To Hell and Back

By Ross, Alex | The New Yorker, March 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

To Hell and Back


Ross, Alex, The New Yorker


"Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach, neither in absolute beauty in art nor in pure virtue in life," his friend Ferdinand Hiller recalled. The composer of the "Symphonie Fantastique" retains a fashionably satanic aura, and the reputation is well earned. The "Fantastique," his masterpiece, anyone's masterpiece, remains a totally shocking work after all these years, and no modern music has ever really matched it. The symphony's inexhaustible novelty comes not from the discovery of new sounds--although there are many--but from the diabolical manipulation of familiar ones. The C-major coda is brilliant, triumphant, and horribly wrong, the God-given natural scale smeared with flat notes. Thus ends a voyage into Hell undertaken not for moral reasons but for the sheer joy of going under. As Satan remarks in "Paradise Lost," explaining why Hell is better than Heaven, "Here at least we shall be free."

Lincoln Center's festival in honor of the bicentennial of Berlioz's birth, which began with three astonishing concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra, is called "Fantastic Voyages: The Genius of Hector Berlioz." This hits the mark, although it was genius of a particular kind. Unlike Mozart, Schubert, and other prodigies born with music in their blood, Berlioz came to the art from the outside, in a spirit of intellectual adventure. He read about it in encyclopedias, imagined it in his dreams, and, in adolescence, decided to conquer it. He grew up in a small town in the South of France, where his musical diet consisted mainly of marching tunes, comic-opera ditties, and Gregorian chant. Not until around the time of his eighteenth birthday, in 1821, did he hear a full-scale classical work--"Les Danaides," by Salieri. He had come to Paris to attend medical school, and he alarmed his fellow-students by singing Salieri's arias while sawing the skulls of cadavers.

Berlioz's understanding of music was all up in that big, hawklike head of his: reality had to be bent to accommodate his ideals. In his youth, he would stand in the stalls of the Paris Opera and rage against every small inaccuracy and embellishment. "Who has dared to correct Gluck?" he would shout during a pause. "Not a sign of a trombone; it is intolerable!" Conductors began to heed his pronouncements, and soon enough he himself was the dictator on the podium, forcing musicians to follow the letter of the score. He also earned money in the field of music criticism, and his slashing commentaries set the standard for this little art. His compulsively readable "Memoirs" are at once a picaresque narrative of a wild life and a mockery of the very idea of putting a life on paper. After telling us how he taught himself to play a tune on the recorder, he sardonically adds, "What biographer worth his salt could fail to detect here the germ of my aptitude for large-scale effects of wind instruments?" When you talk about Berlioz, you can't escape the feeling that somewhere he is sniggering at every earnest word.

The "Memoirs" suggest that in some perverse way Berlioz saw his failures as his greatest successes. In a threepage description of the disastrous premiere of his "Sardanapalus" cantata, in 1830, he writes, almost exultantly, "The decrescendo begins." He devotes only three sentences to the subsequent triumph of the "Symphonie Fantastique." The last pages of the "Memoirs" are particularly striking in their bid for antipathy. The first draft ends with the sentence "I despise you all, and trust to have forgotten you before I die." The second version ends, "I have neither hopes, nor illusions, nor great thoughts left . . . I say hourly to death: 'When you will!' Why does he delay?" The final manuscript ends with Macbeth's remarks about life signifying nothing. Berlioz accomplished the rare feat of putting the last nail in his own coffin.

The "Symphonie Fantastique" was written in 1830, within the space of about six weeks, although the idea had been germinating for years. …

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