The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz
Berlioz and the Romantic Century
Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination
Pelléas et Mélisande
The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, in a new translation by David Cairns, I had got involved with as a book for possible review. Good reading it was too, all about music in Romantic times, written by a man who could really write and who was also a real composer. Nothing phony there, no self-deception, no bluffing, no self-pity, just the tale of a French musician who was successful in England, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia—everywhere but in France. Invited everywhere to remain, also to visit the United States for a very large fee, he could not keep away from Paris very long, where the cabals, intrigues, and dirty deals (in all of which he knew exactly who his enemy was and why and usually said so) gave to his career the aspect of an intermittent volcano as dangerous to the establishment as only a clear mind with a sharp tongue can be.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the hindrances, his career grew, his works got written, performed (most of them) and even published, he became a member of the Institute, he received important commissions. It may have been the sparks and rosy glow sent up by his local explosions which brought those invitations from afar. But all the same, honors received, return visits ever more profitable, were not merely the benefits of celebrity. There were solid musical satisfactions too, due to the superior musical facilities available in Germany, in Austria, in England, and even in Russia—the competent players, the good halls, the musically educated listeners, the warmth and generosity of foreign colleagues. And all these availabilities seem to have been the direct result (or so Berlioz believed) of, in England, managerial monopoly, elsewhere of absolute monarchy, as a circumstance favorable to art.
His inability to speak well or to write a letter in any language other than his own may also have been a help on tour since nowhere could he provoke the quarrels, take the liberties, indulge the ironies that his fatal facility with French and his experience as a journalist rendered so tempting to him on home ground.
The picture of Paris between 1821, when young Hector (from near Grenoble) arrived at eighteen to study medicine, and 1869, when he died there, is highly detailed in Jacques Barzun’s two-volume biography Berlioz and the Romantic Century, originally published in 1950, now out in a new edition. And a quarterly “international review” called Adam (anagram for Arts, Drama, Architecture, Music) published simultaneously in London and at the University of Rochester, New York, devotes a sizable issue (Nos. 331-333) to making a duet out of Berlioz and Baudelaire, stormy petrels both.
Particularly charming among the publications celebrating the centenary of Berlioz’s death is the catalog of a show entitled Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination, which took place from October 17 to December 14 in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here some 419 items are listed, almost a third of them reproduced—letters, documents, musical manuscripts, photographs, drawings, engravings, and paintings of all sizes from the miniature up to very large ones by Delacroix, Ingres, Turner, and many more. There was music by Berlioz discreetly audible in the rooms, and a miniature theater where one could gaze down as from a dark top gallery to a lighted stage whereon a tiny photograph of Harriet Smithson (whom Berlioz both loved and married unsuccessfully) seemed to be heard reading the speeches of Ophelia.
The Paris Opera, we read, has revived (to generally unfavorable opinion) Berlioz’s five-hour opera The Trojans (on his own poem, after Virgil); but Covent Garden had got ahead of Paris by giving this work (complete for the first time ever) in 1967. The English press has been dithyrambic in the matter, though whether because of the work itself, which is not only long but theatrically static, or because of Colin Davis (England’s newest good conductor, heard last session at the Metropolitan in Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes) I cannot testify.
I have heard cut versions of The Trojans several times, first in Paris, 1921, most recently in Los Angeles last year. It has always struck me as being full of remarkable music, almost none of which I recognize. There must be a great deal of variety in the degree to which different conductors infuse it with animation. For animation, save in certain spots like the Storm and Royal Hunt, and the military march to which Dido mounts her funeral pyre, is not built into the work, though the music is often busy.
That busy-ness is special to Berlioz. In Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Verdi, the florid writers in general, when the vocal parts are active the accompaniment is not. In Wagner the orchestra tends generally to be very active indeed against a vocal line moving only by long notes, a most effective contrast. In The Trojans vocal and orchestral activity seem to run parallel, producing no contrast at all, whether there are lots of notes on stage and in the pit or whether the animation drops out of both, leaving us with a slow solo and a virtually motionless accompaniment.
An alternation of static pictures and oratorio-like choruses with numbers that run like a house afire is characteristic of Berlioz. The Ball Scene and the “Queen Mab” scherzo from Romeo and Juliet, the Rakoczy March and “Song of the Flea” from The Damnation of Faust are famous examples of the latter. The static first three movements of the Symphonie Fantastique, followed by the fiery last two, exemplify the jerky pacing that permeates this composer’s work. The result is, for all his music’s high originality and much grandeur in the literary content, a certain embarrassment whenever the stage is evoked. I have not heard the operas Benvenuto Cellini or Beatrice and Benedict, but I tend to view The Trojans as less an opera than an oratorio about an opera.
Certainly this composer’s dramatic works have over a century and more rebuffed the best intentions of producers and conductors, whereas his concert music and certain excerpts from his stage works, if presented in concert form, have long proved rewarding to both performers and public. The truth is, I think, that while the Berlioz music, like Beethoven’s, is full of an abstract “drama,” as his life and emotions seem also constantly “theatrical,” he did not really possess, any more than Beethoven did, the stage sense. Only in the concert forms, the closed ones, did his highest powers come to life.
Accounts of Berlioz can be a delight, even though a good part of that pleasure comes from the picture of Romantic times that goes along with the account. He himself, though artists’ portraits and eye-witness stories are numerous, his life and career documented almost to a fault, remains largely unknowable beneath all the detail. He tells you about his music, his family affections, his passions, his finances; but the why of them all is slippery. And the same is true of his aesthetics and his professional attitudes. Nothing leads to anything else; the violent intentions are never carried out; the passions are never assuaged; the lonesomeness is never relieved. His life and art do not lead parallel courses; how could they, being each so jumpy? For a man of his brains, breeding, gifts, and positive genius to have failed so signally at projecting a clear image of himself, either as a private man or as a public figure, has left posterity with plenty of anecdotes and lots of quite wonderful music, but little human reality to remember, as with Beethoven or with Wagner, or as with Mozart and Schubert, to love.
His statue, meditating, is in the small Paris square named Vintimille, near which he lived. Max Jacob used to tell a story that illustrates his way of appearing to be always present and yet not quite. It seems that in his later years he used to come there after lunch and meditate. And two music students would come there too, for watching the great man meditate. Then on the day when they had read in the paper of his death, they said, “Let us go just the same and pay our respects to the place.” So they did. And the man they had watched so lovingly for so long was seated there and meditating, just as before.
After all the exasperations and delights of dealing with Berlioz, it was a pleasure to move from the V. and A. over to Covent Garden, where Pierre Boulez was conducting Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Here is a work all vaporous, if you like, but nowhere presenting the aesthetic obscurities of Berlioz and at no point refusing itself the stage.
For the record, let us set down that the orchestral reading was of a perfection previously not encountered by this reporter, who has heard virtually all of them, including that of André Messager, its first conductor. The textures were everywhere transparent but never misty, the emotions frank, warm, and never dissociated from the stage. It is the special quality of this work that though the orchestra comments constantly, and even individual instruments comment on the progress of the play, the pit never becomes a Greek chorus speaking for the author; it remains an extension of the stage. And in scenes of conflict it speaks for the stronger character, for him who dominates. Even the interludes, added originally for filling up time during set-changes but preserved nowadays for their intrinsic beauty, are extensions of the drama. They are not scenery, not warning of events to come, but quite simply the way some character, the one we are following at that instant, feels.
The composer has in fact so completely identified himself from moment to moment with his characters’ sensibilities that he has largely omitted, save possibly in the death scene, any structuring of the music that might support the dramatic structure. Heard in concert the work has continuity but little shape; and even its continuity is constantly broken into by stage emotions so intense that the singers are likely to be left suddenly all alone with the words, unaccompanied. They are alone with the play too, for at all those moments when the orchestra seems to hesitate, the dramatic line, the impetus, is largely a responsibility of the stage.
It is this particular relation between stage and pit that makes Pelléas unique. Every other opera in the world, even those with spoken dialogue, is carried forward by musical forms. In classical opera these forms are arranged, in spite of their individual ABA and similar lay-outs, to move forward as expression, like a cycle of songs. Since Wagner, each act or scene has tended to be an open-ended musical form thematically inspired by the dramatic action but controlled by musico-emotional timings. Even the series of concert forms—sonata, variation, and the like—that underpins Berg’s Wozzeck, in the end adds up to an open form governed by the needs of expression; and for a certainty that expression is paced at a musical rate of audience absorption rather than at a verbal one, as in a play, or at a visual one, as in a film.