Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz; drawing by David Levine

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.

Now Pelléas is really an opera, or drame lyrique, as Debussy called it. It is a play recounted through music, not a language-play with incidental music. And the timing of that music is under the control of one musician, the conductor. Nevertheless, the music’s expressivity does move back and forth from the pit to the stage. And every time the orchestra, by pausing, hands this expressivity to the stage, it becomes necessary that the singers sing their words so urgently and move in a pantomime so convincing that the lack of an instrumental continuity is never felt.

That is why the work requires in its major role not just any singer, but a singing actress. And this leader of the team, whose presence must be felt always, even when she is absent, needs to be surrounded, as in chamber music, by cooperative soloists. The stage director, moreover, should guide them all toward creating a pantomime as tense as the musical score that describes it. Debussy himself, in a 1908 testimonial to the services rendered by Mary Garden in the 1902 première, remarked that the role of Mélisande had from the beginning seemed to him virtually impossible to project (“difficilement réalizable“) on account of all those “long silences that one false move can render meaningless.”

Mélisande, so eager to be loved but so skittish about being touched, is rarely shown in the opera as in contact with even her husband. When he is ill she gives him her hand for a moment, only to have him discover she has lost her wedding ring. Later he takes hold of her twice, once by the hair in a jealous fury, again to plead on her deathbed for some fact that might justify his jealousy. Only with Pelléas is she not averse to the laying on of hands; and when standing just below the tower window he winds her hair about him in an orgasmic ecstasy, she is probably, though no party to it, aware of what has happened. In any case, from that time on, a magnetic field of force moves them closer and closer till love is declared and the harsh castle gates, by locking them out, precipitate embrace.

The tension of animal magnetism is the basic drama of this opera, its tragedy, and in the long run its theme. For Mélisande, beneath her reticence, is a flame that consumes. That is why she is a star in the play and must be played by a star. The others resist destruction; she resists nothing but physical contact, a resistance that makes it in each case inevitable. And in the emergency that she has brought about, in every emergency indeed, even dying, she lies. She wants to be loved. She will do anything to be loved. Except tell the truth. Or show gratitude. Utterly self-centered and reckless, she wreaks havoc without thinking or recognizing. And the play of her unbridled libido against the fixities of a well-bred French family (Merovingian minor royalty) reveals character in each instance. It turns Golaud, her husband, repeatedly to violence. It lights the fires of passion in his half-brother Pelléas, a young man easily enough inflamed. It brings forward the essential indifference and all the sententiousness of Arkel, their grandfather (according to Pierre Boulez “Pelléas grown old”). The other two, Geneviève their mother and Golaud’s young son Yniold, horrified by all the violence unleashed, can only view any of it as disaster.

There is somewhere a theory that Mélisande is really Bluebeard’s eighth wife. This might explain her having brought along in her flight the golden crown which she has just dropped into a forest pool when Golaud discovers her, “C’est la couronne qu’il m’a donnée,” she explains. She has clearly been through a traumatic experience which has left her terrified of bodily contact. Whether it is the experience that has turned her psychopathic or whether she just grew up that way we shall never know. But dangerous she is for sure, behind that sweet façade; and never are we to divine what she thinks about. All we shall know are her refusals and her compulsions.

And never does Debussy’s orchestra give us her feelings. Her leitmotif is a shifty one, harmonically and rhythmically undecided. The others are all straightforward; and through them the play of passions, fears, joys, and resignations can be expressed. Though her physical presence is a powerful one, we are never allowed to view the story from her point of feeling; she seems to have none. She is the source of everyone else’s feelings and consequently of their actions. But she herself sits at the dead center of a storm; everything takes place around her, nothing inside her. Nothing, at least, that we can see or hear.

Now the Covent Garden production, for all its orchestral warmth and musical perfection, gave us little of the Maeterlinck play as I have described it and as Debussy set it into music. It is not that the singers did not work well; they did everything the conductor had asked of them in the coaching rehearsals. They even sang a highly reputable French, though for not a one of them was the language native. It was rather that the stage director, Vaclav Kaslik, did not seem to feel the same tensions in the play that Debussy did. His characters moved around the stage like items out of a libretto, who did not need to worry because the music would take care of everything. The fact remains, however, that it does not. There are spots in that opera, many of them, where the poetry is so heightened by a vocal line half sung, half spoken but yet on pitch, and the accompaniment so thinly washed in, or so absent, that only an acting line intensely controlled by a choreographic line naturalistically conceived (and concealed, as was the custom of its time) can sustain the spectacle at the level of its orchestral presence.

These excellent singers will no doubt be able in the recording just now completed to give more character and more conviction by “acting with the voice,” as they had done occasionally in the seated piano rehearsals. But publicly both stage and staging seem to have got in their way, and certainly some bulky costumes did. The set, a unit structure with changing backdrops and forestage elements added, was the work of Josef Svoboda, the costumes by the third member of a team from Czechoslovakia, Jan Skalicky. Among all these elements I found only the scenery helpful, and that I fancy Debussy might have approved, for its use in outdoor scenes of hanging gauze strips to produce different kinds of hazy weather and different times of day. Quite effectively and often charmingly did these strips, aided by shifting lights and heights and by the imaginative backdrops, produce the dank tarn, house of Usher atmosphere that we know to have been desired by both Maeterlinck and Debussy. The only scenery that squarely failed was that of the final bedchamber, which resists an open stage, since the high small window and shaft of sunlight required by the text, not to speak of Mélisande’s hushed fading away and tranquil death, virtually demand enclosure.

Unit sets, whether firmly constructed or assembled out of modules that get regrouped, are ever a disappointment for portraying the difference between indoors and outdoors. And there is nearby always one scene at least in which they fail entirely. The elements that are constantly being reassembled, moreover, are rarely of sufficient intrinsic beauty to permit being looked at for a whole evening. Their lack of visual novelty, by halfway through the show, becomes oppressive. The story advances and the music moves forward, while the scenery just plays a game. I sometimes think the unchanging set, whether built for the purpose or independently monumental like the steps of a library, injures a dramatic spectacle less than the most ingenious selection of movable elements. These can save time at scene-changes, though there are other ways of doing that; but nothing can make them suit all parts of a play equally, and nothing can relieve their aggravating monotony.

The Czechish team was the conductor’s choice, who had actually dreamed of Wieland Wagner to control the stage, though there is little precedent for a well-organized and well-organizing Eastern European mind effectively coming to grips with this seemingly unorganized and ever-so-French triumph of sensibility over organization. For Pelléas is not only unique as an opera (recitative throughout and a highly emotional, willfully formless accompaniment); it is also an anti-opera. It avoids all the devices that make Verdi and Wagner, Mozart and Monteverdi easy to listen to—sustained song, rhythmic patterns, structural harmony, orchestral emphases, solos, ensemble pieces, built-in climaxes.

Even its naturalistic vocal line is not always so natural regarding the words as one might think. Much of it is closer to psalmody than to speech. Then at times it actually does imitate speech, using small intervals only, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had recommended for French recitative. At others it employs, as Paul Landormy describes, an evocation of language such as we hear it silently inside ourselves—“a manner of speech quite strange,” he says, “but striking, and very hard for singers to achieve, tending as they do to stiffen the vocal line through an over-strict observance of note-values, instead of making it supple, as they should.”

I am afraid the Covent Garden cast, also chosen by Boulez and carefully prepared, sinned in exactly this respect. Being foreigners to French and with little residence in France to loosen their tongues, they gave us the written notes as exactly as any English horn or flute-player in the orchestra. They performed indeed as if they were a part of the orchestra rather than as real persons who might be the subjects of the orchestra’s comment. Except for the small boy singing Yniold, who really got into his role—the French of it, the music of it, the impersonation of fear—the stage artists in large part simply stood or moved without much meaning, while following in excellent voice the conductor’s beat.

I am also afraid that Pierre Boulez, like Toscanini before him, does not really enjoy accompanying star performers. He has chosen before—in the Paris Wozzeck of several years back—a cast of just-under-first-class singing actors, exactly as Toscanini was wont to do for his NBC broadcasts. And they have seemed in both cases a bit awed by the honor. Also thoroughly preoccupied with making no mistakes. His casting of the singing voice has long seemed to me less a loving one than that of an executive seeking a sensible secretary. He can love words, I know, especially those of Mallarmé, which have inspired him, and of René Char, whom he has so often set. But the sound of the singing voice, the personality of a singer acting out his role, seem rather to bring out the carefulness in him than to invite the incandescence of joint effort. This he achieves with the orchestra, and it could not be more ravishing to hear. But I do miss, as I so often did with Toscanini, a catering to the stage, a feeling that singing and the acting out of a role could be allowed to give us pleasure without our being held to a 100 percent concentration on him and his sacred instrumental score.

After all, singers are not oboes or horns. They are voices with personalities, and the opera is a musical exercise that cannot long exist without exploiting voices and personalities. Pelléas et Mélisande, in particular, is an opera, or drame lyrique, that depends for more than many another on an equality between pit and stage. An intimacy of musical with dramatic communication is its essence, its need, its sine qua non. It is the hardest opera in the world to perform satisfactorily, because it is the model, the dream that all opera since Gluck has sought to realize, an exact balance of music with dramatic poetry. And wherever this opera has approached equilibration, its needle of balance has become so quivery that many like Toscanini, like Boulez, have seemed to hope that a wholly disciplined rendering would dissolve that nervousness. Which it does, of course, but at the cost of radically unbalancing the spectacle and forcing it to depend not on the vibrancy and miracle of a poetry-and-music duet, as in the best lieder, but on a musical run-through controlled by one man.

And so in Boulez’s Pelléas we have no opera at all but rather the rehearsal of one, a concert in costume destined to end up as a recording. I will spare its excellent singers publication of their names in this connection. On disks they will surely make a better effect. There too a complete subjection to the musical score may seem more suitable than in an opera house. I am sorry about the Covent Garden production, musically so sumptuous, orchestrally so stunningly alive, stage-wise so casual in spite of pretty sets. Musical accuracy is of course always welcome, and far from universal. But for the rest of opera, I have never been convinced that Boulez had much liking for fine voices or for striking personalities. As for visual investitures, very few musicians have taste in that domain.

From Berlioz, with his perpetual frustrations, amorous and professional, by way of Mélisande, so timid, so tender, and so destructive, to the life of Edith Piaf may seem a far jump. And yet in London I made it. Somehow, just that far enough from France but not too far, these three sad stories became suddenly for me illustrative of the French tragic sense of life, with all the rigidity, the sweetness, and the violence that things French can have. For those who knew her living, the memories of her joviality and her wild intransigence have scarcely at all begun to fade; and for those who knew her only through her art the disks are there preserving that enormous voice and all that vast authority of singing-style.

And now there is a book called Piaf, by her half-sister Simone Berteaut, longtime confidante and beloved chum. This runs in large octavo to 459 pages of French. The French of a child who grew up without schooling, French of the streets, of the parigots, of Menilmontant the toughest neighborhood, the most picturesque language in the world. If only for its imaginative vocabulary the book is a gem. (By comparison Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro reads like the scherzo of a professional grammarian, which it is.) And the life of “La Môme Piaf” therein told with such impeccable compassion and high spirits is so grand, so moving, and so tragic that one is inclined to salute the volume as a great book. Certainly, for anyone who can mobilize an understanding of its dialect, it is great reading.

Born of a mediocre pop-style singer and a street-acrobat, Edith Gassion was passing the hat for papa at six and singing alone for pennies by nine. Meantime, during papa’s military service, she had been brought up quite nicely in a whorehouse, and by an operation cured of blindness. The name Edith had been given her at birth in 1915 because of the heroic English spy Edith Cavell, whom the Germans had just shot in Belgium. “Piaf,” which means sparrow, came with her first indoor singing engagement, along with its preface La Môme, or Babychild, since she was right off the streets and so tiny. After the murder of her boss had closed the nightclub, “La Môme Piaf” was abandoned for “Edith” as she fought her way back to jobs and to public favor. The recounting of all this and of her eventual worldwide fame, her primacy indeed, in that most demanding of musical genres, the French chanson, is the framework of the narrative, studded too with the listing of her chief lovers, who included the heavyweight champion Marcel Cerdan, of her chief pupils (Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour among many), and of her faithful friends (especially Marlene Dietrich and Jean Cocteau).

As a star she bought fur coats, dresses, and jewelry, lived in a fine house, gave costly presents. And yet she remained a slave to the slum ways of her childhood. She believed bathing dangerous to the health, drinking-water to be full of microbes, and alcohol (along with wine, of course) beneficial for preventing “worms.” During the later years of her life she became addicted to morphine. And she was constantly being broken up in car crashes. With all these disasters knocking her out, she constantly sang in public, constantly took on new lovers. She even married one of them, a Greek hairdresser, leaving him at her death 45 million francs of debt ($90,000), which he paid off. To a doctor who warned her late in 1960 not to fulfill an engagement at the Olympia with “Madame, to go out on a stage now would be suicide,” she answered, “I like that suicide. It’s my kind.”

And she did appear, stumbling, weaving about, screaming her songs, including a brand-new one, Les Blouses blanches, about madness, at the end of which she cried out triumphantly to her almost-not-breathing public, “I am not mad.” And after singing every night for something like fifteen weeks, she went on tour for six, finishing up in a hospital, as she so often did toward the end.

Between 1951 and 1963 her sister lists:

4 motor accidents

1 attempt to kill herself

4 morphine cures

1 drug-induced sleeping cure

3 comas from liver disease

1 attack of raving madness

2 of delirium tremens

7 operations

2 bronchial pneumonias and a pulmonary oedema.

In addition she had an inoperable cancer.

When she died in early October of 1963, on the same day as her good friend Jean Cocteau, who died preparing a broadcast in her praise, an ambulance brought her secretly from the South, where she had been resting, to her apartment in the boulevard Lannes. It seemed more suitable that she should be thought to have died in Paris, that she lie there in chapelle ardente for her friends, and that there be a proper Paris funeral. Actually no Mass was sung, the archbishopric having forbidden any service for one who had “lived publicly in a state of sin.” Some 40,000 fans, however, broke through the barriers at Père-Lachaise; and there was a detachment from the Foreign Legion in full uniform, with regimental flag unfurled, standing at attention for the prayers.

Like Mélisande, she had been ever destructive to herself and to others. One of her lovers died in an air crash hurrying to meet her on demand. Another crashed too, but not by fault of hers. The car crashes seem mostly to have been drenched in alcohol, as was her life in fact. Marcel Cerdan’s defeat in New York as world’s champion boxer was clearly a result of her insistence that he go places with her, stay up nights with her, and break training. She lived for love and art, consuming her lovers and creating artists—song-poets and composers as well as singers. She was relentless, ruthless, inexhaustible, courageous, and self-indulgent to the ultimate degree, without self-pity. If my pairing her with Hector Berlioz and with Debussy’s heroine may seem due to a merely fortuitous encounter of them in a foreign land, let us remember that Piaf’s art, that of the French chanson, is the one that most nearly parallels the higher musical endeavors, not only in style, power, and guts but also in the dedication of its masters.

In this respect Edith Piaf was no Mélisande at all, nor yet a creator like Berlioz or Debussy. But she was, in the intense discipline of her preparations and performances, a not unworthy colleague of Pierre Boulez. That discipline she could inculcate too in forming other artists; it was that logical and her mind was that clear, her musical ear, her sense of the stage, equally faultless. It is even possible that had she put her mind to it (and for twenty-five years she did read books, knew poetry) she might have arrived at a woman’s comprehension (though the role itself was surely not for her) of Mélisande. It takes a special kind of ruthlessness, like Piaf’s or Mary Garden’s, to see through another ruthless one, to respect her for not whimpering, and to avoid in consequence betraying her to men.

This Issue

January 29, 1970