two orchestras and two choirs, and the famous Requiem, with its “four orchestras of brass instruments, placed round the main orchestra and the mass of voices, but separated and answering one another at a distance.” Like the Requiem, these compositions are often crude in style and of rather commonplace sentiment, but their grandeur is overwhelming. This is not due only to the hugeness of the means employed but also to “the breadth of the style and to the formidable slowness of some of the progressionswhose final aim one cannot guesswhich gives these compositions a strangely gigantic character.” Berlioz has left in these compositions striking examples of the beauty that may reveal itself in a crude mass of music. Like the towering Alps, they move one by their very immensity. A German critic says: “In these Cyclopean works the composer lets the elemental and brute forces of sound and pure rhythm have their fling.” It is scarcely music, it is the force of Nature herself. Berlioz himself calls his Requiem “a musical cataclysm.”
These hurricanes are let loose in order to speak to the people, to stir and rouse the dull ocean of humanity. The Requiem is a Last Judgment, not meant, like that of the Sistine Chapel (which Berlioz did not care for at all), for great aristocracies but for a crowd, a surging, excited, and rather savage crowd. The Rakoczy March is less an Hungarian march than the music for a revolutionary fight; it sounds the charge; and Berlioz tells us it might bear Virgil’s verses for a motto:
“… Furor iraque mentes Praecipitant, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis.”
When Wagner heard the Symphonic funebre et triomphale he was forced to admit Berlioz’ “skill in writing compositions .that were popular in the best sense of the word.”
“In listening to that symphony, I had a lively impression that any little street boy in a blue blouse and red bonnet would understand it perfectly. I have no hesitation in giving precedence to that work over Berlioz’ other works; it is big and noble from the first note to the last; a fine and eager patriotism rises from its first expression of compassion to the final glory of the apotheosis and keeps it from any unwholesome exaggeration. I want gladly to express my conviction that that symphony will fire men’s courage and will live as long as a nation bears the name of France.”
How do such works come to be neglected by our Republic? How is it they have not a place in our public life? Why are they not part of our great ceremonies? That is what one would wonderingly ask oneself if one had not seen, for the past century, the indifference of the State to art. What might not Berlioz have done if the means had been given him, or if his works had found a place in the fetes of the Revolution? Unhappily, one must add that here again his character was the enemy of his genius. As this apostle of musical freedom in the second part of his life became afraid of himself and recoiled before the results of his own principles and returned to classicism, so this revolutionary suddenly fell to disparaging the people and revolutions; and he talks about “the republican cholera,” “the dirty and stupid republic,” “the republic of street porters and rag-gatherers,” “the filthy rabble of humanity a hundred times more stupid and animal in its twitchings and revolutionary grimacings than the baboons and orang-outangs of Borneo.” What ingratitude! He owed to these revolutions, to these democratic storms, to these human tempests, the best of all his genius, and he disowned it all. This musician of a new era took refuge in the past.
Well, what did it matter? Whether he wished it or not, he opened out some magnificent roads for art. He has shown the music of France the way in which her genius should tread; he has shown her possibilities of which she had never before dreamed. He has given us a musical utterance at once truthful and expressive, free from foreign traditions, coming from the depths of our being, and reflecting our spirit; an utterance which responded to his imagination, to his instinct for what was picturesque, to his fleeting impressions, and his delicate shades of feeling. He has laid the strong foundation of a national and popular music for the greatest republic in Europe.
These are shining qualities. If Berlioz had had Wagner’s reasoning power and had made the utmost use of his intuitions, if he had had Wagner’s will and had shaped the inspirations of his genius and welded them into a solid whole, I venture to say that he would have made a revolution in music greater than Wagner’s own; for Wagner, though stronger and more master of himself, was less original and, at bottom, but the close of a glorious past.
Will that revolution still be accomplished? Perhaps; but it has suffered half a century’s delay. Berlioz bitterly calculated that people would begin to understand him about the year 1940.
After all, why be astonished that his mighty mission was too much for him? He was so alone. As people forsook him, his loneliness stood out in greater relief. He was alone in the age of Wagner, Liszt, Schumann, and Franck; alone, yet containing a whole world in himself, of which his enemies, his friends, his admirers, and he himself were not quite conscious; alone and tortured by his loneliness. Alonethe word is repeated by the music of his youth and his old age, by the Symphonie fantestique and Les Troyens. It is the word I read in the portrait before me as I write these linesthe beautiful portrait of the Memoires, where his face looks out in sad and stern reproach on the age that so misunderstood him.