The First Romantic

Classic Arts Features   The First Romantic
Great Performers presents a spring festival honoring the genius of Hector Berlioz.

My life is a novel which interests me deeply," wrote Hector Berlioz in 1833. "One day full of dreams and poetic fancies: another vicious as a thousand devils, vomiting up life and ready to end it for nothing, had I not good friends, music, and curiosity." He was just 30, a truly Romantic figure of a man, his commanding head crowned with a shock of elegant curls that gave caricaturists a field day. Yet, for all his inventiveness, for all his passionate supporters, his music was continually regarded as "eccentric" and "incorrect" by critics, a situation that ultimately led to frustration. The familiar photographs of Berlioz by Nadar and Reutlinger in the 1850s and '60s betray the disappointment clouding his penetrating eyes.

"I want to work," he declared, "but I must toil in order to live." Work, for him, meant composing, which brought him relatively little income. Even as a conductor of exceptional imagination he reaped limited financial gain. So he was obliged to toil as a journalist. But here, too, he was outstanding‹an essayist, critic, and autobiographer whose clarity of expression, wit, and sheer stylistic élan were unmatched until the appearance of George Bernard Shaw

Berlioz wasn't just misunderstood by laymen or stiff-necked academics, but by his fellow composers. Mendelssohn derided Berlioz as "a regular freak, without a vestige of talent." "He composes," said Chopin, "by splashing his pen over the manuscript and leaving the issue to chance." Rossini, upon hearing the Symphonie Fantastique, reputedly quipped, "What a good thing it isn't music." You might observe that these detractors were all classicists for whom Berlioz's idiosyncratic works were uncongenial. Yet Berlioz himself was an avowed classicist who revered Gluck and Virgil, and who continually sought to bring to his music the grandeur and spaciousness of great neo-classical paintings by such French lions as David and Ingres

Nonetheless, even later composers seemed unable to grasp Berlioz's unique genius. "Genius without talent," was Bizet's dismissal, while Brahms, whose orchestral palette tends to favor subdued colors, observed that Berlioz's invariably polychrome music was "often rough on one's ears." Ravel, that precision jeweler of music, flicked the backhanded compliment that Berlioz was "the worst musician among the musical geniuses." But Debussy landed possibly the unkindest cut of all, disdaining Berlioz as "a monster [who] creates the illusion of music by means borrowed from literature and painting."

Two centuries after his birth, Berlioz is among the most popular and honored of 19th-century composers, and to a great measure we owe this turnaround over the last 40 years to the pioneering studies by scholar Jacques Barzun, and to Berlioz's great champion on the podium, Sir Colin Davis. Whether or not Sir Colin felt an initial kinship with Berlioz because he too was not a pianist‹Sir Colin trained as a clarinetist, Berlioz played the guitar‹the conductor says that it was the oeuvre itself that captured his imagination. "I started with the music and got more and more exhilarated as I went on," he says. "I can see that he didn't come up to certain academic standards, which for a man like Berlioz would have ruined him completely if he had complied. He was, after all, the first genuine Romantic‹1830 is the date of the 'Fantastic' Symphony; by 1838 he had written Benvenuto Cellini. Wagner didn't write The Flying Dutchman till 1843. And Berlioz was, in fact, breaking new ground at all times before then."

As a critic, Berlioz recognized Wagner as a major new voice but found his musical language increasingly difficult to comprehend. And, ironically, as Berlioz became more celebrated as a critic, people found it more difficult to accept him as a composer. Moreover, in Berlioz's increasingly Philistine France, the only way for a composer to achieve commercial success was to write operas, and Berlioz's operas, no matter how highly we regard them now, simply didn't fit the mold of his day. As Sir Colin observes, "once Wagner came along, Berlioz was shunted aside. But then he proceeded to write his masterpiece, Les Troyens, and took no notice of anybody."

Lincoln Center will certainly be taking notice of Berlioz this spring. In March Sir Colin leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a Bicentennial Festival entitled Fantastic Voyages: The Genius of Hector Berlioz, which includes performances, pre-concert talks, and a Berlioz Symposium (March 8) led by scholar David Cairns. The March 4 program features two of the great narrative orchestral works, the Symphonie Fantastique and the Byronic Harold in Italy. Illustrating the lovelorn dream of an opium eater (Berlioz wrote it while in the throes of his violent passion for the English actress Harriet Smithson, whom he later married), the Symphonie was a milestone, as revolutionary in 1830 as The Rite of Spring was eight decades later. The recurring idée fixe, alone, was an unprecedented kind of melody, seeming to rise from the orchestral texture like a phantom curl of smoke. Berlioz composed Harold in 1834, at the request of Nicolò Paganini, the greatest violinist of his day. Paganini, a collector and dealer in rare instruments as well as a virtuoso, had acquired a magnificent Stradivari viola, and hoped for a new concerto from Berlioz. Alas, he found Berlioz's poetic solo part not showy enough, and declined to play it. Nonetheless he recognized the distinction of Berlioz's musical treatment of Lord Byron's Childe Harold, and in 1838, as a token of his esteem, he made the composer a gift of 20,000 francs

Paganini's gift enabled Berlioz to write Roméo et Juliette, his kaleidoscopic treatment of Shakespeare's most popular tragedy. It's poignant splendors will shine forth on March 7 when Sir Colin leads the LSO, LSO choir, and soloists Sara Mingardo, Stuart Neill, and Alastair Miles in a performance of the work. Part symphony, part cantata, the hybrid score has never been easy to categorize, but its dramatic and emotional impact are immediate and lasting

Berlioz revered Shakespeare and Goethe as "the silent confidants of my suffering [who] hold the key to my life," and the March 9 performance of his "dramatic legend," La Damnation de Faust will reveal his perception of Goethe's great philosophical epic. With its stirring Racózky March, its gossamer will-o'-the-wisp music, and its hair-raising ride to Hell, La Damnation de Faust creates an occasion whenever it is presented, and this performance promises to be one to savor

So will the series of presentations in April and May of Basil Twist's account of the Symphonie Fantastique at the Clark Studio Theater. Drawing his imagery from the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and the films of Oskar Fischinger, internationally acclaimed puppeteer Twist has created an underwater visualization of Berlioz's dreamlike work that takes place entirely in a specially constructed onstage water tank. The production beguiles adults as well as children, offering a festival finale that Berlioz himself would have enjoyed immensely

Barrymore Laurence Scherer writes frequently about the arts.

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