Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism

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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.”

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Delius: On the Heights

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Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934)

Sir Thomas Beecham described the English-born, German-descended composer Frederick “Fritz” Delius (1862 – 1934) as the last great advocate of beauty in music.  About a decade ago, I contributed an article to the website of the International Delius Society entitled “On the Heights: Frederick Delius and the Secular Sublime.”  What I denominated “the secular sublime” holds this interest to Traditionalists” The “secular sublime” is a concession by materialists to the apologists for another world, the Platonic world of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  Delius, who thought of himself as a Nietzschean, and who set excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra in his musically magnificent Mass of Life (1906), nevertheless devoted his art to beauty, setting himself in contradiction with the implication of materialism, that beauty is an illusion. Delius lived in Florida in the 1880s, nominally managing an orange grove. He is the first serious composer to incorporate Negro tunes and harmonies into symphonic music — beating Gershwin to it by fifty years.

I link my article here.  My articles from more than fifteen years ago tend to embarrass me, but this one eschews the first person, is reliant on evidence throughout, and manages to be fairly well-written.  I reproduce below the first two paragraphs of the article followed by a number of Delius’s works in performances uploaded to (the loathsome but unavoidable) YouTube platform.

Others might have known the Bradford-born, Dutch- or German-descended composer Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) longer than did Eric Fenby, the old man’s amanuensis for the late flowering of his music in the last six years of his life, but none save his wife Jelka (née Rosen) knew him so plainly, or, as an artist, so intimately, not even old friends like Balfour Gardiner or Sir Thomas Beecham.  Fenby lived through most of the period 1928 – 34 in the Delius household at Grez, a village on the river Loing, some forty miles southeast of Paris.  While working out the daunting problem of how to take full-score musical dictation from a creative artist blind and paraplegic, he saw daily his idol in the idol’s unscreened candor.  Transparent to Fenby, who in his saintliness of dedication overlooked the rudeness habitual to the self-proclaimed disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delius remained largely opaque to himself, a supreme egotist, and now and again an insufferable bigot in the prejudice and tenacity of his views.  To read Fenby’s beautiful, tactful first-person account of his residency chez Delius, written and published soon after the master’s death, is to confront in particularly high relief the paradox that a great artist need not be a great man.  When one speaks of greatness in a man, one usually means magnanimity or largeness of soul.  Fenby has magnanimity – a capaciousness of spirit that opens itself to other spirits – but Delius rarely if ever reveals this quality, as a person.  He occasionally reveals it, as an artist, but his receptivity to others remains confined, even in his art, to a narrow range of types close to his own.  Indeed, Delius appears detached from other human beings generally, rather like an Ibsen protagonist or the central figure of a Knut Hamsun novel.  Consider the man’s relation to his wife.

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The World is Waiting for the Sunrise

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise (1918) by Lockhart and Seitz has been covered on disc, according to the Wikipedia, more than one hundred times – by Mary Ford and Les Paul, The Chris Barber Band (in New Orleans style), and Bing Crosby (in his characterless “crooning” style), among many others.  The lyrics express the post-War-to-End-Wars hope that the Allies had established a permanent peace and that the League of Nations would usher in a golden age of prosperity and security. My favorite version of Waiting for the Sunrise is the one made by radio comedian Stan Freberg from the early 1950s.  I post it (above) because Freberg’s satiric take, in the aftermath that other war, and in the early phase of the Cold War, addresses itself to a manic world coming apart at the seams. It therefore, like many things from the past, whether remote or recent, speaks to the insanity of the present moment.  Enjoy.

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The Music of E. J. Moeran

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E. J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) circa 1940

The opening bars of Ernest John Moeran’s Symphony in  G-Minor (completed in 1937) etched themselves in my memory when I first heard them in the early 1970s in Neville Dilke’s 1970 EMI recording with the English Sinfonia – and they have haunted me ever since.  Over a four-four ostinato based in the horns, the violins play a sweeping, folksong-like melody with a character both heroic and tragic; it is a melody strongly vocal in its outline, but full of developmental implication, which the composer ingeniously exploits.  According to Geoffrey Self’s 1986 study of Moeran (1894 – 1950), work on the Symphony began as early as 1924, but its author it aside for a decade before resuming it.  Moeran worked initially on what would become the Symphony’s slow movement, deriving his motifs, as Self informs his readers, from a traditional Norfolk melody, The Shooting of his Dear, which he had arranged previously for chorus.  Self argues that The Shooting of his Dear appealed to Moeran more due to the pathos of its lyrics than to its inherent melodiousness.  The song tells the story of a young fowler who accidentally kills his beloved while out hunting and how her ghost appears at his trial to plead clemency.  The murder of the innocent, as Self sees it, figured centrally in Moeran’s conscience, as he had served in the British Army in the Great War, in which he had been severely wounded.  Moeran’s symphony thus began with the folksong, on the basis of which the slow movement builds an elegiac fantasia; and when Moeran took up the score again a nucleus of motifs derived from the same Norfolk tune informed the thematic material of the other movements, including the sweeping theme at the commencement of the first movement’s Allegro.  In Self’s analysis, the Symphony in G-Minor constitutes itself as a subtly and ingeniously worked out musical unity, as complex in its construction as any other major musical work of the mid-Twentieth Century.

No doubt but the derivation of the score’s thematic material from a few basic melodic cells conveys itself unconsciously to the lay listener.  The main laical reaction to Moeran’s score, however, consists in feeling oneself overwhelmed by the work’s lyrical richness and its constant implication of carrying forward a musical narrative endowed with a powerful meaning.  Self points out that the Symphony in G-Minor partakes in complexity and meaning in another way – through its pattern of allusions to other symphonic scores.  He names Jean Sibelius, and in particular his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies as generating echoes in Moeran’s partitur; and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Sir Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony and his tone-poem Falstaff.  Self poses a rhetorical question: “What if [Moeran’s] music were to work by using our knowledge of other, specific works, and ones which are accepted loci classici for particular emotional gestures?”  Self believes that Moeran often consciously made musical allusions so that musically astute listeners “would take account not only of the Moeran passage, but also of its model.”  In this way “the total listening experience would be compounded of Moeran heard in light of the model – on occasion, indeed, the Moeran [passage] might make ironic comment on the model.”  Elsewhere in his book, Self gives evidence that Moeran extended this practice to the large-scale works that succeeded the Symphony, and in so doing aligned himself with the mid-century convention of literary allusion, as in the novels of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence or the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

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Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka

Hugo Alfvén (1872 – 1960) jumpstarted the genuinely Swedish school of concert music in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and sustained his effort during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Following the example of the Russian composers, the ones denominated as “The Mighty Five,” Alfvén assimilated the heady tradition of Swedish folk music to the conventions of symphonic music. Alfvén wrote three “Swedish Rhapsodies.” The first, from 1908, celebrates the vestigially Catholic and vestigially Pagan festival of “May Eve.” The composition imitates Swedish folk-tunes, but all of the thematic material in Midsommarvaka is original to Alfvén. The composition falls on the ear as spontaneous and “natural,” but the score is brilliantly unified. Midsommarvaka is, in effect, a short symphony, in four movements, on Swedish themes. I have loved it since I first heard it in the early 1970s and I am happy to share it with the community of the Orthosphere.

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Actual Identity

The performances of the Russian, St.-Petersburg based, musical group Otava Yo, whose self-explanation is accessible here, much impress me. We live in an age where actual identity, that of the living person, finds itself in opposition to identity politics, which obliterates the living person for the sake of a wicked abstraction. Otava roots itself in the soulful tradition of Russian and (I believe) Ukrainian folksong. The old Cossack ditty, Oy Dusiya, Oy Marusiya, in lezhginka rhythm, taps into the richness of an authentic ethnic tradition. The moment in the video when the young woman sees herself in the mirror in traditional costume is particularly moving. Whoever directed the video directed it well. From the folk-costumes to the reference, through several historical layers of recorded music, to the lore of song, and to the fashioning of folk-instruments, the visuals tell a story of the debt to ancestry. Those who repudiate tradition condemn themselves to a shallow plagiarism of the prevailing correct opinion, while those who embrace the patrimony find themselves endowed with originality and creativity. Otava Yo’s women fetch me especially. They seem unembarrassed in being beautiful, which they are extraordinarily – and they pay tribute to feminine beauty in a powerful way, not least in their ritual hauteur. If anyone could explain the samovar subplot, I would welcome enlightenment.

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What Every Little Girl Dreams of These Days

On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?

Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!

Sunday’s Symposium

Richard Fader Lazar

Left to Right: Richard Cocks (philosopher and writer); Richard Fader (ex-city worker and philosopher); Lazar Sokolovski (Russian expatriate resident of Oswego; poet and philosopher). The scene is Old City Hall (cornerstone laid 1832; building completed in 1836) in Oswego, on Water Street. Old City Hall is the cultural heart of Oswego, which was in the Eighteenth Century America’s first frontier. The City of Oswego perches itself on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Oswego River.  I tell my visitors, if your feet are wet, you have gone too far to the north!

The Occasion: The usual Sunday-afternoon symposium at Old City Hall; and I am learning to use my new digital camera. Topics of conversation: Nicolas Berdyaev (Russian philosopher); Vassily Kallinikov (Russian composer); Dmitri Shostakovich (Russian composer); Boris Pasternak (Russian novelist); James Fennimore Cooper (American historian and novelist); Edgar Allan Poe (American poet and philosopher); Konstantin Balmont (Russian translator of Poe).

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