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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8046

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The pensioners of the Conservatoire lived at Rome in the Villa Medici, and the illustrious painter, Horace Vernet, was the director, though he exercised but little supervision over the studies of the young men under his nominal charge. Berlioz did very much as he pleased-studied little or much as the whim seized him, visited the churches, studios, and picture-galleries, and spent no little of his time by starlight and sunlight roaming about the country adjacent to the Holy City in search of adventures. He had soon come to the conclusion that he had not much to learn of Italian music; that he could teach rather than be taught. He speaks of Roman art with the bitterest scorn, and Wagner himself never made a more savage indictment of Italian music than does Berlioz in his "Mémoires." At the theatres he found the orchestra, dramatic unity, and common-sense all sacrificed to mere vocal display. At St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel religious earnestness and dignity were frittered away in pretty part-singing, in mere frivolity and meretricious show. The word "symphony" was not known except to indicate an indescribable noise before the rising of the curtain. Nobody had heard of Weber and Beethoven, and Mozart, dead more than a score of years, was mentioned by a well-known musical connoisseur as a young man of great promise! Such surroundings as these were a species of purgatory to Berlioz, against whose bounds he fretted and raged without intermission. The director's receptions were signalized by the performance of insipid cavatinas, and from these, as from his companions' revels in which he would sometimes indulge with the maddest debauchery as if to kill his own thoughts, he would escape to wander in the majestic ruins of the Coliseum and see the magic Italian moonlight shimmer through its broken arches, or stroll on the lonely Campagna till his clothes were drenched with dew. No fear of the deadly Roman malaria could check his restless excursions, for, like a fiery horse, he was irritated to madness by the inaction of his life. To him the dolce far niente was a meaningless phrase. His comrades scoffed at him and called him "Père la Joie," in derision of the fierce melancholy which despised them, their pursuits and pleasures.

At the end of the year he was obliged to present, something before the Institute as a mark of his musical advancement, and he sent on a fragment of his "Mass" heard years before at St. Roch, in which the wise judges professed to find the "evidences of material advancement, and the total abandonment of his former reprehensible tendencies." One can fancy the scornful laughter of Berlioz at hearing this verdict. But his Italian life was not altogether purposeless. He revised his "Symphonie Fantastique," and wrote its sequel, "Lelio," a lyrical monologue, in which he aimed to express the memories of his passion for the beautiful Miss Smithson. These two parts comprised what Berlioz named "An Episode in the Life of an Artist." Our composer managed to get the last six months of his Italian exile remitted, and his return to Paris was hastened by one of those furious paroxysms of rage to which such ill-regulated minds are subject. He had adored Miss Smithson as a celestial divinity, a lovely ideal of art and beauty, but this had not prevented him from basking in the rays of the earthly Venus. Before leaving Paris he had had an intrigue with a certain Mile. M---, a somewhat frivolous and unscrupulous beauty, who had bled his not overfilled purse with the avidity of a leech. Berlioz heard just before returning to Paris that the coquette was about to marry, a conclusion one would fancy which would have rejoiced his mind. But, no! he was worked to a dreadful rage by what he considered such perfidy! His one thought was to avenge himself. He provided himself with three loaded pistols-one for the faithless one, one for his rival, and one for himself-and was so impatient to start that he could not wait for passports. He attempted to cross the fr

ontier in women's clothes, and was arrested. A variety of contretemps occurred before he got to Paris, and by that time his rage had so cooled, his sense of the absurdity of the whole thing grown so keen, that he was rather willing to send Mile. M---his blessing than his curse.

About the time of Berlioz's arrival, Miss Smithson also returned to Paris after a long absence, with the intent of undertaking the management of an English theatre. It was a necessity of our composer's nature to be in love, and the flames of his ardor, fed with fresh fuel, blazed up again from their old ashes. Berlioz gave a concert, in which his "Episode in the Life of an Artist" was interpreted in connection with the recitations of the text. The explanations of "Lelio" so unmistakably pointed to the feeling of the composer for herself, that Miss Smithson, who by chance was present, could not be deceived, though she never yet had seen Berlioz. A few days afterward a benefit concert was arranged, in which Miss Smithson's troupe was to take part, as well as Berlioz, who was to direct a symphony of his own composition. At the rehearsal, the looks of Berlioz followed Miss Smithson with such an intent stare, that she said to some one, "Who is that man whose eyes bode me no good?" This was the first occasion of their personal meeting, and it may be fancied that Berlioz followed up the introduction with his accustomed vehemence and pertinacity, though without immediate effect, for Miss Smithson was more inclined to fear than to love him.

The young directress soon found out that the rage for Shakespeare, which had swept the public mind under the influence of the romanticism led by Victor Hugo, Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Balzac, and others, was spurious. The wave had been frothing but shallow, and it ebbed away, leaving the English actress and her enterprise gasping for life. With no deeper tap-root than the Gallic love of novelty and the infectious enthusiasm of a few men of great genius, the Shakespearean mania had a short life, and Frenchmen shrugged their shoulders over their own folly, in temporarily preferring the English barbarian to Racine, Corneille, and Molière. The letters of Berlioz, in which he scourges the fickleness of his countrymen in returning again to their "false gods," are masterpieces of pointed invective.

Miss Smithson was speedily involved in great pecuniary difficulty, and, to add to her misfortunes, she fell down stairs and broke her leg, thus precluding her own appearance on the stage. Affairs were in this desperate condition, when Berlioz came to the fore with a delicate and manly chivalry worthy of the highest praise. He offered to pay Miss Smithson's debts, though a poor man himself, and to marry her without delay. The ceremony took place immediately, and thus commenced a connection which hampered and retarded Berlioz's career, as well as caused him no little personal unhappiness. He speedily discovered that his wife was a woman of fretful, imperious temper, jealous of mere shadows (though Berlioz was a man to give her substantial cause), and totally lacking in sympathy writh his high-art ideals.

When Mme. Berlioz recovered, it was to find herself unable longer to act, as her leg was stiff and her movements unsuited to the exigencies of the stage. Poor Berlioz was crushed by the weight of the obligations he had assumed, and, as the years went on, the peevish plaints of an invalid wife, who had lost her beauty and power of charming, withered the affection which had once been so fervid and passionate. Berlioz finally separated from his once beautiful and worshiped Harriet Smithson, but to the very last supplied her wants as fully as he could out of the meager earnings of his literary work and of musical compositions, which the Paris public, for the most part, did not care to listen to. For his son, Louis, the only offspring of this union, Berlioz felt a devoted affection, and his loss at sea in after-years was a blow that nearly broke his heart.

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