No honest discussion of the Romantic era in classical music can take place without making mention of Hector Berlioz, the great genius from France who seemed to typify Romanticism in casting almost all of his music in dramatic terms and in bending accepted musical forms to whatever need he saw fit. Here was a man who wrote a Requiem Mass that called for supplementing the orchestra and chorus with four brass bands, placed during performance at the ordinal points of the compass in the cathedral. Here was a man who attended an English theater troupe’s performance of Hamlet and fell in love at first sight with the actress playing Ophelia, a love which eventually produced Berlioz’s enduring masterwork, the Symphonie fantastique, and which later resulted in an unhappy marriage to that very actress. Here was a man of whom it was reported at his funeral that the horses pulling his funeral carriage suddenly seized the bit and charged forward to bring Berlioz alone into the cemetery.
Listening to Berlioz’s music, as I have extensively for nearly two decades now, one is struck by his attention to dramatic detail and by his constant fount of literary inspiration. Berlioz was well read in the classics: many of his works sprang from the pages of Shakespeare and Byron, and the greatest of his three operas, Les Troyens, drew heavily from Virgil’s Aeneid.
For all that, however, Berlioz was never successful as a composer. His music was never much accepted during his lifetime (in fact, Les Troyens was not even performed in its entirety until some years after Berlioz’s death), and his everyday life exhibited the tenuous existence that we equate with all Romantic artists. In order to remain solvent, Berlioz often had to turn to penning articles of criticism and commentary on music and cultural matters for the Paris publications of the day. By all accounts, Berlioz hated this work and the necessity of it, which is ironic given the quality of his writing, as evidenced in Evenings with the Orchestra.
Many critics eventually publish books that are collections of their reviews and essays, and in a way that is what Berlioz did here, but he cast it in a very ingenious light, surrounding the “meat” of his material with a wonderful literary device. Casting himself as a writer visiting an unnamed orchestra somewhere in a small French town, Berlioz posits that these poor musicians have to find some means of diverting themselves while they are in the process of performing bad operas:
In a certain opera house of northern Europe, it is the custom among the members of the orchestra, several of whom are cultivated men, to spend their time reading books — or even discussing matters literary and musical — whenever they perform any second-rate operas. This is to say that they read and talk a good deal. Next to the score on every music-stand, some book or other is generally to be found, and a performer apparently most absorbed in scanning his part, or most earnestly counting his rests while watching for his cue, may actually be giving all his attention to Balzac’s marvelous scenes, to Dickens’s enchanting pictures of social life, or even to the study of one of the sciences.
The book, then, is divided into the separate “Evenings,” with each chapter comprising the night’s discussion amongst the bored members of the orchestra. Over the course of twenty-five evenings, the conversations turn to topics such as the lives of prominent musicians of the day (Spontini and Paganini being two prominent examples), impressions of musical life in London as compared with that of Paris (Berlioz’s music has always found greater acceptance in Britain, even to this day), a discussion of the conspiratorial nature of applause in the concert hall, and far, far more.
Berlioz’s tone is almost always satirical, and his wit is often biting. One famous passage pokes fun at Felix Mendelssohn (who was actually a friend of Berlioz’s) by relating the strange events at a piano competition where every entrant had to perform the same Mendelssohn concerto. The piano, after having had the same work performed upon its keyboard over twenty times, takes on the work itself, and will not stop playing the piece even after it has been chopped to bits with an axe. Or consider this wonderful passage from the very first page of Berlioz’s prologue, where after describing what goes on at this orchestra’s performances and how the musicians distract themselves when the music is second-rate:
One man only in this orchestra does not allow himself any such diversion. Wholly intent upon his task, all energy, indefatigable, his eye glued to his notes and his arm in perpetual motion, he would feel dishonored if he were to miss an eighth note or incur censure for his tone quality. By the end of each act he is flushed, perspiring, exhausted; he can hardly breathe, yet he does not dare take advantage of the respite offered by the cessation of musical hostilities to go for a glass of beer at the nearest bar. The fear of missing the first measures of the next act keeps him rooted at his post. Touched by so much zeal, the manager of the opera house once sent him six bottles of wine, “by way ofencouragement.” But the artist, “conscious of his responsibilities,” was so far from grateful for the gift that he returned it with the proud words: ‘I have no need of encouragement.’ The reader will have guessed that I am speaking of the man who plays the bass drum.
Berlioz’s writing is full of sly surprises like this. I, for one, found the image of the bass-drummer being so diligent deliciously hilarious. And Berlioz even goes so far as to include a running gag in the timpanist’s ongoing failure to get a Bavarian cream before they are sold out.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for a reader not fluent in the original language of a work to judge the accuracy of a translation, but Jacques Barzun’s work here attains an urbane and witty tone that I have often seen attributed to Berlioz.
Critical commentary is always hard to read when it is divorced from its own time, and it becomes even harder the farther removed we are from the period in question. Berlioz makes references to figures in music who would have been known to the readers of his time, thus requiring Barzun to offer frequent footnotes to explain just what Berlioz is talking about. Fortunately, this isn’t as much of a distraction as it could be; in fact, I found it comforting in a way to reflect that Berlioz’s writings were not mere musings from a cloistered room, but the thoughts of a mind deeply engaged in the world about him. Good works of criticism can serve as testaments of not just a world long gone, but a testament of those who have gone before us.
All is not wit and satire with Berlioz, however: he was a man who could wield savage wit against work he regarded as inferior, but he was also a man who would speak in very solemn terms about art that touched his fiery soul. Consider the twenty-second of his Evenings with the Orchestra, in which Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris is given:
Evenings with the Orchestra gives not just a fine example of critical writing in nineteenth century Paris, nor even just a good illustration of the cultural life in that time and place. It does all that, to be sure, but most importantly it gives us a personal look at the inner world of one of Romanticism’s greatest composers. It’s a book that is full of humor, fire, and love of music. So it should be, having been written by Hector Berlioz.
(University of Chicago Press, 1999)