Teachout, Terry: Berlioz, An Unloved Romantic

[Commentary, October 1997 © T. Teachout]

HECTOR BERLIOZ is famous, but not popular. He is, in fact, the only great composer of the l9th century never to have been popular. Το be sure, his best-known composition, the Symphonie fantastique, is part of the standard orchestral repertory, and his music has been championed by such noted conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Serge Koussevitzky, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Sir Colin Davis. But his large-scale works for chorus and orchestra -Roméo et Juliette, La damnation de Faust, L’enfance du Christ, and the Requiem- are heard only rarely in concert, while his οperas are almost never staged by major houses. It is chiefly through recordings that in our age Berlioz has found an audience; even so, his admirers, though fervent, remain strikingly small in number.

Νο less striking is the long list of distinguished composers and critics who have had substantial reservations about the quality of Berlioz’s music or have actively disliked it. Felix Mendelssohn, for example, dismissed it as “indifferent drivel”; Giuseppe Verdi, who described Berlioz as “greatly and subtly gifted,” went οn to say that he “lacked the calm and what Ι may call the balance that produce complete works of art”; Igor Stravinsky called his reputation as an orchestrator “highly suspect.”

Berlioz was even less popular during his lifetime than today. Ιn Paris, where he lived for his entire adult life, his orchestral music was, with rare exceptions, heard only at performances he organized and conducted himself This may be partly attributed to the decadent state of French musical culture in the mid-l9th century, which was wholly dominated by opera -most of it trashy, much of it even worse. But in part, it was owing to something else: unable to earn a living by composing, Berlioz wrote music criticism for the Journal des débats, one of the most influential newspapers in Paris, and he thereby antagonized the very people who might have helped get his works performed.

As it happens, however, Berlioz’s literary career is of more than merely biographical interest: he was by far the most gifted among those composers of the first rank who have successfully doubled as professional writers. He contributed regularly to the Jοurnal des débats from 1834 to 1863, publishing three best-selling collections of his critical essays, and his posthumous memoirs are nοw widely acknowledged to be a classic of l9th-century autobiography. So stylish a writer was Berlioz that he was long known less for his music than for his prose. Interest in his writing has remained high to this day, as can be seen by the fact that Hugh Macdonald’s Selected Letterss of Berlioz, which contains 481 of his 4,000-odd surviving letters, is one of the few recent volumes of its kind to have been brought out by a trade publisher rather than by an academic press.

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