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. Musical Europe has celebrated his centenary. 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 Balakirew, 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 criticised by many writers. He is 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 realised how depth and complexity may exist in a work of clear design and strong contrastsin 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 learnt 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 themselves, they deny progress. Critics of this kind do not think favourably of Berlioz’s 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 only understand 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. For in a country like ours, where musical education is poor, timidity is great in the presence of a strong, but only half understood, tradition ; and anyone who has the boldness to break away from it is condemned without judgment. 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 Delphi,” ” 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 to-day, Richard Strauss, came under his influence ; and Felix Weingartner, who with Charles Malherbe edited Berlioz’s 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’s friends.
But here is a new danger. Though it is natural that Germany, more musical than France, should recognise the grandeur and originality of Berlioz’s 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 Ouverture du roi Lear ; a Weingartner would single out for notice works like the Symphonie 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 skilful 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’s 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 pridethese 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 only launched out 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 music ; 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 under-stand 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 fore-head 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, Dauphiné, 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 Roméo 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’s life was made up of love and its torments. The theme of a touching passage in the Introduction of the Symphonie fantastique has been recently identified by M. 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 wrote-might 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 mal 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 neighbourhood, without purpose or rest or relief, until sleep overcame 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 dishonoured 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’s 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 Inès of Favorite, the page of Comte Orya practical, hard headed woman, an indifferent singer with a mania for singing. The haughty Berlioz was forced to fawn upon the directors of the theatre 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, paralysed, 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 extra-ordinary 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 savour 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’s 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 ; and 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 theatre only opened its doors to him with difficulty. It was really splendid !
But a careful examination of facts, such as that made by M. 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 Conservatoire 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 anything but the truth. That made a total of three thousand francs, hardly gained, on which he had to keep a wife and child” name deux,” as M. Tiersot says. He attempted a festival at the Opera ; the result was three hundred and sixty francs loss. He organised 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 de 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. Towards 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 ! to-morrow 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 for ever.”
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 recognise his genius. The large-hearted Schumann, who was, with the exception of Liszt, 2 the only person 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 understood his genius, and who deliberately ignored him, threw himself into Berlioz’s arms when he met him in London in 1855. ” He embraced him with fervour, and wept ; and hardly had he left him when The Musical World published passages from his book, Oper und Drama, where he pulls Berlioz to pieces mercilessly.” 2 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 theatre. At the Opera he was passed over in favour 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 de Faust was appreciated in France, although it was the most remark-able 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 theatre that had been composed since the death of Gluck. But there is no need to be astonished. To hear these works to-day one must go to Germany. And although the dramatic work of Berlioz has found its Bayreuththanks to Mottl, to Karlsruhe and Munichand the marvellous Benvenuto Cellini has been played in twenty German towns, and regarded as a masterpiece by Weingartner and Richard Strauss, what manager of a French theatre would think of producing such works ?
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 without you ? ” A few months after-wards he learnt that Louis had died in far-away 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 without 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 honour, in man-kind 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 diewhat 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 fulfil. 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 M. Julien Tiersot shows :
” My favourite 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 tomb Stones. 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 itI 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 himStella montis, the inspiration of his childish love ; Estelle,’ 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 ! O Time ! Never-more ! 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 idealised ? 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 dreamseven those of friendship. . . . Of what use is it to form ties which, though they hold to-day, 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, worshipped, flattered, andif 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 Saviour.”
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 Mémoires 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-and, that is what they do daily in Parisis 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 genius I am not afraid to say itthan all the French musk of his century. I can understand people arguing about him in a country that produced Beethoven and Bach ; but with us in France, who 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 contractions 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 opposed 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 Danaïdes of Salieri. It came upon him like a thunderclap. He ran to the Conservatoire 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 Conservatoire. The following year, 1827, he composed Les Francs-Juges ; two years afterwards the Huit scènes de Faust, which was the nucleus of the future Damnation ;1 three years afterwards, the Symphonie fantastique (commenced in 1830).2 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 Lelio in 1829. Can one find elsewhere a more dazzling musical debut ? Compare that of Wagner who, at the same age, was shyly writing Les Fées, Défense d’aimer, and Rienzi. He wrote them at the same age, but ten years later ; for Les Fées appeared in 1833, when Berlioz had already written the Fantastique, the Huit scènes de Faust, Lelio, and Harold ; Rienzi was only played in 1842, after Benvenuto (1835), Le Requiem (1837), Roméo (1839), La Symphonie funèbre 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 Conservatoire ? At the time when he composed the Ouverture des Francs- Juges even the name of Weber was unknown to him, and of Beethoven’s compositions he had only heard 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’s 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 ana 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 (1850-4), or of Les Troyens (185563). 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 (1828) 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 only taken 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 à Troie, the last scene with Aeneas in Les Troyens d 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.. O he 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 nourish nient ; 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 everything 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 ! “