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Dispatches from the New Era

The Art of Music and Other Essays (A Travers Chants)

by Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay
Indiana University Press, 274 pp., $29.95

Ever quick with a pun (“Veni, vidi, Vichy,” he wrote triumphantly of taking the waters), Berlioz gave his last collection of essays a trick title that serves to remind us how thoroughly Art and Nature (chants/champs) mingled in his thoughts. But for the most part A Travers Chants abandons wordplay and the satire of which its author was so fond to concentrate on the repertory that had taught him how to compose to begin with, and that went on to sustain his muse for a lifetime: the great works of Gluck, Beethoven, and Weber.

Music journalism in the nineteenth century—by several measures the golden age of newspapers and weekly reviews—offered composers an opportunity to earn money and make their views known, and those gifted with a degree of literary skill found their services much in demand. Spohr and Weber were both good writers; in Leipzig Robert Schumann established the powerful Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, filling its pages with the lively musings of his various alter egos and welcoming in due course Chopin and Berlioz and Brahms to his imaginary Davidsbund of progressive artists posed against the philistines of music. Liszt and his female admirers composed hundreds of pages of prose, including a five-installment study of Berlioz’s second symphony, Harold en Italie. Wagner bored his friends and posterity alike with his published polemics, most of them to one degree or another naughty. Patrons of the newsstand constituted enough of a market to sustain several dozen music critics in Paris alone.

To Berlioz the papers offered a welcome source of income, money that often made the difference between a pitiful level of subsistence and something approaching bourgeois comfort. His salaried position as librarian of the Conservatoire was mostly honorific, providing only a small monthly annuity. It was a matter of luck if his concerts broke even; receipts from his hundred or so performances abroad barely met the expense of transporting himself and his trunks of music across Europe. His scores earned him little enough, from a few dozen to a few hundred francs for one-time sale to the publisher. (Shortly after the appearance of A Travers Chants, Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece Les Troyens sold for 12,500 francs—a princely sum, the equivalent of a year’s salary; but a full score and the corresponding orchestral parts were never published, leaving successive generations without a decent musical text, the very outcome he feared most of all.)

His weekly reviews paid for the groceries. And for all his petulance over how his newspaper work stole from him the time to create work of more lasting value, his tripartite career as composer, conductor, and journalist proved an altogether practical solution to the question of how a citizen composer of the new era might sustain daily life.

Berlioz, whose mind Rouget de Lisle thought “a volcano in perpetual eruption,” was seldom short of words, and as early as 1823, at the age of twenty, he was volunteering his way into the profession with acerbic letters to the editor of a small Paris paper called Le Corsaire. These established his lifelong critical demands that performers should be absolutely faithful to the composer’s score and that composers should have the purest motivations in practicing their craft. From the start he was quick to ridicule musicians and the public whenever he suspected a trivializing of the quest for beauty or any of the other behaviors he would later come to call “les grotesques de la musique.”

Why do singers shriek at the Opéra?” he asks in his first published letter. (Then he provides a remarkably astute answer: “Because the tuning pitch there is a tone higher than it ought to be.” Like virtually every other insight of those formative years, this one became a cause to be pursued, and in 1859 it was Berlioz who did the research and published the manifestoes that led to the establishment of a universal pitch standard, A=435.) The work of dilettantes—Schumann’s philistines—drew the full measure of his wrath: the roulades Mme. Sontag added to a Mozart aria, for example, or Castil-Blaze’s rewriting of Der Freischütz as Robin des Bois. The bêetises he overheard in the foyer of the Opéra or in the rue Bergère outside the Conservatoire—“Ah! Gluck: he never wrote music, only plainchant”—typically found their way into his next essay.

Already in the earliest pieces Berlioz elevates Gluck, Spontini, Weber, and Mozart to his musical Olympus. “All the Rossini operas taken together,” he writes in Le Corsaire, “fail to compare with a single line of Gluck recitative, with three measures of a Mozart aria.” Gluck’s lyric tragedies, such as Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), were his models for clarity of dramatic expression and sobriety of means, for stylishly contoured melody and for orchestrational device of the proper hue; ultimately they inspired the last of the true tragedies-lyriques, his own opera Les Troyens. In the late 1820s he begins to exalt Beethoven, following the Paris premieres of the symphonies and Berlioz’s own page-by-page score study in the Conservatory library.

Discovering Beethoven in 1828–1829 showed him his compositional path to the Fantastique, largely by suggesting ways (unknown so far in the French repertoire) that the materials of symphonic discourse could be harnessed to narrative or descriptive effect, as is the case in all the Berlioz symphonies. His 1838 cycle of articles on Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre is arguably the first great critical treatment of that corpus in any language—and in A Travers Chants it is reprinted in full. To read it at a stretch is to be reminded again how thoroughly Berlioz’s conceptual world was shaped by Beethoven; it is often as though each new sentence speaks at once of the Beethovenian subject matter at hand and its eventual reflection in his own music.

Before the concerts of the Conservatory Orchestra, amateurs and savants alike had faltered over Beethoven, and this time Berlioz had a hand in winning them over. The Ninth Symphony was found by one critic, Berlioz tells us, to be “not altogether devoid of ideas, but they are so badly organized that the general effect is incoherent and lacking in charm.” And if Berlioz himself was sometimes perplexed by what he heard, the puzzlement would merely send him back to the scores to seek his own explanations: there was little precedent analysis for him to read, and in Paris no journalist any better informed than he.

Though the terminology at his disposal was barely sufficient to account for the advanced music of Beethoven, Berlioz set about explaining his innovations through a combination of technical analysis and emotive response. Attempting to explain the wonder of the famous transition from scherzo to finale in the Fifth, he writes:

The strings gently bow the chord of A-flat and seem to fall into slumber while holding it. The timpani alone keep the rhythm alive by light strokes from spongecovered sticks, a faint pulse beating against the immobility of the rest of the orchestra. The notes the timpani play are all Cs, and the key of the movement is C minor; but the A-flat chord, held for a long time by the other instruments, seems to introduce another key, while at the same time the lone throbbing of the timpani on C tends to maintain the feeling of the original key. The ear hesitates, it cannot tell where this harmonic mystery is going to end.

True enough, and probably accessible to a certain number of his readers. But it was the overt Romanticism of Beethoven that summoned his best writing: “the shreds of the lugubrious melody, alone, naked, broken, crushed” at the end of the Eroica funeral march, the wind instruments “shouting a cry, a last farewell of the warriors to their companion at arms”; the “magnificent horror” of the storm in the Sixth; the “rainbow of melody” and “profound sigh” in the celebrated Allegretto of the Seventh. Berlioz describes the Allegretto scherzando of the Eighth Symphony as “gentle, innocent, and gracefully indolent, like a tune two children sing while gathering flowers in a meadow on a fine spring morning,” and it is no coincidence that he models on this very idea the Villanelle from Les Nuits d’été, where the image is of young lovers gathering wild strawberries in spring. The Romantic and post-Romantic orchestral repertoire is of course rife with such references to the Beethoven symphonies, but in Berlioz’s case the affinities are exquisitely close: between the Eroica march and the gripping Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet, or with the thematic reminiscences in the finale of Harold en Italie so obviously modeled on the Ninth, or the choral finale of Roméo at Juliette—just to begin a long catalog.

Well read in poetry and well schooled in clinical diagnosis, he was quick to spot the particular details that would forever fix his point in the reader’s memory. Both Cherubini and the conductor Habeneck are remembered today largely from Berlioz’s vignettes: the one as arch-bureaucrat and imperfect francophone, wobbling on his cane as he crossed the Conservatoire courtyard, the other for a pinch of snuff said to have compromised the first performance of Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts in 1837. Not a word written in 1837, by Berlioz or anybody else, suggests Habeneck was incompetent as a conductor or on a snuff high. The Berlioz account doubtless amounts to a conflation of incidents that took place over the course of a decade or more. But it’s a good story, and the snuffbox went on to become Habeneck’s attribute just as surely as the ear trumpet is Beethoven’s.

For raconteurs like Berlioz, the bon mot is often, after all, the point of journalism. Posterity has for all intents and purposes forgotten Carafa’s La Grande Duchesse (1835), but devotees of opera lore still merrily quote Berlioz’s review: “Madame se meurt! Madame est morte!!

His satire was relentless, and however noble its intent it inevitably turned the establishment against Berlioz’s music. He in turn increasingly took his music elsewhere, abandoning Paris to its pettiness:

We continue in Paris to make such [trivial] music—we have become so prodigiously Spice Merchant, so National Guard, so Deputy, so ill-bred, so stingy, so greedy—that during my absence I will rest easy on the question of being homesick. From that I shall not die.

But he would always come home. Paris was, he discovered, “an electric city which attracts and repels in alternation, but to which one must definitively return when in its grasp, and especially when one is French.”

Berlioz’s feuilletons appeared in the Revue et Gazette musicale, a weekly periodical offered by Maurice Schlesinger’s music publishing house and devoted largely to historical essays and concert reviews, seasoned with a good deal of gossip about the musical personalities of the day; and in the Journal des Débats, the influential daily newspaper owned and run by the Bertin family. At the R&GM, Berlioz quickly became a senior figure, called to serve as acting editor when Schlesinger went to attend to his Berlin office. At the Débats Berlioz’s stature (and that accorded to arts criticism in general) is indicated by the placement of his biweekly column at the foot of the front page. Berlioz and his gifted contemporary Jules Janin made the Débats the organ of some of the era’s most powerful and persuasive criticism.

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