Until the advent of the long-playing record, almost all of the music of Hector Berlioz was, for most Americans, a silent enigma, available only to those who could read a score and really hear it. Otherwise reasonable critics wrote of his “half-crazy ideas.” Some argued that he achieved his effects, both good and bad, “by accident.” Grove’s bemoaned his lapses into bad taste and deplored his emphasis on “emphasis” rather than “beauty”—mystified by the intensity that marks his work. Such “advanced” musicologists as Paul Henry Lang, ex cathedra from Columbia University, blamed Berlioz for being both too tied to past practices and reaching too far forward into the future. And two composers who owed much to Berlioz, Debussy and Stravinsky, dismissed him as a “musical monster” and a “romantic orgiast.”
I do not hold music critics in the same easy contempt that was George Bernard Shaw’s stock-in-trade. But I have found it shocking that they should allow non-musical considerations to lead them astray. Much of Berlioz’s reputation derived from his stormy role in French “musical politics and his battles with the corrupt establishment, and his reputation was tied to the famous Doré caricature—flying wild hair and coattails. Those who wanted to listen to what Berlioz created, rather than to what the critics said of him, had little more to go by than a few recorded excerpts from the Damnation of Faust, and the concert halls were not much more generous. Today, Schwann’s catalogue lists columns of recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy, the Requiem, Romeo et Juliette, the Enfance du Christ, and others of his works. Yet some critics still write of his “flawed” passages and miss the logic of his musical thinking.
But they are confronted by the music itself—a confrontation not possible when his music could not be heard—and by the respect of those who play it. They must also take into account Jacques Barzun’s brilliant and insightful two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century and the composer’s own Memoirs, which are reasonably available. From the soul shaking fortissimi of his Tuba Mirum to the violins in sordino, it is there. And for those of us who return again and again, Berlioz grows with each playing, as new inner voices, new intricacies, and new insights reveal themselves.
For some, of course, Berlioz is forever damned by the label of “romantic”—presumably the voice and, in some ways, the progenitor of an oft-misunderstood period in which the arts moved away from “classicism” and proclaimed a new and increased sensibility. It was not really new, of course, since romanticism was a refocusing of elements which, as Jacques Barzun has noted, were not alien to Euripides. How true that is can be seen in any analysis of the Berlioz oeuvre, which involves and incorporates the voices and the structure of all schools, going back to plainchant. Even the leitmotif, advertised as a distinguishing mark of romanticism, has an ancient derivation. And can we forget Berlioz’s love affair with Shakespeare, or that he once attended eight consecutive performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni?
To wrap Berlioz in the cliche of impetuous artist, rapturously dashing off scores between breakfast and lunch, ignores that his Grande traite on instrumentation and orchestration is one of the most important contributions of his century to symphonic art, that he refined his scores painstakingly, and that as a conductor—and he was a fine one—he insisted on thorough fidelity to the composer’s intent. His censure of Wagner, whose conducting he likened to “dancing on a slack rope . . . sempre tempo rubato,” speaks for that insistence. Wagner’s riposte that Berlioz was a “vulgar time-beater”—out of the great Mannheim School, perhaps—reinforces the point. (Wagner might have confessed at the time to his considerable plagiarism of Berlioz.) However “romantic” (in the pejorative sense) Berlioz’s flying coattails may have been, he approached music as a discipline, not as an exercise in psychoanalysis.
Berlioz was composer, conductor, and instrumentalist—his instrument being the orchestra, though he played an excellent classical guitar. His contemporaries scoffed at his “idea orchestra” of 465 instruments and 360 voices —252 strings, 50 pianos, phalanxes of brass and woodwinds, and a percussion section of 50—still smaller than Gustav Mahler’s ideal 1,000-piece orchestra. What he sought was not grandiosity but the “million combinations possible . . . in richness of harmony, variety of sounds, [and] multitude of contrasts.” Mahler and Bruckner achieved a composite of instrumental timbres, blending, whereas Berlioz sought and achieved a clarity and brilliance by keeping the instruments at all times recognizable. And it was with this musical of purpose that, at the first full performance of the Requiem, he augmented his orchestra with four brass bands, each at one of the distant corners of the Invalides where Napoleon was buried.
We can choose today from many recordings of Berlioz’s great oeuvre. Of the Harold in Italy, I once found the Charles Munch/Boston Symphony/William Primrose version for RCA the closest to the Berlioz hope that “the viola should figure as more or less active personage of constantly preserved individuality rather than the show-off instrument of the classical concerto.” But this recording suffers from the over-trained and over-manicured Boston Symphony, and I find greater empathy with Yehudi Menuhin’s traversal with Sir Colin Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. There is a fluidity and introspection in Menuhin’s playing which Primrose’s highly disciplined technique seems to lose. As for program, that myth goes by the board since, in mid-composition, Berlioz changed the setting from Scottish to Italian.
Like Beethoven, Berlioz did not possess what critics have called the “stage sense,” so I flee from his operas. But his overtures are something else—rich, melodic, and alive—and in Sir Thomas Beecham’s traversal for Columbia, you will be caught up by that delicately contrived passage of the Francs Juges in which strings and woodwinds move in common time while the tympani shifts from 3/4 to 2/2 time, with the entire orchestra challenged in the last measures by the bass drum in 3/4 time.
Berlioz was 30, a leader of the French avant-garde, when his Requiem was performed at the Invalides. He had written it almost obsessively with his head “bursting with the flood of ideas”—and the poet Alfred de Vigny woidd write that it was “beautiful and strange, wild, convulsively throbbing and heartrending.” But unlike any other Requiem, it was addressed to the dead and dying, not to the mourners. Death and transfiguration and the fear of Hell, a tremendous assault on man’s mortal preoccupation—it in no way soothes the living or brings them peace. Perhaps St. Peter would prefer a quieter knock at the gates of Heaven or agree with what Berlioz is doing, shaking a fist at God—but it is still music of faith.
Yet the Requiem—or the intricate Te Deum, with its majestic double fugue, written a dozen years later—was not his only religious voice, L’Enfance du Christ speaks simply and tenderly—so much so that Berlioz, to confound his critics of his authorship at the first performance, wanted the Enfance sung almost like plainchant, not with some aspiring and finger-milking prima donna exhibiting her larynx. And to this can be added the “symphonic opera,” Romeo et Juliette, celebrating more earthly passions. Jacques Barzun says that it is Berlioz’s only flawless work—an evocation, though certainly not a translation into music of Shakespeare’s drama. For this, the world can thank Paganini, the great violin virtuoso who presented Berlioz with 20,000 francs to allow him six months of uninterrupted work without the distractions of the journalism with which he kept himself alive.