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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 9927

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


To continue the record of Berlioz's life in consecutive narrative would be without significance, for it contains but little for many years except the same indomitable battle against circumstance and enmity, never yielding an inch, and always keeping his eyes bent on his own lofty ideal. In all of art history is there no more masterful heroic struggle than Berlioz waged for thirty-five years, firm in his belief that some time, if not during his own life, his principles would be triumphant, and his name ranked among the immortals. But what of the mean while? This problem Berlioz solved, in his later as in earlier years, by doing the distasteful work of the literary scrub. But never did he cease composing; though no one would then have his works, his clear eye perceived the coming time when his genius would not be denied, when an apotheosis should comfort his spirit wandering in Hades.

Among Berlioz's later works was an opera of which he had composed both words and music, consisting of two parts, "The Taking of Troy," and "The Trojans at Carthage," the latter of which at last secured a few representations at a minor theatre in 1863. The plan of this work required that it should be carried out under the most perfect conditions. "In order," says Berlioz, "to properly produce such a work as 'Les Trojans,' I must be absolute master of the theatre, as of the orchestra in directing a symphony. I must have the good-will of all, be obeyed by all, from prima donna to scene-shifter. A lyrical theatre, as I conceive it, is a great instrument of music, which, if I am to play, must be placed unreservedly in my hands." Wagner found a King of Bavaria to help him carry out a similar colossal scheme at Bayreuth, but ill luck followed a man no less great through life. His grand "Trojans" was mutilated, tinkered, patched, and belittled, to suit the Theatre Lyrique. It was a butchery of the work, but still it yielded the composer enough to justify his retirement from the "Journal des Débats," after thirty years of slavery.

Berlioz was now sixty years old, a lonely man, frail in body, embittered in soul by the terrible sense of failure. His wife, with whom he had lived on terms of alienation, was dead; his only son far away, cruising on a man-of-war. His courage and ambition were gone. To one who remarked that his music belonged to the future, he replied that he doubted if it ever belonged to the past. His life seemed to have been a mistake, so utterly had he failed to impress himself on the public. Yet there were times when audiences felt themselves moved by the power of his music out of the ruts of preconceived opinion into a prophecy of his coming greatness. There is an interesting anecdote told by a French writer:

"Some years ago M. Pasdeloup gave the septuor from the 'Trojans' at a benefit concert. The best places were occupied by the people of the world, but the elite intelligente were ranged upon the highest seats of the Cirque. The programme was superb, and those who were there neither for Fashion's nor Charity's sake, but for love of what was best in art, were enthusiastic in view of all those masterpieces. The worthless overture of the 'Prophète,' disfiguring this fine ensemble, had been hissed by some students of the Conservatoire, and, accustomed as I was to the blindness of the general public, knowing its implacable prejudices, I trembled for the fate of the magnificent septuor about to follow. My fears were strangely ill-founded, no sooner had ceased this hymn of infinite love and peace, than these same students, and the whole assemblage with them, burst into such a tempest of applause as I never heard before. Berlioz was hidden in the further ranks, and, the instant he was discovered, the work was forgotten for the man; his name flew from mouth to mouth, and four thousand people were standing upright, with their arms stretched toward him. Chance had placed me near him, and never shall I forget the scene. That name, apparently ignored by the crowd, it had learned all at once, and was repeating as that of one of its heroes. Overcome as by the strongest emotion of his life, his head upon his breast, he listened to this tumultuous cry of 'Vive Berlioz!' and when, on looking up, he saw all eyes upon him and all arms extended toward him, he could not withstand the sight; he trembled, tried to smile, and broke into sobbing."

Berlioz's supremacy in the field of orchestral composition, his knowledge of technique, his novel combination, his insight into the resources of instruments, his skill in grouping, his rich sense of color, are incontestably without a parallel, except by Beethoven and Wagner. He describes his own method of study as follows:

"I carried with me to the opera the score of whatever work was on the bill, and read during the performance. In this way I began to familiarize myself with orchestral methods, and to learn the voice and quality of the various instrum

ents, if not their range and mechanism. By this attentive comparison of the effect with the means employed to produce it, I found the hidden link uniting musical expression to the special art of instrumentation. The study of Beethoven, Weber, and Spontini, the impartial examination both of the customs of orchestration and of unusual forms and combinations, the visits I made to virtuosi, the trials I led them to make upon their respective instruments, and a little instinct, did for me the rest."

The principal symphonies of Berlioz are works of colossal character and richness of treatment, some of them requiring several orchestras. Contrasting with these are such marvels of delicacy as "Queen Mab," of which it has been said that the "confessions of roses and the complaints of violets were noisy in comparison." A man of magnificent genius and knowledge, he was but little understood during his life, and it was only when his uneasy spirit was at rest that the world recognized his greatness. Paris, that stoned him when he was living, now listens to his grand music with enthusiasm. Hector Berlioz to the last never lost faith in himself, though this man of genius, in his much suffering from depression and melancholy, gave good witness to the truth of Goethe's lines:

"Who never ate with tears his bread,

Nor, weeping through the night's long hours,

Lay restlessly tossing on his bed-

He knows ye not, ye heavenly Powers!"

A man utterly without reticence, who, Gallic fashion, would shout his wrongs and sufferings to the uttermost ends of the earth, yet without a smack of Gallic posing and affectation, Berlioz talks much about himself, and dares to estimate himself boldly. There was no small vanity about this colossal spirit. He speaks of himself with outspoken frankness, as he would discuss another. We can not do better than to quote one of these self-measurements: "My style is in general very daring, but it has not the slightest tendency to destroy any of the constructive elements of art. On the contrary, I seek to increase the number of these elements. I have never dreamed, as has foolishly been supposed in France, of writing music without melody. That school exists to-day in Germany, and I have a horror of it. It is easy for any one to convince himself that, without confining myself to taking a very short melody for a theme, as the very greatest masters have, I have always taken care to invest my compositions with a real wealth of melody. The value of these melodies, their distinction, their novelty, and charm, can be very well contested; it is not for me to appraise them. But to deny their existence is either bad faith or stupidity; only as these melodies are often of very large dimensions, infantile and short-sighted minds do not clearly distinguish their form; or else they are wedded to other secondary melodies which veil their outlines from those same infantile minds; or, upon the whole, these melodies are so dissimilar to the little waggeries that the musical plebs call melodies that they can not make up their minds to give the same name to both. The dominant qualities of my music are passionate expression, internal fire, rhythmic animation, and unexpected changes."

Heinrich Heine, the German poet, who was Berlioz's friend, called him a "colossal nightingale, a lark of eagle-size, such as they tell us existed in the primeval world." The poet goes on to say: "Berlioz's music, in general, has in it something primeval if not antediluvian to my mind; it makes me think of gigantic species of extinct animals, of fabulous empires full of fabulous sins, of heaped-up impossibilities; his magical accents call to our minds Babylon, the hanging gardens the wonders of Nineveh, the daring edifices of Mizraim, as we see them in the pictures of the Englishman Martin." Shortly after the publication of "Lutetia," in which this bold characterization was expressed, the first performance of Berlioz's "Enfance du Christ" was given, and the poet, who was on his sick-bed, wrote a penitential letter to his friend for not having given him full justice. "I hear on all sides," he says, "that you have just plucked a nosegay of the sweetest melodious flowers, and that your oratorio is throughout a masterpiece of naivete. I shall never forgive myself for having been so unjust to a friend."

Berlioz died at the age of sixty-five. His funeral services were held at the Church of the Trinity, a few days after those of Rossini. The discourse at the grave was pronounced by Gounod, and many eloquent things were said of him, among them a quotation of the epitaph of Marshal Trivulce, "Hic tandem quiescit qui nunquam quievit" (Here is he quiet, at last, who never was quiet before). Soon after his death appeared his "Mémoires," and his bones had hardly got cold when the performance of his music at the Conservatoire, the Cirque, and the Chatelet began to be heard with the most hearty enthusiasm.

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