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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 10067

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Owing to the unrelenting hostility of Cherubini, Berlioz failed to secure a professorship at the Conservatoire, a place to which he was nobly entitled, and was fain to take up with the position of librarian instead. The paltry wage he eked out by journalistic writing, for the most part as musical critic of the "Journal des Débats," by occasional concerts, revising proofs, in a word anything which a versatile and desperate Bohemian could turn his hand to. In fact, for many years the main subsistence of Berlioz was derived from feuilleton-writing and the labors of a critic. His prose is so witty, brilliant, fresh, and epigrammatic that he would have been known to posterity as a clever litterateur, had he not preferred to remain merely a great musician. Dramatic, picturesque, and subtile, with an admirable sense of art-form, he could have become a powerful dramatist, perhaps a great novelist. But his soul, all whose aspirations set toward one goal, revolted from the labors of literature, still more from the daily grind of journalistic drudgery. In that remarkable book, "Mémoires de Hector Berlioz," he has made known his misery, and thus recounts one of his experiences: "I stood at the window gazing into the gardens, at the heights of Montmartre, at the setting sun; reverie bore me a thousand leagues from my accursed comic opera. And when, on turning, my eyes fell upon the accursed title at the head of the accursed sheet, blank still, and obstinately awaiting my word, despair seized upon me. My guitar rested against the table; with a kick I crushed its side. Two pistols on the mantel stared at me with great round eyes. I regarded them for some time, then beat my forehead with clinched hand. At last I wept furiously, like a schoolboy unable to do his theme. The bitter tears were a relief. I turned the pistols toward the wall; I pitied my innocent guitar, and sought a few chords, which were given without resentment. Just then my son of six years knocked at the door [the little Louis whose death, years after, was the last bitter drop in the composer's cup of life]; owing to my ill-humor, I had unjustly scolded him that morning. 'Papa,' he cried, 'wilt thou be friends?' 'I will be friends; come on, my boy'; and I ran to open the door. I took him on my knee, and, with his blonde head on my breast, we slept together.... Fifteen years since then, and my torment still endures. Oh, to be always there!-scores to write, orchestras to lead, rehearsals to direct. Let me stand all day with baton in hand, training a chorus, singing their parts myself, and beating the measure until I spit blood, and cramp seizes my arm; let me carry desks, double basses, harps, remove platforms, nail planks like a porter or a carpenter, and then spend the night in rectifying the errors of engravers or copyists. I have done, do, and will do it. That belongs to my musical life, and I bear it without thinking of it, as the hunter bears the thousand fatigues of the chase. But to scribble eternally for a livelihood-!"

It may be fancied that such a man as Berlioz did not spare the lash, once he griped the whip-handle, and, though no man was more generous than he in recognizing and encouraging genuine merit, there was none more relentless in scourging incompetency, pretentious commonplace, and the blind conservatism which rests all its faith in what has been. Our composer made more than one powerful enemy by this recklessness in telling the truth, where a more politic man would have gained friends strong to help in time of need. But Berlioz was too bitter and reckless, as well as too proud, to debate consequences.

In 1838 Berlioz completed his "Benvenuto Cellini," his only attempt at opera since "Les Francs Juges," and, wonderful to say, managed to get it done at the opera, though the director, Duponchel, laughed at him as a lunatic, and the whole company already regarded the work as damned in advance. The result was a most disastrous and éclatant failure, and it would have crushed any man whose moral backbone was not forged of thrice-tempered steel. With all these back-sets Hector Berlioz was not without encouragement. The brilliant Franz Liszt, one of the musical idols of the age, had bowed before him and called him master, the great musical protagonist. Spontini, one of the most successful composers of the time, held him in affectionate admiration, and always bade him be of good cheer. Paganini, the greatest of violinists, had hailed him as equal to Beethoven.

On the night of the failure of "Benvenuto Cellini," a strange-looking man with disheveled black hair and eyes of piercing brilliancy had forced his way around into the green-room, and, seeking out Berlioz, had fallen on his knees before him and kissed his hand passionately. Then he threw his arms around him and hailed the astonished composer as the master-spirit of the age in terms of glowing eulogium. The next morning, while Berlioz was in bed, there was a tap at the door, and Paganini's son, Achille, entered with

a note, saying his father was sick, or he would have come to pay his respects in person. On opening the note Berlioz found a most complimentary letter, and a more substantial evidence of admiration, a check on Baron Rothschild for twenty thousand francs! Paganini also gave Berlioz a commission to write a concerto for his Stradivarius viola, which resulted in a grand symphony, "Harold en Italie," founded on Byron's "Childe Harold," but still more an inspiration of his own Italian adventures, which had had a strong flavor of personal if they lacked artistic interest.

The generous gift of Paganini raised Berlioz from the slough of necessity so far that he could give his whole time to music. Instantly he set about his "Romeo and Juliet" symphony, which will always remain one of his masterpieces-a beautifully chiseled work, from the hands of one inspired by gratitude, unfettered imagination, and the sense of blessed repose. Our composer's first musical journey was an extensive tour in Germany in 1841, of which he gives charming memorials in his letters to Liszt, Heine, Ernst, and others. His reception was as generous and sympathetic as it had been cold and scornful in France. Everywhere he was honored and praised as one of the great men of the age. Mendelssohn exchanged batons with him at Leipsic, notwithstanding the former only half understood this stalwart Berserker of music. Spohr called him one of the greatest artists living, though his own direct antithesis, and Schumann wrote glowingly in the "Neue Zeitschrift": "For myself, Berlioz is as clear as the blue sky above. I really think there is a new time in music coming." Berlioz wrote joyfully to Heine: "I came to Germany as the men of ancient Greece went to the oracle at Delphi, and the response has been in the highest degree encouraging." But his Germanic laurels did him no good in France. The Parisians would have none of him except as a writer of feuilletons, who pleased them by the vigor with which he handled the knout, and tickled the levity of the million, who laughed while they saw the half-dozen or more victims flayed by merciless satire. Berlioz wept tears of blood because he had to do such executioner's work, but did it none the less vigorously for all that.

The composer made another musical journey in Austria and Hungary in 1844-'45, where he was again received with the most enthusiastic praise and pleasure. It was in Hungary, especially, that the warmth of his audiences overran all bounds. One night, at Pesth, where he played the "Rackoczy Indulé," an orchestral setting of the martial hymn of the Magyar race, the people were worked into a positive frenzy, and they would have flung themselves before him that he might walk over their prostrate bodies. Vienna, Pesth, and Prague, led the way, and the other cities followed in the wake of an enthusiasm which has been accorded to not many artists. The French heard these stories with amazement, for they could not understand how this musical demigod could be the same as he who was little better than a witty buffoon. During this absence Berlioz wrote the greater portion of his "Damnation de Faust," and, as he had made some money, he obeyed the strong instinct which always ruled him, the hope of winning the suffrages of his own countrymen.

An eminent French critic claims that this great work, of which we shall speak further on, contains that which Gounod's "Faust" lacks-insight into the spiritual significance of Goethe's drama. Berlioz exhausted all his resources in producing it at the Opéra Comique in 1846, but again he was disappointed by its falling stillborn on the public interest. Berlioz was utterly ruined, and he fled from France in the dead of winter as from a pestilence.

The genius of this great man was recognized in Holland, Russia, Austria, and Germany, but among his own countrymen, for the most part, his name was a laughing-stock and a by-word. He offended the pedants and the formalists by his daring originality, he had secured the hate of rival musicians by the vigor and keenness of his criticisms. Berlioz was in the very heat of the artistic controversy between the classicists and romanticists, and was associated with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Delacroix, Liszt, Chopin, and others, in fighting that acrimonious art-battle. While he did not stand formally with the ranks, he yet secured a still more bitter portion of hostility from their powerful opponents, for, to opposition in principle, Berlioz united a caustic and vigorous mode of expression. His name was a target for the wits. "A physician who plays on the guitar and fancies himself a composer," was the scoff of malignant gossips. The journals poured on him a flood of abuse without stint. French malignity is the most venomous and unscrupulous in the world, and Berlioz was selected as a choice victim for its most vigorous exercise, none the less willingly that he had shown so much skill and zest in impaling the victims of his own artistic and personal dislike.

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