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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 5230

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Théophile Gautier says that no one will deny to Berlioz a great character, though, the world being given to controversies, it may be argued whether or not he was a great genius. The world of to-day has but one opinion on both these questions. The force of Berlioz's character was phenomenal. His vitality was so passionate and active that brain and nerve quivered with it, and made him reach out toward experience at every facet of his nature. Quietude was torture, rest a sin, for this daring temperament. His eager and subtile intelligence pierced every sham, and his imagination knew no bounds to its sweep, oftentimes even disdaining the bounds of art in its audacity and impatience. This big, virile nature, thwarted and embittered by opposition, became hardened into violent self-assertion; this naturally resolute will settled back into fierce obstinacy; this fine nature, sensitive and sincere, got torn and ragged with passion under the stress of his unfortunate life. But, at one breath of true sympathy how quickly the nobility of the man asserted itself! All his cynicism and hatred melted away, and left only sweetness, truth, and genial kindness.

When Berlioz entered on his studies, he had reached an age at which Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rossini, and others, had already done some of the best work of their lives. Yet it took only a few years to achieve a development that produced such a great work as the "Symphonic Fantastique," the prototype of modern programme music.

From first to last it was the ambition of Berlioz to widen the domain of his art. He strove to attain a more intimate connection between instrumental music and poetry in the portrayal of intense passions, and the suggestion of well-defined dramatic situations. In spite of the fact that he frequently overshot his mark, it does not make his works one whit less astonishing. An uncompromising champion of what has been dubbed "programme" music, he thought it legitimate to force the imagination of the hearer to dwell on exterior scenes during the progress of the music, and to distress the mind in its attempt to find an exact relation between the text and the music. The most perfect specimens of the works of Berlioz, however, are those in which the music speaks for itself, such as the "Scène aux Champs," and the "Marche au Supplice," in the "Symphonie Fantastique," the "Marche des Pèlerins," in "Harold"; the overtures to "King Lear," "Benvenuto Cellini," "Carnaval Romain," "Le Corsaire," "Les Francs Juges," etc.

As a master of the orchestra, no one has been the equal of Berlioz in the whole history of

music, not even Beethoven or Wagner. He treats the orchestra with the absolute daring and mastery exercised by Paganini over the violin, and by Liszt over the piano. No one has showed so deep an insight into the individuality of each instrument, its resources, the extent to which its capabilities could be carried. Between the phrase and the instrument, or group of instruments, the equality is perfect; and independent of this power, made up equally of instinct and knowledge, this composer shows a sense of orchestral color in combining single instruments so as to form groups, or in the combination of several separate groups of instruments by which he has produced the most novel and beautiful effects-effects not found in other composers. The originality and variety of his rhythms, the perfection of his instrumentation, have never been disputed even by his opponents. In many of his works, especially those of a religious character, there is a Cyclopean bigness of instrumental means used, entirely beyond parallel in art. Like the Titans of old, he would scale the very heavens in his daring. In one of his works he does not hesitate to use three orchestras, three choruses (all of full dimensions), four organs, and a triple quartet. The conceptions of Berlioz were so grandiose that he sometimes disdained detail, and the result was that more than one of his compositions have rugged grandeur at the expense of symmetry and balance of form.

Yet, when he chose, Berlioz could write the most exquisite and dainty lyrics possible. What could be more exquisitely tender than many of his songs and romances, and various of the airs and choral pieces from "Beatrice et Benedict," from "Nuits d'été," "Irlande," and from "L'Enfance du Christ"?

Berlioz in his entirety, as man and composer, was a most extraordinary being, to whom the ordinary scale of measure can hardly be applied. Though he founded no new school, he pushed to a fuller development the possibilities to which Beethoven reached out in the Ninth Symphony. He was the great virtuoso on the orchestra, and on this Briarean instrument he played with the most amazing skill. Others have surpassed him in the richness of the musical substance out of which their tone-pictures are woven, in symmetry of form, in finish of detail; but no one has ever equaled him in that absolute mastery over instruments, by which a hundred become as plastic and flexible as one, and are made to embody every phase of the composer's thought with that warmth of color and precision of form long believed to be necessarily confined to the sister arts.


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