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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.

He 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, the occasional overture, and perhaps an excerpt or two from one of his music-dramas, 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 works present obstacles to performance. Many 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 performers played in the premier of his Te Deum. His Harold in Italy includes a solo part for the viola, an instrument that is played only by a small handful of world-class soloists; yet many of these players, like the virtuoso for whom the piece was written, Niccolò Paganini, find it so devoid of opportunities for display that they do not champion it. His supreme dramatic works—La Damnation of Faust, Roméo et Juliette, and L’Enfance du Christ—are episodic hybrids of opera and symphony and are difficult to stage.

This composer also lacks partisans who fondly recall his music in association with the pleasant memories of childhood, as many adults do in the case of, say, a Brahms or Mozart. This is because he wrote no piano or violin sonatas that a young student might learn. (He himself destroyed a few of his early chamber works and wrote none in his maturity.) In fact, probably uniquely among the great 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 music connoisseurs, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is that man. In his own day, he was little appreciated, with only a few of his works, such as the oratorio L’Enfance du Christ and the opera Béatrice et Bénédict, winning wide acclaim. Many lampooned him as a practitioner of cheap orchestral effects. His contemporary Felix Mendelssohn, whose music Berlioz admired, said of the Frenchman’s music: “All these effects are used to express nothing but an insignificant mess—mere back and forth grunts, roars and shouts. His orchestration is so dirty that I have to wash my hands after turning over the pages of his scores.”[1] His compatriot Claude Debussy called him simply, a “monster.”

Berlioz’s sometimes harsh judgments as a music critic (a job he detested, yet excelled at, for many years) earned him enemies among his peers. Gioachino Rossini, whom Berlioz reviled as the embodiment of the silly Italian opera style so fashionable in the Paris of his day, took one look at the score of the Symphonie Fantastique and exclaimed, “Mon Dieu, it’s lucky it’s not music!” A famous cartoon of the day (seen above) shows him conducting outsized tubas and zany percussion instruments, including a cannon (!)… deafening, angering, and terrifying his audience. Unfortunately, this caricature—that of the wild-eyed, zany Romantic of the orchestra, who understood all too well the mind of the opium-using protagonist of his Symphonie Fantastisque—persisted after Berlioz’s death, even to the present day.

It was not until 1950, 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.”[2]

Barzun’s study was followed in 1969 by British conductor Colin Davis’ first complete performance and recording of Berlioz’s massive opera, Les Troyens; its success sparked Davis to record all Berlioz’s major works, and the composer’s reputation at last began to improve. “He was the first and the most original Romantic,” Davis says,

He was a great genius in his way. And his music consists of all kinds of conflicting ideas. He writes these wonderful melodies, and he’s capable of great tenderness…. At the same time, he can write a Tuba Mirum in the Requiem which blows everybody’s brains out… You see, he was a clear-minded, straight-thinking, but very original, gifted man.

Scholars such as Peter Bloom, Julian Rushton, Hugh MacDonald (editor of the New Berlioz Edition), and David Cairns (author of a landmark two-volume biography of the composer) further buttressed the claims of those who saw Berlioz as a neglected genius, indeed perhaps the greatest musical genius of them all. “Berlioz had this extraordinary vivid, poetic imagination,” Mr. Cairns says, “and he would have a picture of a sort of world. Each major composition of his is a different, new world with its own rules, its own forms, its own colors.” [4]

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 importance in the understanding of Berlioz’s musical development. It is astounding that even today, a critic for one of the premier classical music magazines can begin a review of a new recording of one of Berlioz’s greatest works this way: “What’s the longest viola joke in the world? Harold in Italy… 40 minutes of music which can run out of steam.”[3] “I think for a lot of my colleagues,” Berlioz champion and conductor John Nelson sighs, “Berlioz is an enigma and difficult to understand and they back away from him.” “If you’re not moved,” Colin Davis says of Berlioz’s music, “well, I’m sorry for you.”[5]

“The dominant qualities of my music,” Berlioz wrote, “are passionate expression, inward ardor, rhythmical animation and the unexpected.” It’s been said that Berlioz is the one great composer who was influenced by no one before him and who influenced no one after him. Though this somewhat inaccurate statement highlights the composer’s uniqueness, Berlioz was indeed influenced by others: Ludwig van Beethoven, his teacher Jean-François Le Sueur, and his musical idol Christoph Willibald Gluck; and he clearly influenced later composers like Richard Strauss (whose Don Quixote, like Berlioz in Harold in Italy, uses a solo instrument—in Strauss’ case, the cello—to represent the protagonist) and Gustav Mahler, whose “Symphony of a Thousand” and “Resurrection” symphony make use of multiple choirs and massed orchestral forces, and whose song cycles owe a large debt to Berlioz’s exquisite Les Nuits d’été. Even in Richard Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, his new synthesis of music, verse, and staging, can be gleaned the influence of Berlioz’s Faust and Roméo.

But it is Berlioz’s music itself that takes precedence over any influence it might have exerted. 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 piece is based on Lord Byron’s poem, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. When the viola enters in the first movement, titled “Harold in the Mountains” (at 3:50 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 (though it was rediscovered after his death). But he recognized the value of the piece’s central theme:

The virtuoso Paganini, who had initially rejected this work that he had commissioned, was so taken with it upon hearing Berlioz conduct a performance of it a few years later, that he rushed to podium at the concert’s conclusion, knelt, and kissed the composer’s hand. Paganini then sent Berlioz 20,000 francs—the equivalent of $250,000 today—as compensation (and then some!) for his failure to fulfill the earlier commission.

Paganini was not the only music virtuoso who was won over by Berlioz. Franz Liszt, the great pianist and (mediocre) composer, was a tireless champion of the Frenchman, creating arrangements for piano of the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold In Italy (a crucial step in popularizing orchestral music in the pre-phonograph era), organizing a “Berlioz Week” of concerts of his friend’s works, and fashioning a shorter version of the the failed opera Benvenuto Cellini for a production in Weimar, designed to win it more popularity (it did not).

Indeed, Benvenuto Cellini, with a libretto based on the autobiography of the historical Renaissance sculptor, was not staged again until Colin Davis recorded a performance in 1972—more than 100 years after the composer’s death! The operas’s neglect today is as puzzling as it is troubling. One would think that an opera penned by a religious skeptic, tinged with anti-clericalism (the Pope appears as a villain in the piece) and featuring an an almost Nietzschean celebration of its protagonist as Superman, would appeal to the Left-leaning opera industry. This is not to mention the fact that Cellini contains many sublime and dramatic moments, is eminently tuneful, and is indeed superior to many of the major Italian operas of the nineteenth century, which still populate the programs of opera houses while Cellini lies dormant. Sample some of Cellini‘s musical beauty here, as Cellini and Teresa profess their mutual love (and try to ignore the modern staging):

But again, one suspects that it is the composer’s name that worries today’s impresarios about a production of Cellini‘s chances of success. This has seemingly always been the case: There survives from Berlioz’s own day an an advertisement for a performance of the opera that omits the composer’s name entirely. “If [certain people] were asked their opinion of the chord of D major (being warned beforehand that I had written it),” Berlioz lamented in his Memoirs, “they would declare with indignation: ‘What a detestable chord!’”

The son of an unbelieving father and a devout Roman Catholic mother (the latter cursed him upon his decision to forego the career in medicine that they favored for him), Berlioz’s music reflected this dualistic spiritual legacy throughout his compositional career. His adaptation of Goethe’s Faust is surely partly 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. Despite his professed atheism, Berlioz composed three major religious works (and several lesser ones), the most famous of which is his monumental Grande Messe Des Morts, or Requiem. “If I were threatened with the burning of all of my works except one,” Berlioz once wrote, “it is for the Requiem that I would ask for mercy.” Here is the sublime Sanctus of the Requiem:

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 himself conduct “The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family”:

Many among modern audiences still don’t know what to make of Hector Berlioz. Associating his name with the common but unfounded charge of being “bombastic,” and believing second-hand reports that his music is uneven (one might ask what artist’s oeuvre doesn’t contain greater and lesser works, or more and less inspired passages?), many shy away from the composer. But for those of us who know and love his music, we—alongside Jacques Barzun—can revel unequivocally in its “exuberance, vividness, and dramatic flair”—and, alongside the composer himself, in its “passionate expression, inward ardor, rhythmical animation”… to say nothing of its poignancy, delicacy, and hushed mystery. Though he relished the spectacular sounds that could be achieved with massive instrumental forces, Berlioz 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. Berlioz’s music, Colin Davis asserts, “has a melodic curve which is entirely his. Of course, people who don’t like tunes don’t like Berlioz. But that doesn’t make any difference to me. I love him.”

And so should we. Loving Berlioz, it turns out, is quite easy.

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Notes:

[1] Mendelssohn’s assessment seems especially wrongheaded, considering the fact that Berlioz authored a Treatise on Orchestration that is considered a masterpiece of its type and that is still used by conductors today.

[2] “Age of Reason,” by Arthur Krystal, The New Yorker, (October 22, 2007).

[3] Mark Pullinger, review of Harold in Italy, conducted by Andrew Manze, Gramophone magazine.

[4] Tom Huizenga, “At 92, The Man Who Wrote The Book On Berlioz Resumes His Case,” interview with David Cairns, NPR, March 8, 2019.

[5] “The Masterpiece of French Opera – Conductor John Nelsons On His Lifelong Relationship & Warner Classics Recording of Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens,’” OperaWire (January 2018); all quotations by Colin Davis come from the video interview, Sir Colin Davis on Berlioz L’Enfance du Christ 2007, London Symphony Orchestra.

Editor’s Notes: The featured image is  “Un concert en 1846,” caricature by Andreas Geigner, courtesy of Wikipedia France. This essay was revised extensively in January 2019.

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6 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.)

    • A “Te Deum” Top Ten—a splendid idea! Berlioz’s setting was one of the first of his pieces that I fell in love with.

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