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.…

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