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Battle over Berlioz

The Musical Language of Berlioz

by Julian Rushton
Cambridge University Press, 303 pp., $49.50

Perhaps the cruelest remark ever made about Berlioz came from Mendelssohn, who said that what was so Philistine about Berlioz was that “with all his efforts to go stark mad he never once succeeds.” Donald Francis Tovey, who quotes this in his essay on Berlioz’s Harold in Italy,1 comments that “from its own standpoint the criticism was neither unfriendly nor untrue.” (I feel sure that Berlioz would have found it unfriendly.) Mendelssohn, in fact, liked Berlioz personally. He considered the music “indifferent drivel, mere grunting, shouting and screaming back and forth,” but thought the composer himself a “friendly, quiet, meditative person” with an acute critical sense for everything except his own work, and he was depressed by the contrast.2

Mendelssohn wrote in 1831. Years of the kind of misunderstanding revealed in his comments must have eroded Berlioz’s friendly good nature. More than fifty years later Verdi wrote:

Berlioz was a poor, sick man who raged at everyone. He was greatly and subtly gifted. He had a real feeling for instrumentation, anticipated Wagner in many instrumental effects. (The Wagnerians won’t admit it, but it is true.) He had no moderation. He lacked the calm and what I may call the balance that produce complete works of art. He always went to extremes, even when he was doing admirable things.3

With all its recognition of Berlioz’s genius, this is disingenuous and ungracious, particularly in the way Verdi insists on Berlioz’s influence on Wagner without acknowledging his own debt, which was enormous, and not solely in the realm of instrumentation.4

Mendelssohn’s gibes show that Berlioz’s contemporaries were already aware how much of his romantic madness was only skin deep although he fought passionately for the cause of romanticism. He took up arms for Shakespeare, for Goethe’s Faust, Oriental exoticism, program music, the Swiss mountains with the lonely sound of shepherd’s pipes, the Gothic macabre, the projection of the ego in the work of art, as well as the artist as inspired lunatic—all the commonplace, intellectual bric-a-brac of the period, in fact. Berlioz’s eccentricities impressed almost everyone, as he hoped and expected, but it has taken more than a century to realize that it is not Berlioz’s oddity but his normalcy, his ordinariness that made him great.

In this he differed from a composer like Schumann, whose genius was tied to a profoundly eccentric sense of form and of polyphony. In spite of Schumann’s obstinate aspiration to aesthetic respectability through his symphonies, quartets, and sonatas, his short, fragmentary piano pieces and songs remain his most enduring achievement. Berlioz’s greatest work, most critics would now argue, is The Trojans, an opera on the most classical of all subjects and the most academic: Virgil’s Aeneid. Like Delacroix’s mural decorations for the National Assembly, Berlioz’s finest opera reconciles avant-grade technique with academic ideals. The Trojans is the musical equivalent of the grandes machines that the so-called pompiers displayed at the mid-century salons—a pretentious historical costume drama, life-size and imperturbably earnest. It is the only French grand opera since the works of Cherubini, Berlioz’s hated master, to be untouched by cheap melodrama and to attain the genuine seriousness of the high academic style.

In order to achieve this more conventional seriousness, Berlioz renounced some of his audacity. A comparison of the love music of the earlier Roméo et Juliette with the love duet in Act IV of The Trojans, “O nuit d’ivresse,” shows the later work, beautiful as it is, to be much closer to the music of Gounod (who did, indeed, admire this particular number). In The Musical Language of Berlioz, Julian Rushton writes:

Berlioz remarked of the love-duet in Act IV that the music “settled on this scene like a bird on ripe fruit,” yet it took him sixteen pages of sketches to get it right. If it seemed easy in retrospect it must have been because he enjoyed every moment of rigorous self-criticism.

Rushton is too kind. It is more probable that Berlioz was simply lying, as he often did about these matters. He wrote in his memoirs, for example, that he composed the fourth movement of the Fantastic Symphony in one night—and no doubt he did, as he merely copied it out from a work written a few years before, Les Francs-juges.

Criticism of Berlioz generally reveals a perfidy as insidious as the remarks of Mendelssohn. Debussy’s few allusions to Berlioz are typical in their ambiguity: “One can even say without irony that Berlioz was always the favorite musician of those who do not know much about music…. Professionals are still horrified at his harmonic liberties (they even would say his ‘clumsiness’) and the negligence of his form”;5 “Berlioz is an exception, a monster. He is not at all a musician; he gives the illusion of music with procedures borrowed from literature and painting.”6 It is possible but awkward to reconcile this with Debussy’s claim to venerate Berlioz, and his description of the Fantastic Symphony as “a feverish masterpiece of romantic ardor…, moving as a battle of the elements.”

These contradictions remain basic to the modern conception of Berlioz. There are, of course, the Berlioz idolaters, still in a minority, who hold passionately that he could do no wrong and that any other view is fed either by malice or a willful refusal to listen correctly. For other musicians, Berlioz remains a puzzling figure. The belief in the clumsiness of his harmony, the naiveté of his counterpoint, and the negligence of his forms has not been dissipated. Few contest his greatness: what is in question is his competence.

This is very odd: it is hard to see how Berlioz can be as great as we all believe him to be if he is as incompetent as so many think. Rushton deals with this problem head on. He may be counted as a Berlioz idolater, but a rational one; he does not dismiss the objections as simple misunderstandings, but attempts to account for them, while showing them to be fundamentally irrelevant by his analysis of Berlioz’s style. Along with the brilliant articles of 1971–1972 by Edward T. Cone in the regrettably short-lived Musical Newsletter, he has written the best and most persuasive justification of Berlioz’s work I have read.

The opposition to Berlioz in our time is a very powerful one and includes Boulez (“There are awkward harmonies in Berlioz that make one scream”) and Stravinsky (“Berlioz’s reputation as an orchestrator has always seemed highly suspect to me”). They do not deny his importance, but their objections are not simple to deal with. An easy answer, quoted by Rushton along with the above attacks, is provided by a letter of 1886 from Emmanuel Chabrier, the French composer most openly indebted to Berlioz:

Berlioz, a Frenchman above all (he wasn’t old-hat in his time) put variety, color, rhythm into La Damnation, Roméo, and L’Enfance du Christ—there isn’t any unity, people say—and I answer, Shit!

This is a possible approach to the Berlioz problem, and ultimately, I suppose, a practical one. It has the merit of recommending an immediate and workable course of action: the dismissal of all adverse criticism, and an enjoyment of the music for its evident merits, however these are to be defined.

The road taken by Rushton is a more arduous one: that of close, detailed technical analysis. It also can seem a more dubious road. In an otherwise favorable review of Rushton’s book, fellow idolater Hugh MacDonald writes pessimistically:

Thorough examination of every note in a score is inevitably the only way to study a work properly, but the conclusions are invariably the same as those with which one started out. Rushton digs endless pits for himself, with many tables extracting parametric readings (superbly printed) and the inevitable Schenkerian diagrams, but steps deftly across them by telling us what he knew all along, namely that Berlioz does not do what Bach or Mendelssohn would have done, though of course occasionally, indeed often, he does. The real intuitive processes in Berlioz’s mind remain remote, and presumably they always will if such comprehensive treatment as this does not uncover them.

The musical analyst can observe but he is impotent to explain or to judge.7

A telltale phrase here, “the inevitable Schenkerian diagrams,” betrays Mac-Donald: his conclusions will indeed invariably be the same as those with which he started out. MacDonald’s obscurantism, the belief that “the real intuitive processes in Berlioz’s mind remain remote, and presumably…always will,” arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of analysis—and by the suspect ontology of “the real [why real?] intuitive processes.” Insofar as Berlioz’s intuitive processes are embodied and expressed in the music, are active in the work, analysis will uncover them and make them less remote. All the finest Berlioz criticism, from Robert Schumann’s great essay on the Fantastic Symphony up to Cone and Rushton, has laid bare these forces before our eyes. Of course, if intuitive processes are essentially unknowable or “real,” that is, not a part of musical experience, analysis will not help us.

Analysis cannot, indeed, judge—although some analysts, including the greatest, like Schenker, feel that they have found a system of analysis which could do just this (a work that does not fit the system is automatically vicious). However, it provides the necessary material for judgment; by definition, it does not produce a synthesis. We might say that the proper synthesis of a “thorough examination of every note in a score” is either a performance or an act of listening. Like Alexis de Tocqueville before he set out to discover democracy in America, the analyst sets out knowing in advance what he wants to prove, and his analysis is determined by his thesis—but that does not mean that the thesis is not also transformed by his voyage, sometimes subtly, sometimes very radically indeed. This alteration in the initial thesis is the highest demand that one can make of analysis—not to make us change our minds by demonstration, but, by illumination, to change the nature and character of what we thought we knew.

Rushton is able to explode most of the critical commonplaces about Berlioz, while suggesting how they came into being. Berlioz’s alleged inability to write correct counterpoint is the easiest to dispose of. It is clear that, early in his career, he was a master of what is not after all a very difficult craft. Rushton perceptively observes that the strictness of the fugue in the last movement of the Fantastic Symphony is ironic: it must have appealed to the composer’s grim humor to portray a witches’ Sabbath by an absolutely correct academic fugue. Much of Berlioz’s polyphony, however, escapes from classical standards through his imaginative use of rhythm. His exploration of what he called intermittent sounds is an example. These are individual “sounds independent of the principal melody and of the accompanimental rhythm and separated from each other at expanding or contracting distances in proportions impossible to predict”—to quote Berlioz’s own description. (Rushton gives a beautiful example of this in the septet from The Trojans.) This technique of intermittent sounds not only cannot be subjected to laws of classical counterpoint, but is clearly developed against them. It also demands a basic classical texture on which the intermittent sounds are superimposed in order to realize their full effect. It is this double requirement of a classical system and an anticlassical subversion of it that makes it so hard to generalize about Berlioz’s achievement.

  1. 1

    Essays in Musical Analysis, vol. 4 (London, 1936), p. 75.

  2. 2

    Quoted by Edward T. Cone in his edition of the Fantastic Symphony (Norton, 1971), p. 282.

  3. 3

    Letter to Opprandino Arrivabene, June 5, 1882, quoted in Letters of Composers, edited by Norman and Shrifte (Grosset and Dunlap, 1946).

  4. 4

    One small example may show the nature of Verdi’s borrowings: the opening of the fugue in the “Libera me” of the “Manzoni” Requiem marks the entrance of each new voice with an interjected dominant-tonic cadence in a crashing fortissimo, and this device comes directly from the “Ronde du Sabbat” in the last movement of the Fantastic Symphony.

  5. 5

    Review in Gil Blas, May 8, 1903.

  6. 6

    Interview in La Revue bleue, April 2, 1904.

  7. 7

    Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1984, p. 187.

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