In 1969, the hundredth anniversary of Hector Berlioz’s death, the Association nationale Hector Berlioz began sponsoring a critical edition of the composer’s writings. The first part of the project finished in 2003 with the publication of the eighth volume of Berlioz’s letters, edited by the late Pierre Citron (a ninth appeared in 2016 after his death). Citron also edited and annotated Berlioz’s Mémoires, surely one of the most amusing autobiographies ever written. Also from the late 1960s, Les Soirées de l’orchestre, Les Grotesques de la musique, and the punning À travers chants, books containing Berlioz’s adaptations of his music criticism, made their way into print. The critique musicale, however, was an even bigger task. Six volumes under the Buchet/Chastel imprint appeared at intervals between 1996 and 2009, when publication of the remaining volumes was assumed by the Société Française de musicologie. The tenth, and probably final, volume of the set was published in late 2020 and, like its predecessors, makes for wonderful reading.
Essentially a thirty-eight-year musical diary, Berlioz’s critique musicale runs from 1824, when he wrote as a bomb-throwing music student, to 1863, when, ill and tired, he laid down his pen. Its six thousand–odd pages describe Paris (with side trips to Italy, Germany, Russia, and England) seething with music, particularly at the Opéra, the Opéra Comique, and the Théâtre Italien. Berlioz’s feuilletons for Parisian papers and journals also included reviews of recitals and orchestral concerts, technical analysis, anecdotes, artists’ profiles, social observations, and gossip, all written in his deeply informed, ironic, and (often) burst-out-loud-laughing style. Throughout his writing career, Berlioz remained faithful to his idols: Shakespeare, the “power, veracity, grandeur, [and] energy” of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the dreamy and passionate Carl Maria von Weber, the “purity and austerity” of Étienne Méhul, and, above all, Beethoven, whom he saw as the founder of modern music.
It was ironic, then, that Berlioz hated being a critic, the job being something of a last resort. Throughout his career he struggled to find popular acceptance for his compositions. (“His music,” wrote Heinrich Heine, “has something primeval about it . . . it reminds me of extinct species of animals, of fabulous kingdoms and fabulous sins, of sky-storming impossibilities, of Semiramis’s hanging gardens, of Nineveh.”) His radically different sound found little favor with audiences wanting to be beguiled by feather-light comic operas or astonished by Meyerbeer’s and Halévy’s five-hour spectaculars. Needing to keep bread on the table, Berlioz turned to musical journalism.
What was supposed to be a temporary expedient turned into a lifelong burden—though modern readers may find that hard to believe. So effortless is Berlioz’s style, so immediate is his excitement about hearing performers like Liszt and Chopin, so awed is he by Beethoven’s music, that we are seduced into believing these performances took place just last week. What is humorous to one eye is seldom amusing to another, but so droll are his remarks about performances that don’t make the grade that we laugh along with him. Nobody but Berlioz could compare a singer’s random success in hitting her notes to “necklaces worn by savages made up of random pieces of coral, large beans, fishbones, teeth, small pieces of wood, and sheeps’ knuckles.”
Coming to Paris in the early 1820s to train as a doctor, Berlioz quickly realized that medicine was not for him. Escaping to the Opéra after a day in the dissecting room, he was overwhelmed: “I was like a young sailor accustomed to my little boat on a mountain lake suddenly finding myself at sea on a liner.” He began studying composition and harmony on the side and, finding that he took to it, started formal studies at the Paris Conservatoire. After a remarkably short time he won the Prix de Rome, the greatest honor that academic France could offer a young artist. The prize stipend allowed him to compose for a few years, but marriage and his always precarious finances required that he supplement his income, and criticism was the most likely option.
Though his Mémoires suggest that he started writing in the early 1830s, Volume 1 of the critique musicale shows him in print several years before. From his earliest writings, Berlioz’s enthusiasms were well formed. So were his bêtes noires: bass drums, the musical establishment, dilettantism (especially as practiced by men with lorgnettes), fugues, audience noise, commercialism, and the awfulness of music in Italy. In 1834 he was offered the position of chief critic for the Journal des débats, an important Paris daily. Despite his quick writing and even quicker wit, it was not an easy job. Still hoping for a career as a composer, Berlioz had to balance his lofty musical standards against the need not to alienate the singers, conductors, and managers who could veto—or torpedo—performances of his work. “It’s a dog’s life,” he sighed, “either biting or licking.”
Despite completing major works like the Requiem and his opera Benvenuto Cellini, he reviewed hundreds of performances.
An important part of his mission, as he saw it, was raising musical standards and persuading readers to his view. From 1835 to 1838, the years covered by Volumes 2 and 3, he was amazingly productive both as composer and critic. Despite completing major works like the Requiem and his opera Benvenuto Cellini, he reviewed hundreds of performances. He analyzesBeethoven’s symphonies, not for the last time over his career. He describes Liszt’s performances of chamber music, shares his outrage at the addition of cymbals and trombones to Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, and makes us laugh at his burlesque descriptions of comic operas like Ferdinand Hérold’s Zampa, a low-rent version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One (not infallible) rule of thumb in divining Berlioz’s true feelings about an opéra comique is the more he describes the silliness of a plot, or devotes space to a vaguely related topic, the less interested he is in the music.
His scorching pace of reviews continued, even though he was preoccupied in the new decade by his Roméo et Juliette and the Grandesymphonie funèbre et triomphale. In Volume 4 (1839–41), Berlioz writes of his admiration for Gluck, Weber, and, again, Beethoven. A capable talent spotter, he describes early performances by Pauline Viardot (née García), the young César Franck, and the phenomenal pianist Clara Wieck, who soon married Robert Schumann. Paganini and Chopin are praised, along with the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who threw himself out of a Naples hotel window after his voice failed. Berlioz must have had his bugbear, the soprano Rosine Stoltz, particularly in mind when he later wrote in a very long sentence:
A singer capable of just sixteen measures of good music . . . without exaggeration, without empty-headedness, without affectation, without mawkishness, without grammatical errors, without confusing linkages, without pauses, without brazen changes to the text, without transposing, without spluttering, without howling, without quavering, without wrong notes, without crippling the rhythm, without ridiculous ornamentation, without disgusting appoggiaturas, and in a way consistent with the composer’s period, in other words, doing what the composer wanted—is a rare bird, a very rare bird, an incredibly rare bird.
In Volume 5 we read of his enthusiasm for performances by the Concerts du Conservatoire and about dozens of recitals and other concerts, new operas by Ambroise Thomas and Hippolyte Monpou, and older ones by Nicolas Dalayrac and Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny. Away from the stage, Berlioz describes the new instruments exhibited by Adolphe Sax at the 1844 Festival de l’Industrie and presents the essays which came to form his masterly Treatise on Orchestration (a work that has never been out of print) and Euphonia, his utopian musical city. The importance of music—good music—as one of life’s necessities was an idea close to his heart. In one of his very last articles, Berlioz mentions the growing number of choral societies in France but deplores the fact that many towns have no singing schools, musical instruments, or anything else to help them “escape from their barbarity.”
In Volume 6 (1846–48), Berlioz describes his travels in France and abroad, his ideas on the rights of the poor and on improving the curriculum at the Conservatoire, and his growing admiration for Sax’s brass instruments. He explains the allure of Liszt and his great rival Sigismond Thalberg, introduces us to newcomers like Leopold de Meyer (one of the great Chopin pianists of all time), and piques our curiosity with his thoughts on now-forgotten operas by Auguste Mermet and Friedrich von Flotow, while reviewing hundreds of other works.
Volume 7 (1849–52) covers the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution and reveals a Berlioz more willing to express his growing disillusion with Parisian musical culture. While he worries about the cultural ignorance of the young, he finds much to praise in Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, Mozart’s Idomeneo, and comic operas by André Grétry, Méhul, and Dalayrac. Deeply impressed by Pauline Viardot’s singing in Meyerbeer’s new Le prophète, Berlioz nevertheless leaves us in no doubt of his views regarding the composer’s dubious concessions to taste.
Parisian musical life in the early part of the Second Empire (after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor) is the subject of Volumes 8 and 9 (1852–59). We read of Halévy’s Jaguarita l’Indienne, Charles Gounod’s The Bloody Nun (based on a libretto that once interested Berlioz himself), and Giuseppi Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, along with a flood of opéras comiques, including ones by Victor Massé, Louis Clapisson, Albert Grisar, and Eugène Gautier. Berlioz describes virtuoso performances by Giovanni Bottesini (double-bass) and Eugène Vivier (horn), as well as by the violinists Henri Vieuxtemps, Henryk Wieniawski, and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, all of whose music still delights and dazzles us today. He tells us about productions at the Théâtre Lyrique of Gounod’s brand-new Faust and of Berlioz’s own version of Gluck’s Orphée with Pauline Viardot. Here, as in the preceding volumes, Berlioz treats the reader to captivating descriptions of now-forgotten composers and works. As he had such an ear for talent, one can but wonder: what ever happened to those pieces? Why aren’t we hearing more of them now?
Volume 10 concludes the critique musicale with 128 reviews (with some containing notices of several performances) published from January 1860 until October 1863. Overall, it was not a happy time—Berlioz’s health was deteriorating, and he was humiliated by the runaround the Opéra was giving him about Les Troyens, his great masterpiece. And of course, the daily grind continued. Volume 10 bulges with his notices of opéras comiques, often reviewed through gritted teeth. In one notice, he called out the formulaic sameness of the genre:
the same melodic forms, the same modulations, the same final cadences, the same rhythms, the same orchestral returns at the same forte at the same time, the same skipping dotted line at the same point adopting the same instrumentation.
The Opéra’s impoverished repertory offered little relief. It proceeds, Berlioz dryly writes, from “Herculaneum to La favorite, from La favorite to Lucia, from Lucia to La favorite and sometimes from La favorite to Le comte Ory or even Guillaume Tell.”
He was disenchanted as well as bored. Never wanting to be remembered as a littérateur, Berlioz nevertheless spent the best part of four decades using his pulpit to argue for better music—on the supply side from musicians and on the demand side for a more elevated public taste—with little, in his view, to show for it. Richard Wagner’s rising star also probably contributed to his malaise. Though he found Wagner’s music uncongenial, Berlioz may have also sensed that Paris, with its penchant for the new and the different, was far more susceptible to Wagner’s music than to his own classically rooted works. The volume opens with “The Music of the Future,” Berlioz’s famous review of two Théâtre Italien concerts in January 1860 in which Wagner conducted extracts from his operas.
He acknowledges the grandeur of the Tannhäuser overture but says it nevertheless caused him “un fatigue extrême.”
While acknowledging the beauty of certain passages, Berlioz’s review is otherwise unsparing. He describes the Tristan theme as “some sort of chromatic moan,” and, while complimentary about the overture to Flying Dutchman, he is wearied by Wagner’s unabated use of orchestral tremolos and “chromatic scales ending up only with more chromatic scales.” He acknowledges the grandeur of the Tannhäuser overture but says it nevertheless caused him “un fatigue extrême” (a comment echoed by Liszt, incidentally, when he prepared his famous piano transcription of the work). Berlioz sums up the characteristics of “the music of the future”—a term that had become associated with Wagner’s music—and concludes with the words “non credo”: “I do not believe,” or, more colloquially, “not for me.” He later wrote to a friend, “the diminished sevenths, the discords, the savage modulations gave me a fever . . . for me, this sort of music is odious, it revolts me.” When Tannhäuser was performed at the Opéra the following year, Berlioz asked his colleague Joseph d’Ortigue to attend in his place. The volume’s editors note that Baudelaire, a fervent Wagnerian, was grateful for Berlioz’s absence, sniffing that they should “thank [Berlioz] for not adding to the universal insults” the performance received.
Nevertheless, there were bright spots during these late years. Berlioz praises the Théâtre Lyrique’s Fidelio, compliments Gounod’s Reine de Saba and Philémon et Baucis and Prince Józef Poniatowski’s Pierre de Medicis, and devotes several long articles to Pauline Viardot’s spectacular performance in Alceste. His concertgoing hardly slackened, and he gives us sketches of the playing of famous instrumentalists: Antonio Bazzini (“so suave and expressive”), Moritz Nabich (“he tamed [the trombone] and made it his slave”), Leopold Auer (“lovely bowing, and a pure, sweet sound not lacking in power”), Thalberg (“Erard’s pianos are still ringing and their keys still moving by themselves”), and the adored Viardot in a benefit concert (“we strongly doubt that there is another artist in Europe capable of conveying such emotion, poetry and yet horror . . . everyone in the hall shivered”). He reviews the charming piano preludes of Stephen Heller and symphonies by Henri Reber. Of course, he also cracks the whip, confessing in one instance that he skipped a recital by one Mlle ***, a “charming young pianist” who played a Weber sonata “corrected” by Ignaz Moscheles—a sin beyond forgiveness.
In mid-1863, Berlioz sold the rights to Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens, his first and last operas, to Antoine de Choudens, the music publisher. The proceeds enabled him to retire from the Débats that October. His last article was a glowing review of The Pearl Fishers and its young composer, George Bizet. Two years later, he put the final touches on his Mémoires and included a bitter send-off to his life as a critic. “No more feuilletons to write, no more bland performances to justify, no more mediocrity to praise, no more anger to contain, no more lies . . . Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Despite his protestations, however, very little of the critique musicale reads like the burden he claimed it to be. Throughout, it sparkles with energy, humor, tact (with some exceptions), insight, and above all a profound love of music. Referring to his own labors, Ludwig von Köchel, the compiler and cataloguer of Mozart’s work, could also have been describing Berlioz when he wrote that “a great genius can be given no more worthy testimonial to his honor than an accurate edition of his complete works.”
1Critique musicale, volume 10: 1860–1863, by Hector Berlioz; Société Française de Musicologie, 650 pages, €45.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 13
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