Open main menu

Complete Encyclopaedia of Music/B/Berlioz, Hector

< Complete Encyclopaedia of Music‎ | B

Berlioz, Hector, the composer, was born at C�te St. Andr�, (Is�re,) in France, in 1803. The son of a physician of some local repute, he was sent to Paris, after completing his college studies, to attend the courses in law. At that time he knew little of music ; the flageolet and the guitar were the only instruments of which he had any notion. Yet, though he was nearly twenty years old, and scarcely able to decipher a few notes, he was passionately fond of the art, and vainly begged his parents to permit him to devote himself' to it exclusively. In such a capital the temptation was not to be resisted ; so he took the matter into his own hands, quitted the study of the law, and entered the Conservatory. His father, irritated at this defiance of his authority, cut off his supplies, and M. Berlioz had no resource but to become a chorus singer in the Dramatic Gymnasium. He longed to become a composer, and by the shortest route. To learn the piano, to accustom himself to reading music and to the styles of various schools and masters, seemed too long a task for him. Besides, the music in his head bore little resemblance to all this. For him the history of his art began with himself, and with the exception of the "Vestale" of Spontini, which made an early and lasting impression on him, he knew but little of the celebrated master-pieces of music, and had but slight esteem for what he did know. Of course studies were out of the question. He resolved to have no master but his own experience. His first work proved absolutely strange and unintelligible both to hearers and performers. It was a mass for four voices, with chorus and orchestra. But the ridicule it called forth only stimulated him to renewed ardor. An overture to "Waverley," another to a drama called "Les Francs Juges," a "Concert de Sylphes," a "Symphonic Fantastique," an overture to Shakspeare's "Tempest," scenes from Goethe's "Faust," music to some of Moore's "Melodies," &c., marked the development of his tendency. M. F�tis (from whom we glean the above) expresses the pretty general opinion of musicians about these works in the following sentences : -

"His thought, at first uncertain, at length defines itself, so that you may see that the violent passions predominate in it, that the genius of melody is foreign to it, and that the instinct of instrumental effects is the most precious gift with which Nature has endowed Berlioz. Prodigal to him on this side, she has not given him the wisdom to keep him from abusing the gift. Effects, always effects! that is what Berlioz regards in music, and what constitutes three quarters of his own music. It is but justice to admit that these effects are often happy, and would be still more so it' their author economized their use. As to plan, I find not the shadow of it in what Berlioz has published up to this date, (1837.) Very different in that from Beethoven, by whose example he so often justifies his own vagaries, he seems never to have comprehended the utility of a certain periodical return of ideas ; and when he repeats them, it is in a uniform and monotonous manner. His melodies are devoid of metre and of rhythm ; and his harmony - a strange assemblage of incongruous sounds - does not always merit the name. Moreover, charm is wanting in all this, because, entirely wedded to his thought, M. Berlioz has not the art of suspending its course by the introduction of unexpected episodes, as men of genius in all times have done, especially Beethoven."

This opinion, however, is far from unanimous. Berlioz had then, and has still more now, a large party of admirers, composed of those who are charmed by what is adventurous, and free, and new ; those who gladly hail any revolution in art; there are more poets, painters, &c., than musicians among them. Berlioz competed several times before the French Institute for the prize in musical composition, and obtained the second prize in 1828, and the first in 1830. Then he wrote under the inspiration of the cannons of the revolution of July, and while the bullets struck the Palais des Arts, where he had shut himself' up. The subject of the cantata which he then composed was "Sardanapalus." It was performed on the 30th of October of the same year, at a public meeting of the Academy of Fine Arts. As a pensioner of' government, he made the tour to Italy ; but in his state of mind, Italy, so far as music was concerned, had little for him. Without even entering Germany, but preferring to follow out his own plan, he returned soon to Paris, where, since 1832, he has repeatedly given concerts, bringing out his own compositions with an orchestra of unusual number and variety of instruments ; for therein lies his forte. M. Berlioz has also distinguished himself as a literary writer and critic upon music, in the Gazette Musicale of M. Schlesinger, and more recently in the Journals des Debats. He always pens a brilliant article, and his opinions of new works, singers, players, and composers, which he seldom withholds, are still widely copied. In 1844, he published a "Musical Tour in Germany and Italy," in two octavo volumes, which is full of pleasant musical criticism and gossip. Berlioz has recently been in high favor with Liszt at ' Weimar, where all that is new and original in music is most encouraged, and where his opera "Benveuuto Cellini" has been produced success-fully during the past year. His overture to "Lear," and his dramatic symphony, "Romeo and Juliet," have been the subjects of much discussion of late. The latter was performed, in the summer of 1852, in London, at the concerts of the New Philharmonic Society, the first season of which was signalized by the conductorship of Berlioz, who, among other things, did not fail to bring out that great work of Beethoven, from which, it seems, he would fain date his own artistic career, namely, the ninth or "Choral" Symphony.