Books, Arts & Manners

Berlioz, a Reckoning

Hector Berlioz (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of a piece published in the current National Review.

Many years ago, a reader introduced himself to me outside the Metropolitan Opera House. I already knew of him, for he was a friend of a friend. Very sharp and knowledgeable guy, this reader.

Anyway, he introduced himself. Eventually, he said, “Do you mind if I ask you something?” His wife said, “Oh, Joe — don’t.” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Do you dislike Berlioz?” I smiled. “Ever so slightly,” I said. “I respect him greatly, and I trust that he is a genius, but I don’t quite get him yet.”

How did Joe know that I disliked Berlioz, or had problems with Berlioz? Well, I’d write things like, “The conductor kept a firm hand over his Berlioz, which was to the good.”

Let me stress that I was never a Berlioz hater. On the contrary, I loved some of his music — for example, “L’Île inconnue,” which ends the song-cycle Les Nuits d’été. But I was not a Berlioz lover, far from it. I tended to like or love parts of works, rather than wholes.

In the Symphonie fantastique, who can resist the March to the Scaffold? (I could skip the pastoral scene.) In The Damnation of Faust, who can resist “D’amour l’ardente flamme”? Or La Course à l’abîme, which, with a weakness for alliteration, I call “the hair-raising horseride into hell”? How about the Queen Mab scherzo from Romeo and Juliet? Or the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, that flitty, flirty thing?

How about “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase,” the love duet from Les Troyens? Never has anything in music better captured the intoxication of romantic love.

I could go on, but, again, I tended to like or love parts of works, rather than wholes. For years, I had this same problem with Wagner. I loved the set-pieces, if you will: the preludes and overtures; “Winterstürme”; Wotan’s Farewell; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; the Immolation Scene; the Liebestod; the Good Friday music; etc. But I was not a fan of Wagner operas, complete.

In time, however, I came to love Wagner whole (the composer, I mean — the music — not the man). Maybe the same thing would happen with Berlioz?

By the way, Wagner esteemed Berlioz, which is remarkable in that Wagner esteemed practically no one but himself. As a young man, Wagner heard Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet and was bowled over by it. You can hear its influence in Tristan, big-time. Indeed, Wagner sent Berlioz a copy of the score, with the inscription “To the great and dear author of Roméo et Juliette from the grateful author of Tristan und Isolde.”

How you like them apples?

Let me tell a quick story before getting to the main event. In 2007, Valery Gergiev was conducting Benvenuto Cellini, a Berlioz opera, at the Salzburg Festival. I did a public interview of him. I asked, “Maestro, what should we think of Benvenuto Cellini? Is it a great opera, a good opera, an okay opera?” Please note that conductors usually say of whatever they’re conducting, “Oh, it’s the best!”

Gergiev answered, “It’s an interesting opera, an unusual opera, an imaginative opera.” He further said that Berlioz laid the foundation for much music to come, in particular Wagner. You can hardly imagine Wagner’s operas without him — without Berlioz.

For better or worse, the music industry loves an anniversary. I often say that music suffers from “anniversaryitis.” So does journalism — as I am now proving! This is a “Berlioz year,” sort of: the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. So we’re doing deaths now, not just births? Ay, caramba (as Berlioz, the Frenchman, probably did not say).

In any event, Warner Classics has produced a box set giving us everything that Berlioz ever wrote, on 27 compact discs. It is an excellent product: excellently curated, excellently brought off. And it has given me a chance to have a reckoning, or at least a rendez-vous, with Berlioz.

We used to have Berlioz wars — the world did, that is. And I do not wish to reopen them. Such wars are pointless anyway. If you don’t like a composer, fine, others will, and we can all tune in to what we like. But I will recall some of the fighting about Berlioz.

Detractors said, “Blowsy, wayward, untutored, swollen, bombastic, embarrassing, formless, incoherent, la-di-da, absurd.” Defenders said, “A genius and a visionary — unrecognized as such by pedants and dopes.”

Debussy called Berlioz “a monster.” (Probably not a compliment.) Ravel called Berlioz “France’s greatest composer” — but he also had a famous putdown, or an observation, at any rate: “a musician of great genius and little talent.” Frankly, I have never understood this remark. Perhaps something is lost in the translation. Genius and talent go together, in my view. I could better understand something like “a musician of great genius and little discipline.”

I’ve been thinking about my Berlioz aversion, or Berlioz skepticism, and here is one thing that occurs to me: I think he stagnates when he is slow. I want him to move more. He makes me gasp for breath. Also (and relatedly), I have found long stretches of Berlioz impossibly dull. I think the word “longueurs” is practically made for some of these works. Then again, the dullness could be in the listener, not the music.

Whatever the case, a person can appreciate the good in any composer, and it’s even easier to appreciate the great. I think both Berliozians and anti-Berliozians have their points. Schumann said, “There is much in his music that is insufferable, but also a great deal that is extremely intelligent, and even full of genius.”

The life is fascinating — well-nigh operatic — and I will give just a few dollops of it. Hector Berlioz — more formally, Louis-Hector Berlioz — was born in 1803. It’s amazing to think of this, given the nature of his music. That birth year seems so early! Berlioz was born just six years after Schubert. Haydn had six more years of living to do. Beethoven, 24.

Berlioz grew up in the département of Isère, whose capital is Grenoble. He had a very good education, mainly at home, from his father. The senior Berlioz was a prominent physician. From local teachers, Hector learned how to play the flute and the guitar — not the usual instruments for composers-to-be. His dad wanted him to go into medicine, and sent him to Paris for this purpose. But young Berlioz balked at his medical studies, turning again and again to music. Eventually, he ditched medicine altogether and studied music — with teachers, and very good ones, too, but also on his own. Berlioz is probably the most homemade composer we have. (He resembles Ives in this respect, or Ives resembles him.)

“Vive la liberté!” was the watchword of Berlioz. Not for him “the bonds of orthodoxy,” as he put it. Whatever your views on Berlioz, you cannot doubt his freedom.

He was crazy about Shakespeare — as crazy as anybody has ever been. He was also crazy about a certain Shakespearean actress, Harriet Smithson, an Irishwoman (no relation, as far as I can tell, to James Smithson, the English scientist who became the founding donor of the Smithsonian in Washington). Berlioz was obsessed with Harriet. From this obsession came the Symphonie fantastique, which is often described as “phantasmagorical.” In fact, I learned this word from reading about the Symphonie fantastique, many years ago. I bet lots of others have too.

As sometimes happens in life, Berlioz caught the object of his fascination, or obsession: He married her. And, as sometimes happens in life — often? — he grew tired of her and moved on to someone else.

Berlioz was given a relatively generous number of years: 65 (as against Schubert’s 31, for example). Yet he did not produce a great, groaning catalogue of music. He was held up, in part, by the need to make money, which he did through journalism. He was a famous writer about music, although he was conscious that this wretched occupation was keeping him from his symphonies and such. “It can take eight or nine attempts before I am rid of an article,” he complained. And “the first draft is like a battlefield.”

He wrote many reviews and essays, which were collected between hard covers. He wrote a treatise on instrumentation and orchestration, later updated by Richard Strauss. (Even his detractors have always conceded that he is a master orchestrator.) He wrote memoirs, published posthumously. He was a very good writer.

Still, the music came: Harold in Italy, the Requiem, L’Enfance du Christ, and so on. He said that the Requiem was the one score he would save from a fire, if he could save only one. I don’t really get that, but the composer’s opinion means a lot, of course. He finished Les Troyens, his grand opera, in 1858, when he was about 55. He never saw it performed — never saw it performed in full, that is. The opera is about four hours long, not including intermissions. Even today, it is seldom performed, but there are those who are in awe of it, understandably.

He followed up Les Troyens with another opera — a short comedy — namely Béatrice et Bénédict, which is based on Much Ado about Nothing. Man, did he love Shakespeare. Berlioz died in 1869 and was buried alongside Harriet and his second wife, Marie, a soprano. (It’s often a soprano.)

In the 20th century, Berlioz had many champions, including several key conductors. Among them were Beecham, Monteux, and Munch. This last, Charles Munch, was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962. Once, in New York, I was leaving a concert hall or opera house, after a Berlioz performance. I can’t remember the specifics. But, on my way out, I saw Peter Davis, the acclaimed critic. I said, “Do you like Berlioz?” He smiled and said, “Yes. I have no choice, in a way: I grew up around Boston in the Munch era.”

Berlioz gained an invaluable champion in Colin Davis, soon to be Sir Colin. He conducted all of Berlioz, repeatedly.

In addition to conductors, there were writers who championed Berlioz — prominent among them David Cairns, a Brit who translated the composer’s memoirs into English and wrote a two-volume biography of the man. You could say that Berlioz made Cairns famous. But, you know what? Mr. Cairns, I would say, had a role in making Berlioz famous, too.

Back to Sir Colin — who, in a 2007 interview, called Berlioz “the first and the most original Romantic.” This is true. And anyone who has a problem with Berlioz … may have a problem with Romanticism.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky are Romantics, yes. But they both have Classical cores. (So do many other Romantics we could name.) Tchaikovsky worshiped Mozart, and he wrote tight. Not so Berlioz, and not so Liszt — who was one of Berlioz’s greatest admirers in the music world.

I pause for a memory of Michael Potemra, my longtime editorial colleague. Some 20 years ago, I wrote that Liszt was “the master of the tremolo and other vulgar gestures.” Mike got a kick out of this and never forgot it. He would teasingly quote it to me, with a leer in his voice. (There was body language to go with it.)

I’ll give you another memory, of another editorial colleague: Claudia Anderson. She once said of a contributor, “He writes as if we had all the time in the world.” (No body language.) Well, sometimes — often — Berlioz composes as if we had all the time in the world.

And you know what? We should give it to him. Berlioz takes patience, I have found. He demands your attention, sustained. And you must give him his head, allow him his meanderings. He has his own art.

I’ve been bingeing on Berlioz, to reckon with him. The other day, I decided I would listen to L’Enfance du Christ, complete. I would not let anything distract me from it. I would give the work a proper hearing, so to speak. And this hearing rewarded me. I got a satisfaction from the work I had never gotten before.

You may smile at something that Sir Colin Davis said about L’Enfance, in the interview I cited above: “If you’re not moved, well, I’m sorry for you, you have to move on.”

It was repeated exposure to Wagner — along with some maturity, I suppose — that made me warm to that composer. I could also give a little lecture on Verdi. One of my lines is, “The older I get, the smarter he gets.” My binge on Berlioz has made me warm to that composer. I am perhaps not in the ranks of the true-blue Berlioz lovers. But I am not far from them either. And I am readier, I think, to accept Berlioz on his own terms.

In that interview, Sir Colin said, “He was a great genius, in his way.” I love that “in his way,” a classic British hedge. I think of Robert Conquest, the historian and man of letters. More than once, I heard him call someone or something “good” and then, afraid he had gone too far, switch to “goodish.”

Hector Berlioz brightened the world with that art of his. He marched to the beat of his own drum — sometimes literally. In fact, let’s have more of that passage from Thoreau, to serve as our coda: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears …”

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