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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8625

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Berlioz's happiest evenings were at the Grand Opéra, for which he prepared himself by solemn meditation. At the head of a band of students and amateurs, he took on himself the right of the most outspoken criticism, and led the enthusiasm or the condemnation of the audience. At this time Beethoven was barely tolerated in Paris, and the great symphonist was ruthlessly clipped and shorn to suit the French taste, which pronounced him "bizarre, incoherent, diffuse, bustling with rough modulations and wild harmonies, destitute of melody, forced in expression, noisy, and fearfully difficult," even as England at the same time frowned down his immortal works as "obstreperous roarings of modern frenzy." Berlioz's clear, stern voice would often be heard, when liberties were taken with the score, loud above the din of the instruments. "What wretch has dared to tamper with the great Beethoven?" "Who has taken upon him to revise Gluck?" This self-appointed arbiter became the dread of the operatic management, for, as a pupil of the Conservatoire, he had some rights which could not be infringed.

Berlioz composed some remarkable works while at the Conservatoire, among which were the "Ouverture des Francs Juges," and the symphonie "Fantastique," and in many ways indicated that the bent of his genius had fully declared itself. His decided and indomitable nature disdained to wear a mask, and he never sugar-coated his opinion, however unpalatable to others. He was already in a state of fierce revolt against the conventional forms of the music of his day, and no trumpet-tones of protest were too loud for him. He had now begun to write for the journals, though oftentimes his articles were refused on account of their fierce assaults. "Your hands are too full of stones, and there are too many glass windows about," was the excuse of one editor, softening the return of a manuscript. But Berlioz did not fully know himself or appreciate the tendencies fermenting within him until in 1830 he became the victim of a grand Shakespearean passion. The great English dramatist wrought most powerfully on Victor Hugo and Hector Berlioz, and had much to do with their artistic development. Berlioz gives a very interesting account of his Shakespearean enthusiasm, which also involved one of the catastrophes of his own personal life. "An English company gave some plays of Shakespeare, at that time wholly unknown to the French public. I went to the first performance of 'Hamlet' at the Odéon. I saw, in the part of Ophelia, Harriet Smithson, who became my wife five years afterward. The effect of her prodigious talent, or rather of her dramatic genius, upon my heart and imagination, is only comparable to the complete overturning which the poet, whose worthy interpreter she was, caused in me. Shakespeare, thus coming on me suddenly, struck me as with a thunderbolt. His lightning opened the heaven of art to me with a sublime crash, and lighted up its farthest depths. I recognized true dramatic grandeur, beauty, and truth. I measured at the same time the boundless inanity of the notions of Shakespeare in France, spread abroad by Voltaire,

'... ce singe de génie,

Chez l'homme en mission par le diable envoyé-'

(that ape of genius, an emissary from the devil to man),' and the pitiful poverty of our old poetry of pedagogues and ragged-school teachers. I saw, I understood, I felt that I was alive and must arise and walk." Of the influence of "Romeo and Juliet" on him, he says: "Exposing myself to the burning sun and balmy nights of Italy, seeing this love as quick and sudden as thought, burning like lava, imperious, irresistible, boundless, and pure and beautiful as the smile of angels, those furious scenes of vengeance, those distracted embraces, those struggles between love and death, was too much. After the melancholy, the gnawing anguish, the tearful love, the cruel irony, the somber meditations, the heart-rackings, the madness, tears, mourning, the calamities and sharp cleverness of Hamlet; after the gray clouds and icy winds of Denmark; after the third act, hardly breathing, in pain as if a hand of iron were squeezing at my heart, I said to myself with the fullest conviction: 'Ah! I am lost.' I must add that I did not at that time know a word of English, that I only caug

ht glimpses of Shakespeare through the fog of Letourneur's translation, and that I consequently could not perceive the poetic web that surrounds his marvelous creations like a net of gold. I have the misfortune to be very nearly in the same sad case to-day. It is much harder for a Frenchman to sound the depths of Shakespeare than for an Englishman to feel the delicacy and originality of La Fontaine or Molière. Our two poets are rich continents; Shakespeare is a world. But the play of the actors, above all of the actress, the succession of the scenes, the pantomime and the accent of the voices, meant more to me, and filled me a thousand times more with Shakespearean ideas and passion than the text of my colorless and unfaithful translation. An English critic said last winter in the 'Illustrated London News,' that, after seeing Miss Smithson in Juliet, I had cried out, 'I will marry that woman and write my grandest symphony on this play.' I did both, but never said anything of the sort."

The beautiful Miss Smithson became the rage, the inspiration of poets and painters, the idol of the hour, at whose feet knelt all the roués and rich idlers of the town. Delacroix painted her as the Ophelia of his celebrated picture, and the English company made nearly as much sensation in Paris as the Comédie Fran?aise recently aroused in London. Berlioz's mind, perturbed and inflamed with the mighty images of the Shakespearean world, swept with wide, powerful passion toward Shakespeare's interpreter. He raged and stormed with his accustomed vehemence, made no secret of his infatuation, and walked the streets at night, calling aloud the name of the enchantress, and cooling his heated brows with many a sigh. He, too, would prove that he was a great artist, and his idol should know that she had no unworthy lover. He would give a concert, and Miss Smithson should be present by hook or by crook. He went to Cherubini and asked permission to use the great hall of the Conservatoire, but was churlishly refused. Berlioz however, managed to secure the concession over the head of Cherubini, and advertised his concert. He went to large expense in copyists, orchestra, solo-singers, and chorus, and, when the night came, was almost fevered with expectation. But the concert was a failure, and the adored one was not there; she had not even heard of it! The disappointment nearly laid the young composer on a bed of sickness; but, if he oscillated between deliriums of hope and despair, his powerful will was also full of elasticity, and not for long did he even rave in the utter ebb of disappointment. Throughout the whole of his life, Berlioz displayed this swiftness of recoil; one moment crazed with grief and depression, the next he would bend to his labor with a cool, steady fixedness of purpose, which would sweep all interferences aside like cobwebs. But still, night after night, he would haunt the Odéon, and drink in the sights and sounds of the magic world of Shakespeare, getting fresh inspiration nightly for his genius and love. If he paid dearly for this rich intellectual acquaintance by his passion for La Belle Smithson, he yet gained impulses and suggestions for his imagination, ravenous of new impressions, which wrought deeply and permanently. Had Berlioz known the outcome, he would not have bartered for immunity by losing the jewels and ingots of the Shakespeare treasure-house.

The year 1830 was for Berlioz one of alternate exaltation and misery; of struggle, privation, disappointment; of all manner of torments inseparable from such a volcanic temperament and restless brain. But he had one consolation which gratified his vanity. He gained the Prix de Rome by his cantata of "Sardanapalus." This honor had a practical value also. It secured him an annuity of three thousand francs for a period of five years, and two years' residence in Italy. Berlioz would never let "well enough" alone, however. He insisted on adding an orchestral part to the completed score, describing the grand conflagration of the palace of Sardanapalus. When the work was produced, it was received with a howl of sarcastic derision, owing to the latest whim of the composer. So Berlioz started for Italy, smarting with rage and pain, as if the Furies were lashing him with their scorpion whips.

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