A week ago I attended a great performance of Beatrice and Benedict at the Manhattan School Of Music. I think it is the only opera I know of that was commissioned by a gambling casino, the German Mafia in Baden-Baden.
Our Atlantic City and Las Vegas gave us only Wayne Newton. Though Berlioz wrote this setting of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing when nearly sixty, the opera swaggers and postures comically like Chaplin yet has the sadness and tenderness that vaults it out of the buffa genre. It is frothy, sensational, dry as Rhenish wine, filled with a thousand delightful details that make one want to hear it again and again.
It was the second production of this opera in a week. I had also heard the suave concert version, one done thrice under Sir Colin Davis and the New York Philharmonic to packed crowds. This production had a full house too. Beautifully staged by Christopher Mattalino, conducted with nuance by Laurent Pilot, featuring a spectacular Beatrice in the beauteous, amply voiced and agile Jennifer Holloway, put in a smaller opera house for intimacy, it was a wonderful homage to this masterful autumnal reflection on love. It seems as if New York nowadays can’t get enough of Hector Berlioz.
As I left various people where talking about next season’s production of Benvenuto Celllni at the Met as the crown of that season. Nearly all Berlioz’ works were played this season to aneurysms crowds. Berlioz is current lucky a well as a hot composer. A few years ago somebody discovered his lost early Mass in a heap of music paper and recorded it; Berlioz, not knowing what to do with it, had given it away to a friend as a present. One imagines Europeans nowadays looking for new repertory scouring garbage heaps for his early Judges Of the Secret Court; currently all we have is its great overture. All this happened over a century and a half later to a man who retired from music for several years in his early 50s because he couldn’t get his work on. As Fats Waller used to say, one never knows, does one’
How did Hector Berlioz have such ups and downs, one might ask’ There are many reasons for the downs; the ups like talent and genius are inexplicable. He certainly made enemies if he also amt wonderful friends. He is the only major composer whom Grove’s in its 1935 edition trashed with an ire worthy of one litigating against his shade in a courtroom. Others said Berlioz was erratic, grandiose, loud and annoying. He certainly didn’t fit in to any linear critical explanation of musical history; he has no predecessors expect Beethoven, no successors except St. Seans in his lifetime, then later, Stravinsky and Janacek.
The asymmetry, sensationalism, clarity of line and icy intellectuality of Stravinsky makes him the heir of Berlioz; both Stravinsky’s seeming remoteness from passion and his neo-classicism tells us something about the kind of way we should look at Berlioz.
In his time only the sardonic and transcendental Alkan seems like Berlioz. A third handle might be to compare Berlioz with Busoni, another hyper-romantic and neo-classicist whose Doktor Faust at times seems to echo Berlioz’s version. Restless asymmetrical rhythms and odd harmonies were typical of both men. These devices express a kind of nervous and anxious alacrity which is typical of the Byronic temperament.
Hector Berliox was one of many great half-interred composers who had a second career they themselves could not have predicted after the invention of the long playing record. The French recordings of his Requiem and Damnation of Faust, the German Vox ones of Harold in Italy, finally Hermman Scherchen’s great if slightly cut last half of Les Troyens for Westminster in 1957 put Berlioz in front of the cognoscenti as a great master. Before that for a century one heard only one work, the early Symphonie Fantastique, and a few brilliant overtures.
Once Sir Thomas Beecham early on and then Sir Colin Davis starting in the late 60s got behind him with the breadth of his achievement anybody with a phonograph knew how great and mysteriously neglected Berlioz had been. Finally the Met did its first spectacular Les Troyens in the early 70s; that launched Berlioz for everybody. Berlioz was the kind of composer one either loves or hates; the Berlioz Society in the 50s championed him in that sleepy time. It’s the only organization I ever joined.
I took up that strange cause not only after hearing the Requiem and Damnation of Faust but reading his Memoirs. It had shall we say a startling effect on me. In fact it changed my life. It is still the best autobiography of a creative personality anybody has ever written. Berlioz was not only a great composer but a great writer. His sardonic Evenings at the Orchestra is a book filled with caviar if one can’t say exactly what genre it is.
His treatise on orchestration is extraordinary if it went against the practice of the time of doubling orchestral sound, aiming for clarity and independent voice lines. At the time the great and large minded scholar and humanist Jacques Barzun published Berlioz And the Romantic century and made Berlioz legit. That was helpful.
What had it been that had in my puerility utterly focused me in the words, not the music as yet, of Berlioz so that at fourteen I was utterly different after I finished his Memoirs’ Well, it had happened to me once before, listening to Beethoven’s music when I was three.
I had the powerful and inevitable feeling I had come across some great truth, some magisterial moral guide to who to conduct myself in life, one who held nothing back and was always ready to think the unthinkable.
That was Hector Berlioz; it made him the allies and foes he deserved. He was a musical journalist nearly his whole adult life and said what he thought as only a great wit like himself could say it, not a great idea if one wants to get on among a world mostly of hacks and opportunists as a composer as well. It’s too bad he had Cherubini had such a miserable time of it.
Rather curiously, the same inventions that made Berlioz’ second career possible have worked for the old master; we learned about his two great Requiems in D and C minor, his opera Medea; then Callas made Medea one of her vehicles back in the 60s. Berlioz and Cherubini were linked even in their musical resurrections by new machines. Cherubini though great in his iconic way didn’t have Berlioz’s sensational, personal and incandescent talent, of course.
What kept this man back a hundred and fifty years? In his time he could only be heard at all beyond a symphony concert or opera house. I would suspect some conductors have avoided his music because it’s hard to prepare properly. Its melodic lines are consistently asymmetric. No line if it can help it comes in on the beat.
In rehearsal situations of his orchestras where one is lucky to get a single session, one has to be content to try to get through the piece with everybody sightreading scores they aren’t familiar with.
It’s hard to face the probability that one as a conductor is going to miss entrances or as a singer and instrumentalist is coming to enter at the wrong beat because one is ferociously counting trying to get something very subtle and hard to do right. Orchestras are filled with notoriously lazy people; they hate to learn new scores even if they are easy.
Most of us know Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt through their solo music. We get together and become intimate with these men through a private wrestle like Jacob and the night angel. The music publishing industry of the 19th century distributed their work cheaply and well for piano and chamber ensemble in a century that always had a few people that could read music even in small towns.
Many people might have known Berlioz only through his friend Liszt’s piano transcription of his Symphonie Fantastique, a digital dark carnival that some say is more spectacular than the original. I think they’re both pretty outrageous.
Berlioz didn’t write any solo music that could be played in the home. He produced no true concerti that could have been a vehicle for a virtuoso even when he was asked to do so by Paganini. As a result, he never could give up his day job. He wasn’t a teacher either. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt essentially lived from teaching. Brahms and Dvorak lived from their settings of popular folk dances.
Berlioz was lucky he was great in two Arts; yet his fearless and witty writing probably make him as many foes as allies. It was plain from his articles and books that he couldn’t stomach hacks and or bear fools. That’s most of the planet.
Since he wasn’t heard much and most musical critics of his time hated him, he floats out of musical history, often written in the shadow of Teutonic scholarship, as a kind of weird anomaly. He was always, as all geniuses are, inexplicable. Outside of Beethoven, one sees he learned from Meyerbeer how to use orchestral color.
Beyond that, he is ultimately baffling to anyone who thinks music is a kind of coral accretion of a system of language that each musician adds to tiny mote by mote. Berlioz seems to have been born intact like Venus.
Two of Berlioz’ great works, The Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet, call for operatic forces but aren’t operas; they defy genre. Benvenuto Cellini has a dash and bravura that is almost comic though it is a grand opera; it also baffles easy pigeonholing. His most ambitions opera, Les Troyens, is like nothing in the world.
What does one make of Lelio as form, recorded by indefatigable Vox as a melodrama’ Though Lelio is hardly the first Berlioz work one would present to one who didn’t know Berlioz, it establishes most explicitly what is implicit in all his music including Beatrice and Benedict: a very personal voice that one has only heard before in music a few times, most notably in Beethoven.
Today both Berlioz and Beethoven would have been diagnosed by experts as manic-depressives, locked up and put under sedation. We live in a world in which our priests can’t distinguish between genius and pathology. The wild mood swings in both composers along with craft Berlioz learnt through studying Beethoven made these two men, who were contemporaries in the 1820s, a kind of ghostly father and son team. Berlioz had hated his father; Beethoven had had no children, only a disaster trying to raise his nephew to be a genius.
Beethoven had been a kind of son to the childless Haydn, his teacher. It’s touching to think in retrospect that as Beethoven was going through his suffering over his nephew, Berlioz was in another country studying Beethoven’s scores, learning from them what otherwise absolutely baffles us if we try to think of any models for this one of a kind man.
Writing about a naked modulation from E Flat Minor to E Major and then G Major revolving around the enharmonic fulcrum of A Flat and G Sharp with and clear voices after the great fugue in the Dobell Variations Hans von Bulow has this to say of Beethoven and Berlioz in his Parnassian and capacious notes to his edition of this cosmic piece: ‘We already met with a trace of the principle of modulation chiefly implied in the master’s last creative period, one of the most striking examples of which we perceive in their remarkable transitional measures: the successive steps, i.e., progression of the several parts while employing enharmonic modulations as a bridge to connect even the remotest tonalities.
Hector Berlioz, among the epigones of the master, has imitated this peculiarity (among others) in the most naive fashion- we mean naive in the best sense, i.e., by an involuntary impulse. The above example may therefore serve to explain meany a harmonic ‘bizarrie’ of the French instrumental poet.’
Von Bulow obviously felt that both Beethoven and Berlioz needed to be defended. We don’t hear the prosection against both of them anymore. By ‘among others’ we might presume that Von Bulow meant the way notes serve in Berlioz and late Beethoven as fulcrums to a large palette of harmonies generally rather than following the conventional line of harmonies based more on a Euclidean progression of the expected triads. It’s the physical mechanism by which Berlioz continually achieved effects that he said once, (I am paraphrasing): ‘Music should continually be startling but inevitable.’ The enharmonic technique, the use of any tone as a momentary pedal point is in Berlioz a kind of a precursor of Schoenberg’s equality of tones, explored by both composers; of course in their time the most famous musician using this kind of chromatic musical thinking was Wagner.
Another bit of Beethoven’s craft, the restless kaleidoscopic shift of lines from orchestral instrument to instrument, was imitated by Berlioz; he was one who loved to conduct Beethoven, particularly, the now chestnut Symphony Number Five. Berlioz as far as I can tell seems to have invented the descending chromatic line leading vertiginously to endless harmonic surprises such as triads in the minor, a pedal point to some remote tonality, or some other astonishing triadic leap when one expects a banal five chord.
Obviously von Bulow was arguing against people who found Berlioz’ harmony baffling. One should remember that most 19th century music was square, trivial, sentimental, easy to play. We are spared that era’s version of the shallow.
Such dizzy chromaticism is a rich bit of use of musical language we in our time associate with Wagner and Rachmaninoff in much more murky and densely voiced musical landscapes. Berlioz’s music is light and propulsive at least partially because it is clear and contrapuntal, not overly burdened by verticality. A flutist, his musical and vocal lines have a wind instrument’s republican independence. Satire is central to his thought; Berlioz is French, not German.
At his most grandiose he has an elan and humor that I suppose annoys the pedagogues. The mix of romanticism and comedy baffles them. They might read Byron to discover that romanticism needs precisely that buffa froth to balance its passionate effusions. It is at its best always an acrobat avoiding bathos and sentimentality by uneasily straddling the remote polarities of melancholia and farce.
We can see now that Berlioz is along with Liszt and Wagner in his time, Beethoven before it, a kind of musical psychologist offering his public the borderlands of his personality much as Freud tried to do in science. What makes any of his great pieces what they are is as much Hector Berlioz reflecting on courtship, history, the erotic, depression or folly as any of these subjects themselves. The music is about capturing the reflections of a fragile mortal on being alive as much as it is a focus on a theme.
Charlie Chaplin replied, when asked why he never used the camera creatively, ‘I don’t need interesting camera angles. I am interesting.’ Obviously he was right. One can say the same for most major Artists, among them Berlioz. Behind his various guises, Byron, Shakespeare, Cellini, Faust, Mephistopheles, is Hector Berlioz. As intelligent as they were, as many tricks of craft as they had, their music is not about systems but translation of their quirky characters into sound. We don’t have romantic music or any major music anymore because we don’t have composers interesting enough to flaunt their character; they suspect that were they to reveal all, their audience would fall asleep.
To make such personal music on has to be in the league of Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt or Wagner for wild personality. Who in any of our Arts can make that claim’ Who wants to do so’ Who would be accepted by our craven and cautious politically correct age if they did it’ The last ones I can recall are Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and John Lennon.
We can accept Hector Berlioz now because a hundred and fifty years later we cannot manufacture our Artists to be other than fashionably meretricious or dull; we have to import interesting people from the past. In our time the dead, not faced with much competition, are considerably more attractive than the living.