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If ever there was a great composer nearly unknown or if known, unloved, by the cultured class, Hector Berlioz is that man. Though he was widely admired in his day, his reputation generally worsened over time…

berlioz1He has the unfortunate reputation of being a one-hit wonder, as he is so closely identified with the remarkable and revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique. Aside from that work and the occasional overture, orchestras rarely program him, as his symphonic pieces are typically lengthy works that would dominate the evening’s program, and what orchestra director wants to have this composer’s name as top billing? Ticket sales would be guaranteed to be slow.

In addition, many of his symphonic works present obstacles to performance. Some require massive forces and thus great expense. The composer himself suggested 700 or 800 choristers and demanded four off-stage brass bands for his Requiem, and some 900 players played in the premier of his Te Deum. His Harold in Italy includes a central solo part for the viola, an instrument that is played by a very small handful of world-class soloists; yet many of these players, like the virtuoso for whom the piece was written, Niccolo Paganini, find it so devoid of opportunities for display that they do not champion it. His supreme dramatic works—La Damnation of Faust, Romeo et Juliette, and L’Enfance du Christ—are hybrids of opera and symphony and are consequently difficult to stage.

This composer lacks partisans who fondly recall his music in association with the pleasant memories of childhood, as many adults do in the case of a Brahms or Mozart. This is because he wrote no piano or violin sonatas that a young student might learn. In fact, uniquely among contemporary and later composers, he never learned to play the piano, as he was not groomed by his parents for a musical career.

If ever there was a great composer nearly unknown or if known, unloved, by the cultured class, Hector Berlioz is that man. Though he was widely admired in his day, his reputation generally worsened over time. A music critic, Berlioz’s sometimes harsh judgments on other composers’ efforts earned him enemies among his peers, who in turn lampooned Berlioz as a practitioner of cheap orchestral effects. A famous cartoon shows him conducting outsized tubas and zany percussion instruments, including a cannon (!), deafening, angering, and terrifying his audience. Unfortunately, this is the caricature that largely survives to this day: the wild-eyed Romantic of the orchestra, who understood all too well the mind of the opium-using protagonist of his Symphonie Fantastisque.

Modern critics have claimed that Berlioz could not write melodies, that he was incapable of writing for the human voice, that he was a master of cheap effect. When an hour-long early Mass by Berlioz was discovered in a Belgian attic in the early 1990s, the musical world barely noticed. Only one professional recording was made of the Messe Solennelle, despite its magnificence and its importance in the understanding of Berlioz’s musical development.

We conservatives also tend to be suspicious of the arch-Romantic Berlioz. His embrace of the principles of the French Revolution (he arranged “The Marseillaise”), his occasional mockery of Church authority, his atheism, his sexual ibertinism, and the truly revolutionary nature of his music cast him under a cloud of suspicion. Many conservatives who hold that music achieved its perfection with the music of Mozart and Haydn decry the musical decadence of the Romantic style birthed by Beethoven and his disciples, among whom Berlioz was the most influential.

Indeed, without Berlioz, there would have been no Richard Strauss, no Gustav Mahler, no Richard Wagner—at least not as we know these composers. Strauss’ Don Quixote employs the technique of Harold in Italy in its use of a solo instrument as a protagonist. Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” and “Resurrection” symphony make use of multiple choirs and massed forces and are clearly influenced by Berlioz. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, his new synthesis of music, verse, and staging, was based on Berlioz’s example in Faust and Romeo.

We conservatives are left asking: Is it all right for us to enjoy this man’s music sans guilt?

The answer, of course, is yes because Berlioz’s music is objectively beautiful. Take as one example, the aforementioned Harold in Italy. Often mistaken for a concerto, this work was described by its composer as a “symphony in four parts with viola obbligato.” The renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini, for whom the piece was written, rejected Berlioz’ composition at first because the solo part was not prominent enough. The piece is based on Lord Bryon’s poem, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. When the viola enters in the first movement, titled “Harold in the Mountains” (at 3:29 in the video below), we are presented with a theme of such beauty that it seems to pierce one’s soul before it is even completely spun out. Berlioz had originally used the theme for his overture, Rob Roy, a work he thought unworthy and which he discarded. But he recognized the value of the piece’s central theme:

Listen also to the haunting Sanctus of the Requiem at 57:49 here:

Too, Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini may be anti-clerical and almost Nietzschean in its celebration of the super-man, but it contains many sublime moments, is eminently tuneful, and is indeed superior to most of the major Italian operas that came later in the nineteenth century and which dominate the programs of opera houses today (sample some of its musical beauty beginning at 2:05 here):

Berlioz’s professed atheism should not be taken at face value. The son of an unbelieving father and a devout Roman Catholic mother, Berlioz’s music reflected this dualistic spiritual legacy throughout his compositional career. His adaptation of Goethe’s Faust is surely autobiographical, the humanistic protagonist constantly being called back to the church of his childhood but ultimately choosing the pleasures of the flesh over faith, which proves his undoing. In Faust Berlioz seemed to acknowledge the folly of the epicurean path he chose to pursue.

There is also the story of the composition of the oratorio, L’Enfance du Christ, which Berlioz at first passed off as the work of a fictional seventeenth-century composer of his own invention. This was largely a little practical joke on Berlioz’s part, it seems also as if he were reluctant to admit to his contemporaries that he had composed a piece on so quaint a theme as the infancy narrative of Jesus. When listening to this piece and Berlioz’s other sacred works, it is indeed difficult to imagine that the mark of baptism was not still doing its work on the man’s soul, at least when it came to his music.

Berlioz did relish the spectacular sounds that could be achieved with massive forces, but he was much more than a musical showman. His gift for melody, his mastery of orchestration, his genius for musical drama, his bold originality, and the uniqueness of his style place him in the front ranks of the great composers. Loving him, it turns out, is quite easy, even for conservatives.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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5 replies to this post
  1. I think I would be remiss not to mention the Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale, one of the largest pieces for winds ever composed (200+ musicians). Apparently, Wagner attended one of the performances and noted that he found passages in the last movement “so magnificent and sublime that they can never be surpassed.” –

    • Thanks for this, Jonathan. Yes, the Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale is a unique piece; I was not aware of Wagner’s assessment of it.

  2. It might be worth adding that Berlioz’s lack of public acceptance during his own time was due to the inflexibility of the tastes of the Parisian musical culture. His works were far from inferior but the Parisians wanted little to do with anything that wasn’t either Italian, part of their established repertoire, or written by a handful of composers (many of foreign origins – e.g., Cherubini) whom they had come to accept. The problem was so great that the Theatre Lyrique was later established to combat it. He turned to music criticism, which career he hated, in order to make ends meet.

    I also did not see Les Troyens mentioned. It was only partially performed during his lifetime, and that in 1863 at the Theatre Lyrique. This performance gave him the means necessary to give up music criticism once and for all. I would think that this epic operatic take on the one of the great works of Classical literature and its corresponding message of duty, loyalty, and virtue would appeal to the mind of any imaginitive conservative.

  3. The piece that got me interested in Berlioz was “The Shepherds’ Farewell” but the piece that really sold me on Berlioz as a great composer was his requiem. It is one of the best. I am really excited because in 2017 my choir will be performing Berlioz’s Te Deum. Berlioz surely did know how to write choral music.

    (Speaking of Te Deum, if you ever do another “top ten” list, the best settings of the Te Deum would be a good one.)

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