Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism


Hector Berlioz Later in Life

My essay on the composer Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869), entitled Musical High Romanticism in an Age of Technical and Ideological Correctness, appeared at the Berlioz Website back in 2007. Berlioz, perhaps best known for his Symphonie fantastique (1830), rather eccentrically took inspiration from English and German sources. He adored Shakespeare, writing a “Dramatic Symphony” (1839) on Romeo and Juliet and an opera (1869) on Much Ado about Nothing. Goethe was as important to him as the English bard. He composed his “dramatic cantata” La damnation de Faust (1845) to a French translation of Goethe’s masterpiece. Berlioz considered his grand opera in two parts, Les Troyens (completed in 1858), to be the summit of his achievement. A lifelong worshiper of Virgil’s Aeneid, he wrote his own libretto, which recasts the epic story as Shakespearean dialogue. It is a remarkable moment in musico-dramatic art. I reproduce the first two paragraphs of the essay below, followed by some music-videos of Berlioz’s compositions in performance. —

Before he became a Teutonic enormity and an artistic prophet, before he had made his own mark in the world of music and well before he had conceived his monumental Ring of the Nibelung, while writing during his Paris sojourn of the early 1840s, a sharp-witted Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) declared keenly of the Gallic composer Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) that he stood out against the prevailing un-musicality of the French capital both as a phenomenon and a paradox. “Berlioz is no incidental composer,” Wagner writes in a dispatch for the Dresden Abendzeitung; “he is in no way related to and has nothing whatever to do with the pompous and exclusive art institutions of Paris: the Opéra as well as the Conservatory hurried to close their doors at the very first sight of him.” As for Berlioz’s not being “incidental,” this means for Wagner that he boasts no organic relation to metropolitan musical life but constitutes rather something sui generis within it – “within it,” one might say, spatially or phenomenally while yet existing spiritually apart from and artistically entirely beyond it. Wagner hesitates to call Berlioz either a Parisian or even a Frenchman; he seems so antithetical to his scene: “Berlioz was forced to become and to remain an absolute exception to long-established rules, and such he is and always will be, both inwardly and outwardly… You will hear Berlioz’s compositions only at the concerts which he himself gives once or twice a year.” Wagner notes that “nowhere else will you hear anything by Berlioz, except perhaps in the streets or in the cathedral, where he is summoned from time to time to take part in some politico-musical state occasion.” Not even government acknowledgment, whether Republican or Imperial, served however to guarantee critical respect; official notice could indeed exacerbate critical hostility. The Conservatory professor F-J Fétis wrote meanly of Berlioz in 1837: “His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizarre assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit this name.” In Fétis’ snide opinion, “What Monsieur Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I customarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.”

What Wagner calls the “rules,” which Berlioz fought to dissolve lest they dissolve him, were those strictures associated with the operatic activity of the Italian-born composers who supplied the steady fare beloved and patronized by concert-going bourgeois custom in the City on the Seine. The names of Gasparo Spontini (1774 – 1851) or Luigi Cherubini (1760 – 1842) emerge nowadays only in musicological investigation, but in 1840, along with Daniel-François Auber (1782 – 1871), they dominated the lyric stage; and opera as a genre dominated Parisian musical life to the virtual exclusion of instrumental and orchestral concerts, notwithstanding a few visits in the 1780s and 90s by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Music historian Martin Cooper in effect seconds Wagner’s characterization of Berlioz as a creative sport, hard to apprehend directly but describable by reference to that from which he so radically differs, by placing him hors de continuité in the chronicle of the Gallic muse. Cooper begins his classic account (1951) of French music with Berlioz’s death, just before the Franco-Prussian War, and carries it forward to Gabriel Fauré’s demise some fifty-seven years later. In Cooper’s thinking, first comes Berlioz and only then comes something identifiable as “French Music”; the latter, “French Music,” is unthinkable without the former, Berlioz, who gradually eclipsed the Italians and opened a space for native talent, but the former may not be conflated with the latter, for it absorbed no influence from the master, who indeed offered it none. Cooper judges that: “Berlioz was fortunate to die without witnessing the miseries of the Prussian War and the Commune… The complete failure of [his opera] Les Troyens had finished him; he could struggle no longer against indifference and misunderstanding.”  Cooper contrasts Berlioz’s philosophic attitude, a kind of Stoicism, with “the deliberate frivolity of the Second Empire, the shameless place-seeking and corruption of Napoleon III’s régime”; he links Berlioz with the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), as an instance of “the serious artist” who “turned his back on public life in a gesture natural to those who inhabit and cultivate exclusive, ‘private’ universes.”

One thought on “Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism

  1. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 08/04/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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