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Hector Berlioz relished the spectacular sounds that could be achieved with massive orchestral 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…

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, probably uniquely among composers, Berlioz 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 music connoisseurs, Hector Berlioz is that man. In his own day, he was little appreciated, with only his music-drama La Damnation of Faust winning acclaim from the Wagnerians who came to dominate the musical scene in the last half of the nineteenth century. Berlioz’ sometimes harsh judgments as a music critic of other composers’ efforts earned him enemies among his peers, who in turn lampooned him as a practitioner of cheap orchestral effects. A famous cartoon (seen above) 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.

And Berlioz’ reputation generally worsened over time. Certainly, conservatives tended to be suspicious of the arch-Romantic Berlioz: His embrace of the principles of the French Revolution (he famously arranged Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s “La Marseillaise”—the version we know today), his occasional mockery of Church authority, his atheism, his sexual libertinism, and the truly revolutionary nature of his music all cast him under a cloud of suspicion. It was not until 1951, when historian Jacques Barzun wrote his monumental, two volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century that a reappraisal of the composer’s music took place. As Arthur Krystal writes in The New Yorker:

Toscanini was one of a small number of musicians at mid-century who admired Berlioz. The rest of the music world, along with “conservatives, clerics, liberals and socialists,” Barzun wrote, “all joined in repudiating” the Romantic style. But, where others heard in Berlioz disorder and bombast, Barzun discerned exuberance, vividness, and dramatic flair. When he listened to Berlioz, Barzun heard “Gothic cathedrals, the festivals of the Revolution, the antique grandeur of classic tragedy, the comic force of Molière and Beaumarchais, and the special lyricism of his own Romantic period.”

Barzun’s study was followed in 1969 by British conductor Colin Davis’ first performance and recording of Berlioz’ massive opera, Les Troyens; its success sparked Davis to record all Berlioz’ major works, and the composer’s reputation truly began to improve.

And yet, prejudices remain. 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 studio recording was made of the Messe Solennelle, despite its great musical interest and its added importance in the understanding of Berlioz’s musical development.

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 examples in Faust and Romeo et Juliette.

But it is Berlioz’s music itself that takes precedence over its influence. Take as one example of the many beauties crafted by this composer the aforementioned Harold in Italy, a work was described by Berlioz 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 3:45 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:

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: one “Pierre Ducré.” This little practical joke on Berlioz’s part stemmed from his frustration with the public’s reception of his work theretofore, and it also suggests that he was reluctant to admit to his contemporaries that he—an atheist—had composed an oratorio on so quaint a theme as the infancy narrative of Jesus. Known for his large-scale, grandiloquent orchestral and choral works, the more contemplative nature of L’Enfance du Christ was so seemingly out of character for the composer that his ruse succeeded. “Monsieur Berlioz could never write anything as charming as that,’ one lady exclaimed after hearing Berlioz conduct “The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family.” 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. Here is the famous “Shepherds’ Farewell”:

Berlioz did relish the spectacular sounds that could be achieved with massive orchestral 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.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is  “Un concert en 1846,” caricature by Andreas Geigner, courtesy of Wikipedia France.

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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.” – http://tinyurl.com/mmp4dwa.

    • 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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