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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Hector Berlioz - The unloved genius

By Norman Lebrecht / December 10, 2003

At the end of the Berlioz bicentennial year, little has shifted in the public estimation of this eternally unloved genius. The world's homage is in full flow – Benevenuto Cellini at the Met (and on BBC Radio 3); L’enfance du Christ in Lille, Lucerne and Los Angeles; Damnation du Faust in Zurich and Tokyo - but the parade of works feels, for the most part, more dutiful than devoted.

On his 200th birthday, December 11th, enthusiasts from all over the world gathered to lay a wreath on the grave in Montmartre, where the composer lies between two harridan wives, Harriet Smithson and Marie Recio. A proposal to remove his remains to the Panthéon was blocked last summer by President Jacques Chirac in a political kerfuffle over Berlioz's worthiness to share the glory of France with such varied heroes as Andre Malraux, Jean Jaures and Alexandre Dumas.

Seldom has a prophet enjoyed less honour in his own land. No street in Paris bears the name of Hector Berlioz. France cannot forgive his refusal to recognise the innate superiority of its culture. Berlioz turned abroad for his inspiration - to Shakespeare for Romeo et Juliette, Byron for Harold en Italie, Goethe for Faust, Beethoven for orchestral bombast.

Like all great artists, he conformed to no expectations but his own. Disappointing his father, a provincial doctor, he dropped out of medical school and transferred to the Conservatoire where he soon outraged the French musical establishment by ridiculing its Italianate mediocrity. He would jump up and heckle in the middle of concerts by Cherubini, shouting 'five francs for the first idea!' Unable to get his works performed, he earned a living as a music critic, attending concerts with a ‘fixed sardonic grin’. Wounded performers wilfully sabotaged the premieres of his Requiem and first opera. ‘There are people in hell,’ said Berlioz, ‘who have deserved their fate less than I have.’

Fantastically romantic, he fell in love with impossible women – an Irish actress, a half-Iberian chorus girl. Madness, dazzlingly detailed in the Symphonie Fantastique, was but a nib's breadth away.

He found his niche among the creatively unsettled. Paris in the 1830s was a magnet for artistic exiles - for Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine, who remarked upon Berlioz’s ‘sulphurous gleams of irony’. Liszt helped him arrange a tour of Germany as an orchestral conductor. His trail extended to Austria, Russia and England. In London he went head to head with Wagner with rival orchestras in 1854 and received the better reviews. Wagner borrowed his ideas and never forgave him.

A five-hour opera on the Trojans at Carthage was the summit of his ambition. Paris spurned its grandeur and staged only three acts. Dejected by failure, predeceased by both wives and stricken by his son's death of tropical fever, he wrote a scathing book of memoirs for posthumous publication and died in March 1869, aged 65, receiving obituaries that were, at best, half hearted. His last words were: ‘enfin, on va jouer ma musique – at last, they will now play my music.’

They did, but in a roundabout way. His reputation grew not from his masterpieces but from a pedagogic work, The Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration. By refusing to write pretty little ditties for the Parisian salon, Berlioz made himself the master of orchestral mass. Polemical and precise, his treatise blazed a path of technical possibility for the high noon of European music. It was closely studied by Mahler and Strauss and served as the foundation for a subsequent textbook by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov who, with fellow-students, sat enraptured at the concerts Berlioz conducted in Moscow and St Petersburg. Before the visits of Berlioz, there was no Russian music. His was the paradigm that inspired the genre. Tchaikovsky raided the Symphonie Fantastique like a tuck-shop for his third symphony. Mussorgsky died with a copy of the Berlioz Treatise on his bed.

The first generation of star conductors – Bülow, Richter, Nikisch, Mahler, Toscanini – took up his music with brio, excited by his gaudy showmanship and borderless cosmopolitanism. Charles Halle, who befriended Berlioz in Paris in 1836, established his symphonies as a staple of Manchester concert life. The Trojans received its first five-act performance over two nights at Karlsruhe in 1890, its first authentic staging at Covent Garden in 1958.

The theatricality of his symphonies, the astonishing tenderness of his great choruses, appealed to a peculiarly British penchant for spectacle and sentiment. The foremost modern interpreters of Berlioz have been British - the flamboyant Thomas Beecham and the contemplative Colin Davis who, with the London Symphony Orchestra, has produced a thrilling 12-disc Berlioz compendium (at the celebratory website price of £45). The paramount Berlioz biography is by a British critic, David Cairns. The bicentennial website is run from Edinburgh by a married pair of academics, Michael Austin and Monir Tayeb. The Trojans, in its bicentennial Paris production, was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

The French cannot come to terms with such turbulence, such independence of spirit. Although Berlioz was treasured by Bizet and Messiaen, the mainstreamof French modernity from Debussy to Boulez preferred to mud wrestle with Wagner, bypassing the genius on their doorstep. Berlioz, in France, remains an outcast. He was a premature European, despised for his prescience. Some still call him crazy, and worse. He has been likened to the figure of Satan, flying crookedly over Montmartre on the cover of his score of Faust’s Damnation.

The diplomatic contagion of French ambivalence has encouraged the rest of the musical world to treat Berlioz as an objet trouve, an acquired taste instead of an established one. Two centuries after his birth, Berlioz is not espoused by concertgoers with the confidence they attach to Brahms, whose revelations were minor by comparison. The bicentennial year is ending without a perceptible improvement in Berlioz appreciation. The innate pettiness of France has condemned its greatest composer to perpetual disavowal, his bones to a peripheral tomb. Jacques Chirac ought to be ashamed.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001