Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Hector Berlioz's "To Be or Not to Be"

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Hector Berlioz's "To Be or Not to Be"

Article excerpt

This little poem-

And as Juliet dies with her Romeo near,

Disregard Letourneur with his French deeply marred,

Look to Berlioz now for the key to Shakespeare,

It is he who sounds forth with the wit of the Bard.

-slightly less silly in the original French-

Avec son Roméo quand Juliette expire

Evitez Letourneur et son français banal,

Avec Berlioz seul vous comprendrez Shakespeare

Le traducteur est grand comme l'original.

-was improvised by a rhymester at an after-concert party in Baden-Baden, where the mid-nineteenth-century's international smart set took the summer waters and amused themselves with conversation, gaming, and music. Joseph Méry's lines were preserved for posterity when the photographer Etienne Carjat printed them beneath the caricature he made of the controversial French composer, a regular visitor to the spa, and sent to one of the illustrated periodicals of the day. Usually portrayed as a beak-nosed, big-haired bird of prey (as by Emile Planat, known as Marcelin, in a drawing of 1863), Berlioz, in Caijat's rendering, appears almost gentle, kindly, sympathique.

The ditty tells us something important: that by that time, August 1858, when Madame Bovary was new, when Tristan und Isolde was a year away, when Napoleon III was in full bloom, Hector Berlioz was known not only as the composer of the Symphonie fantastique, not only as the peripatetic conductor who for well over a decade had been promoting his music from London to Moscow, and not only as the sharp-tongued music critic for the Journal des débats, but also as the voice of authority among those in the know who cared to read and interpret Shakespeare.

Berlioz and the Bard is a long story. The composer's final opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, is a version of Much Ado About Nothing. His most avant-garde work is a dramatic choral symphony on Romeo and Juliet. A sequel that he earlier wrote for the Fantastique -Le Retour à la vie ( The Return to Life)-is a miscellany of musical numbers (including a fantasy on The Tempest) and monologues recited by a musician who, imbued with Hamlet's angst and in the throes of artistic and amorous despair, considers suicideonly to decide that he must live on for the sake of his art. And La Mort d'Ophélie is a heartbreaking setting of the tale of Ophelia's demise as encapsulated in a text "imité de Shakespeare" by the composer's playwright friend Ernest Legouvé. The greatest might-have-been of Berlioz's career was an opera on Hamlet, for which a commission was promised but, alas, never proffered. His remaining Shakespearean music includes a programmatic overture on King Lear, an astonishing Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d 'Hamlet, and a duet in his grand Virgilian opera Les Troyens, whose words, "par une telle nuit" ("on such a night"), are lifted literally from the love scene in Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

For Méry, then, the Berlioz who translated the poet was the composer. And indeed in the music there is much that may be heard as Shakespearean, because the marriage of "contrastes et oppositions" (as he called them) that engendered the scores is the counterpart of the mixing of genres that Berlioz admired in the plays. But there is more, much more, because the composer was also a reader, going round in the later years to recite the plays aloud, in French, to friends and acquaintances whom he wished to imbue with his enthusiasm. And he was an advocate joining in 1864 such luminaries as George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, and Théophile Gautier as a member of the local committee formed to celebrate the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. From Guernsey, Victor Hugo assumed the honorary presidency of the group, something that caused such trepidation in the Emperor (in protest of whose ascendency Hugo had gone into exile) that he cancelled the party. For Berlioz, birthdays were never terribly important, particularly his own, but Shakespeare's provided an occasion to honor in public the quiet voice which long accompanied his writing and enlightened his life. …

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