Successes Just Missed: The Career of Hector Berlioz

By Penrose, James F. | New Criterion, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Successes Just Missed: The Career of Hector Berlioz


Penrose, James F., New Criterion


The last century was not a particularly happy one for the two greatest composers of the romantic era. There's Franz Liszt--you remember him, don't you? Magpie collector of pianistic glitter? Lothario of Europe? And there's Hector Berlioz. You know, the "one work" man? No technique? Freakish and grotesque? And, as a consequence of all of the foregoing, a thoroughly embittered critic? Musical history, like the other sorts, is written, at least in the short run, by the victors, and the victors were anything but kind. Berlioz died a broken man, thwarted and frustrated throughout his career by the indifference and spite of the French musical establishment. After his death, biographers and commentators continued to embroider the same old fabric. Sacheverell Sitwell, for example, treated Berlioz as some sort of brilliant but alien force, enslaved by his "strange schemings." Debussy thought Berlioz a "monster" Stravinsky found his reputation as an orchestrator suspect and Verdi found him lacking in the "calm and ... balance that produce complete works of art." Perhaps it was just a matter of fate: wrong place, wrong time, with Liszt and Berlioz being simply meant to take the bullet for all of the perceived failures of romanticism. Or maybe not. Regardless of their reputation among non-musicians, their influence on their contemporaries and musical heirs was so profound that Western music could not possibly have developed as it did without them.

Berlioz's music did achieve some lasting recognition in England, Germany, Austria, and Russia, but it was largely shunned in his native country. Unfortunately for Berlioz, it was France in general and Paris in particular that was the source of his afflatus, an irony he was the first to grasp. "What the devil could God have been thinking when he had me born in this pleasant land of France?" he wrote after his third unsuccessful attempt for the Prix de Rome.

Though he was never to enjoy the popular success of contemporaries like (in descending order) Meyerbeer, Auber, Adolphe Adam, and the unspeakable Antoine Clapisson (Gibby la cornemuse, Les mysteres d' Udolphe), Berlioz still remained in the public eye. He exercised a formidable influence on the musical scene as a critic for the Journal des debats. An incomparable prose stylist, he had no need to resort to the brutal hammerings favored by critics like Scudo and Azevedo or to their equally repellent favoritism. At various points during his career, Berlioz collected and published selections from his columns, some of which (Evenings in the Orchestra, A travers chants) are even now available. But his best writing was saved for his own Memoires, a work which has rarely been out of print. By turns enchantingly funny and deeply poignant, Memoires reads more like a picaresque novel than the autobiography of an older, profoundly disappointed man. It has been the natural starting place for all of Berlioz's biographers and, at the same time, the standard against which those biographies are measured. The best translation of the Memoires is by the British critic David Cairns. It is itself, with Mr. Cairns's introduction and five appendices, a proto-biography of the composer. In this respect, it is not much of a surprise that Mr. Cairns has worked this material, and much more, up into his own biography of Berlioz.(1)

Berlioz's immense musical significance exists at several levels. First, he practically invented modern orchestral technique. In his revision of Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation, Richard Strauss wrote that even Beethoven could never really shake the influence of Haydn's and Mozart's string quartets on his symphonic writing and that the influence of the piano is never far removed ("unfortunately, not always to the listener's enjoyment"--only Strauss could say something like that). Mr. Cairns notes that Berlioz, unlike most great composers, was not a pianist and was not bound to that instrument by habit and acclimation. …

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