Magazine April 8, 2019, Issue

Berlioz Time

Hector Berlioz (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Many years ago, a reader introduced himself to me outside the Metropolitan Opera House. After a minute or two of conversation, he said, “May I ask you something?” His wife interjected, “Oh, Joe — don’t.” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Do you dislike Berlioz?” I smiled. “Ever so slightly,” I said. Obviously, this was apparent in my writing, at least to this discerning reader (and Berlioz man). I would say things like, “The conductor kept a firm hand over the Berlioz, which was to the good.”

I was never a Berlioz hater, mind you. Indeed, I loved some of his works — 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? In The Damnation of Faust, who can resist “D’amour l’ardente flamme”? Then there was the Queen Mab scherzo from Romeo and Juliet. And, speaking of lovers, 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, not wholes. For years, I had this same problem with Wagner. But I learned to love him whole (the composer, I mean, 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 was bowled over by it. You can hear some of it — certainly its influence — in Tristan und Isolde, one of Wagner’s masterpieces.

The music industry loves an anniversary, for better or worse. And this is a “Berlioz year,” sort of: the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. Warner Classics has responded with a box set giving us everything that Berlioz ever wrote, on 27 compact discs. It is an excellent product. And it gave me an opportunity to have a reckoning, or at least a rendezvous, with Berlioz.

I do not wish to reopen the Berlioz wars. 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.” Ravel had a famous putdown, or an observation, at any rate: “a musician of great genius and little talent.” I have never really 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.

In any event, you 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 dollop or two of it. 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 — formally, yes, 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.

Berlioz lived until 1869. For someone given a relatively generous number of years — 65 (as against Schubert’s 31, for example) — 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.”

The music came, however: Harold in Italy, the Requiem, L’Enfance du Christ, etc. He finished Les Troyens in 1858, and 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.

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 a 2007 interview, he 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 in general.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky are Romantics — but they both have Classical cores. Tchaikovsky worshipped Mozart, and he usually wrote tight. Not so Berlioz, who went as the spirit moved him, and not so Liszt — who was one of Berlioz’s greatest admirers in the music world.

Let me relate 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.

Another editor, Claudia Anderson, once said of a contributor, “He writes as if we had all the time in the world.” Sometimes — often — Berlioz composes as if we had all the time in the world. And, you know? 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 said about L’Enfance, in the interview 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. More than once, I heard Robert Conquest, the historian and man of letters, 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 a 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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