Two hundred years ago this week, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This, then, is a time for me to comment on a few of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit.
When Berlioz died, in April, 1869, an obituary in the Musical Times read, in part, "...there can be little doubt that he will be remembered by his able and acute contributions to musical criticism than by any of the compositions with which he hoped to revolutionize the world."
Anyone familiar with Berlioz's "Memoirs" already knows that he could write with flair, and often with a trenchant sense of humor as well. And, while no one these days takes that Musical Times obituary notice seriously, in terms of evaluating his compositional vs. his critical contributions to music, it is true that Berlioz was a significant contributor to the art of musical criticism. He lived and wrote during a time when the feuilleton (an essay often bathed in scathing wit) was the main in-print vehicle for criticism in the arts, and he was one of its most able and knowledgeable practitioners, using the medium for rendering his critical judgements on the musical matters of the day. (As a side note, credit for the feuilleton is often - but mistakenly - given to Heinrich Heine, the German poet, who wrote many such essays when in Vienna. But Heine had earlier been a friend of Berlioz's while in Paris, and it seems clear - at least to this writer - that the feuilleton migrated from Paris to Vienna, with Heine as its means of transport.)
"Soirées de l'Orchestre" (the original French title of these works) can be variously translated as "Evenings with the Orchestra" or "Evenings in the Orchestra." The latter seems more accurate and appropriate, notwithstanding the expertise of Jacques Barzun, one of a handful of true Berlioz experts working today: Berlioz - in the form of an alter ego for purposes of commenting on concert and opera performances - places himself IN the orchestra, as a participating musician in the evenings' events. He utilizes this "second party" vehicle, with some connective narrative, to tie together a number of his most famous feuilletons that "reached print" in the arts journals and newspapers of his day.
Never one to mince words, Berlioz makes clear his personal preferences of composers he knew, and either admired or despised. Of the former (including, inter alia, Beethoven, Gluck, Mozart, Spontini and Weber), his feuilletons would invariably speak to the strengths of these composers. On the other hand, of the latter (including, inter alia, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti and Rossini), an evening in the orchestra while performing such works provided him the opportunity to take imaginative flights of fancy as a means for writing about anything BUT the music (which he personally abhorred).
It is in these latter feuilletons that Berlioz hits his stride. And what an imaginative stride it is! Edgar Allen Poe and H. G. Wells (to name just two), had they been aware of Berlioz's writings, would well know that they had a worthy competitor in terms of his ability to write tales about the bizarre and the fantastic and, even, science fiction. But with a "gallows" humor that neither Poe nor Wells possessed. And this gallows humor, it turns out, is - at its best - screamingly hilarious. Two examples will have to suffice, lest I run over my allotted space.
Consider the Eighteenth Evening, during which a German opera (likely one by Meyerbeer) for which the pit musicians have little interest, so that a series of tales is spun amongst them, concluding with "The Piano Possessed," a sly and barely disguised dig at Felix Mendelssohn. The piano takes on a life - and even an afterlife - of its own while thirty-one pianists in a competition are required to play the Mendelssohn work, one after the other.
Better yet, consider the Twenty-Fifth Evening, arguably Berlioz's crowning achievement in the genre and titled "Euphonia, or the Musical City." This might well be called "Hector's Revenge," as he uses the feuilleton to settle a few scores with Camille Moke, a lady - and musician - to whom he had once been engaged and who had betrayed that engagement with the able assistance of her mother. The three characters, so barely disguised that Berlioz might well have used their proper names, are interwoven in a tale of intrigue and betrayal that is beyond fantastic and bordering on the morbid. Berlioz's alter ego exacts his revenge on the two women in a most poetic, if equally grotesque, way. And you'll laugh your way right through to the final word.
There is much about these Soirées that is autobiographical, and those familiar with Berlioz's life and times will likely not have much difficulty finding the autobiographical needles in the various haystacks that make up these Evenings. At the same time, the genre of the feuilleton permits Berlioz the luxury of commenting on matters musical (and otherwise) in a wholly unique way and style. And he had no shortage of style.
This is truly a "lost art"; no one seems to have been successful in duplicating Berlioz's ability to combine trenchant humor with critical commentary since his time. In modern times, only the name of Norman Lebrecht comes to mind, and he is far too buttoned down to challenge Berlioz in the genre. And more's the pity, now that we live in the time of Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Sarah Brightman, Russell Watson and - sakes alive! - Britney and JLo. I think Hector would have a field day with the likes of these.
Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!