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…

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