Berlioz, Romantic Outsider

Classic Arts Features   Berlioz, Romantic Outsider
The Philadelphia Orchestra has been exploring the work of Hector Berlioz this spring, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting The Damnation of Faust. Music journalist Peter G. Davis profiles the French composer.

Three composers of genius dominated mid-19th century Europe: Richard Wagner (1813 _83) in Germany, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 _1901) in Italy, and Hector Berlioz (1803 _69) in France, each embodying the ideals of high musical Romanticism in very different ways. Although audiences back then may not have viewed this mighty triumvirate with quite the same sense of awe and historical inevitability that we do today, few doubted their importance. In 1850 the 37-year-old Verdi was already a prolific and internationally successful opera composer, while his exact contemporary, Wagner, was stirring up heated controversy with his early operas and revolutionary theories about the "music of the future."

Berlioz, on the other hand, was known mostly to connoisseurs, and even at that as more of a sharp-tongued Parisian music critic than a composer. Ten years older than Wagner and Verdi, Berlioz had by 1850 already written many of the masterpieces that are central to his legacy: the Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy, the Requiem ("Grande Messe des morts"), The Damnation of Faust, the Romeo and Juliet symphony, the opera Benvenuto Cellini: but the music world at large knew little of their existence. Indeed, a Berlioz performance tradition of any consistency only began to develop after World War II, which is perhaps why his music continues to have a distinctly contemporary quality, especially to those of us who grew up back in the days when Berlioz's music was still very much a novelty.

The reasons for Berlioz's slow emergence and worldwide acceptance into the pantheon of great composers are complex. Of course he was a difficult character, moody, impulsive, and uncompromising, a passionate idealist who never suffered fools gladly. But then, Wagner and Verdi also shared these traits to one degree or another, although both those composers eventually found the means to bend the world to their way of thinking and, by the time of their deaths, were recognized for the importance of their work.

By contrast Berlioz was never quite so professionally organized and wider fame constantly eluded him. Too ill in 1868 to continue proselytizing his music by organizing concerts and conducting most of them himself, the composer spent his last year with only a few faithful friends to support and console him. When he died it must have seemed to him that his whole existence had been completely purposeless.

Aside from his prickly personality, Berlioz presented his generation with a highly individual musical voice that continued to puzzle audiences for many years after his death. When he arrived in Paris and began composing in earnest during the 1830s, the French musical scene was a disheveled one that lacked the sort of strongly entrenched distinctive character that defined composition in Italy and Germany, an established basis that Verdi and Wagner worked from and developed in exciting new ways. Berlioz never had this stable foundation from which to start. Cosmopolitan Paris, the social and cultural capital of Europe at the time, attracted ambitious foreign musicians and they set the styles. A firmly entrenched, organically evolving school of French music could scarcely be said to exist at all.

Of course there were many native composers who added their own contributions to this bubbling musical melting pot, but the most influential figures came from other countries, composers intent on conquering French audiences. Although he had died in Vienna in 1787, Gluck was still a potent voice at the Paris Opéra when Berlioz came to live in the city as a teenager in 1821, but the stage works of Salieri, Spontini, and Cherubini from Italy were also hugely popular, while the powerful operatic voices of Rossini and Donizetti, who both wrote works specifically for Paris, were on the horizon.

By mid-century, two German composers had settled in Paris and would soon rule the city's musical life: Giacomo Meyerbeer, who enraptured audiences at the Paris Opéra with his grandly scaled epics, and Jacques Offenbach, whose effervescent operettas attracted huge crowds to the Bouffes-Parisiens. Meanwhile the concert halls were filled with the music of Chopin and Liszt, just as Beethoven's symphonies were beginning to be accepted as prophetic works of genius. French composers, Berlioz among them, diligently competed with all these potent musical personalities, but few ever rose to comparable heights.

Berlioz listened closely to the music around him, forging his own distinctive style from all these diverse foreign influences and his own feverish creative imagination. Although definitely a man of his times who rebelled against anything that smacked of old-fashioned convention or routine, he nonetheless felt a strong pull toward the classical ideals and noble simplicity of the ancient Greek and Roman eras. Even as a boy he had been enthralled by the tragic muse of Virgil, whose Aeneid he had read all his life and which provided him with the source of his grand opera Les Troyens. In music, he was captivated early by the classical spirit of the stately heroes and heroines of antiquity that populate Gluck's reform operas. To Berlioz they were living characters who expressed their emotions in nobly sculptured lyrical phrases in which dramatic truth was the sole rule that must always be obeyed. Their ghosts are also very much present in Les Troyens.

Despite his strong classicist leanings, Berlioz was more remarkable to his contemporaries for the sheer audacity of his music, his often drastic departures from accepted formal procedures, the unpredictable nature of his harmonic language, and, above all, the colorful subjects that he so vividly depicted in his scores. In this respect Berlioz was the quintessential romantic, determined to elevate the often mean and sordid surroundings of the present into the idealized world of his imagination. It was, in fact, this very tension between the romantic and classical extremes in Berlioz that accounts for the extraordinary nervous tension of his music, and why so many of his contemporaries regarded him as an eccentric: or, worse, an amateur who simply never learned how to compose properly.

His first major work, the Symphonie fantastique, was completed in 1830 and one can only imagine how the first audiences reacted to such a revolutionary conception by a 27-year-old unknown. And yet the score remains a perfect example of Berlioz's ability to widen classical frames of reference to include a highly-charged romantic program, in this case one that depicts a love-besotted young artist consumed by his wild drug-induced fantasies, and still be true to time- honored symphonic forms and structures.

Beethoven had already led the way with his programmatic Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral," and Berlioz was merely pushing the envelope a step further to achieve a maximum expressive point within a carefully controlled musical unity. The press paid little attention to the first performance on December 5 ("it inspired more astonishment than pleasure," noted one critic), but the Parisian public instantly split into passionately partisan factions. Berlioz may have still had a long, hard struggle ahead, but with this extraordinary score he definitely made his presence felt.

Just before completing the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz had selected and set to music eight scenes from Goethe's poetic drama Faust, another of the composer's life-long literary enthusiasms. In 1845 he reworked this music into a more extended continuous form and retitled it The Damnation of Faust, today one of his most frequently heard works. The piece was written during a rare happy period while Berlioz was on an extended European concert tour, conducting his music and receiving a degree of continental acclaim and understanding that he seldom enjoyed at home.

Once again his compatriots objected to the episodic nature of this "dramatic legend," as Berlioz termed it, a boldly imagined, craftily selected, and fluidly blended sequence of episodes from Goethe that seem to unfold as if in a half-remembered dream. Paris remained unimpressed, and when The Damnation of Faust finally reached the French capital in 1846, it played to half-empty houses. "Nothing in my career as an artist," the composer wrote, "wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference."

Greater rebuffs were in store, the most hurtful being the rejection of his monumental Les Troyens. The composer only saw the first two acts of the opera staged in Paris during his lifetime, and a complete performance was not presented at the Opéra until a century after his death. Clearly the public in the 1860s was far from prepared to grasp a score of such scope and complexity into which Berlioz had poured his full musical genius: the surging romantic fantasy of the Symphonie fantastique, the exquisite lyrical intimacy of his Nuits d'été song cycle, the magisterial scale of the Requiem, the finely polished musical symmetries of Harold in Italy, the needle- point instrumental sophistication of his Shakespearean opera Beatrice and Benedict, and the steaming human passions that course through his dramatic symphony depicting the tragic love of Romeo and Juliet.

All these works as well as Les Troyens are now recognized as masterpieces by one of the most protean composers who ever set pen to paper. The fascinating mixture of styles and forward-looking techniques confused the audiences of his time, but perhaps that is exactly why Berlioz communicates so powerfully and immediately to us today, a composer whose music embodies a spirit that transcends categories by sounding classical, romantic, and contemporary all at once.


Click here for more on the Philadelphia Orchestra's current season of Berlioz offerings.

Peter G. Davis majored in composition at Harvard, Columbia, and Stuttgart (Germany), and served for many years as a music critic and editor for the New York Times. He continues to contribute articles and reviews to the Times, Opera News, Musical America Online and other publications.

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