by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 31, 2003.
"Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach, neither in absolute beauty in art nor in pure virtue in life,” his friend Ferdinand Hiller recalled. The composer of the “Symphonie Fantastique” retains a fashionably satanic aura, and the reputation is well earned. The “Fantastique,” his masterpiece, anyone’s masterpiece, remains a totally shocking work after all these years, and no modern music has ever really matched it. The symphony’s inexhaustible novelty comes not from the discovery of new sounds—although there are many—but from the diabolical manipulation of familiar ones. The C-major coda is brilliant, triumphant, and horribly wrong, the God-given natural scale smeared with flat notes. Thus ends a voyage into Hell undertaken not for moral reasons but for the sheer joy of going under. As Satan remarks in “Paradise Lost,” explaining why Hell is better than Heaven, “Here at least we shall be free.”
Lincoln Center’s festival in honor of the bicentennial of Berlioz’s birth, which began with three astonishing concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra, is called “Fantastic Voyages: The Genius of Hector Berlioz.” This hits the mark, although it was genius of a particular kind. Unlike Mozart, Schubert, and other prodigies born with music in their blood, Berlioz came to the art from the outside, in a spirit of intellectual adventure. He read about it in encyclopedias, imagined it in his dreams, and, in adolescence, decided to conquer it. He grew up in a small town in the South of France, where his musical diet consisted mainly of marching tunes, comic-opera ditties, and Gregorian chant. Not until around the time of his eighteenth birthday, in 1821, did he hear a full-scale classical work—“Les Danaïdes,” by Salieri. He had come to Paris to attend medical school, and he alarmed his fellow-students by singing Salieri’s arias while sawing the skulls of cadavers.
Berlioz’s understanding of music was all up in that big, hawklike head of his: reality had to be bent to accommodate his ideals. In his youth, he would stand in the stalls of the Paris Opera and rage against every small inaccuracy and embellishment. “Who has dared to correct Gluck?” he would shout during a pause. “Not a sign of a trombone; it is intolerable!” Conductors began to heed his pronouncements, and soon enough he himself was the dictator on the podium, forcing musicians to follow the letter of the score. He also earned money in the field of music criticism, and his slashing commentaries set the standard for this little art. His compulsively readable “Memoirs” are at once a picaresque narrative of a wild life and a mockery of the very idea of putting a life on paper. After telling us how he taught himself to play a tune on the recorder, he sardonically adds, “What biographer worth his salt could fail to detect here the germ of my aptitude for large-scale effects of wind instruments?” When you talk about Berlioz, you can’t escape the feeling that somewhere he is sniggering at every earnest word.
The “Memoirs” suggest that in some perverse way Berlioz saw his failures as his greatest successes. In a threepage description of the disastrous première of his “Sardanapalus” cantata, in 1830, he writes, almost exultantly, “The decrescendo begins.” He devotes only three sentences to the subsequent triumph of the “Symphonie Fantastique.” The last pages of the “Memoirs” are particularly striking in their bid for antipathy. The first draft ends with the sentence “I despise you all, and trust to have forgotten you before I die.” The second version ends, “I have neither hopes, nor illusions, nor great thoughts left . . . I say hourly to death: ‘When you will!’ Why does he delay?” The final manuscript ends with Macbeth’s remarks about life signifying nothing. Berlioz accomplished the rare feat of putting the last nail in his own coffin.
The “Symphonie Fantastique” was written in 1830, within the space of about six weeks, although the idea had been germinating for years. Program notes invariably emphasize the symphony’s connection with Berlioz’s imaginary love life at the time of its composition—his unrequited passion for the English actress Harriet Smithson, a supporting player who came to Paris in 1827 and made a great impression on French intellectuals. Smithson rejected Berlioz, or, more precisely, avoided his stalking advances. In the end, she was only playing a role that the composer had written for her—she was “an ideal which I created myself,” as he later admitted. It was a passion destined to fail, so that the artist could vault all the extremes of feeling and land in the hell of his imagination. A little later, Berlioz actually succeeded in marrying Smithson, and began to lose interest.
As David Cairns argues in his huge biography of the composer, “Symphonie Fantastique” is really a Faust work, possibly the remnant of a Faust symphony that Berlioz had been planning. Faust’s journey begins not with an affair of the heart but with an affair of the mind—a passion for the dark and the strange. The “Fantastique,” likewise, starts with a vague longing and ends in an inferno. As in Goethe’s version, all these demonic doings are contained within strict, rigorous forms. Some passages are actually quite anachronistic for the year 1830; the composer’s concept of the “fantastic” is more Baroque than Romantic. As Cairns puts it, “Berlioz writes nineteenth-century music with an eighteenth-century sound.” In other passages, the music sounds brand-new, as if it had been written last month by a young genius of postmodernism.
Colin Davis is a supremely good conductor of Berlioz, and his rendition of the “Symphonie Fantastique” was one of the most gripping orchestral performances I’ve heard in years. Davis began the piece in a wondering, sensitive, almost hesitant mood; by holding down dynamic levels, tugging back on the beat, and letting Berlioz’s long lyrical phrases hang for an extra moment in the air, he created a sense of music afraid to go over the brink. In the middle movements, “A Ball” and “Scene in the Fields,” the orchestra produced textures of remarkable clarity, so that one was constantly aware of the stray flutes and sinister tubas prowling at the edges of the picture. In the “March to the Scaffold,” Davis straightened out the tempo, stripped away the color, and let the brass and percussion run rampant. Right through to the end, the orchestra played like a cold, fatal machine; there was none of the carnivalesque, Halloween atmosphere familiar from standard interpretations. The final effect was overwhelming, and more than a little frightening—the man on the podium, standing in for the protagonist of the symphony, seemed to have undergone a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. In this, Davis was faithful to the spirit of a composer who chose to live on the mental edge, without illusions.
By the end of the bicentennial year, New Yorkers will have heard, in the opera house or the concert hall, almost all of Berlioz’s major works. The Metropolitan Opera, having mounted a monster production of “The Trojans,” has announced the grandly ebullient comic opera “Benvenuto Cellini” for next season. The London Symphony, under Davis’s direction, has already given us “Harold in Italy,”“Damnation of Faust,” and “Romeo and Juliet”; next month, Davis will return to lead the New York Philharmonic in “Beatrice and Benedict,” Berlioz’s autumnal Shakespeare comedy. Last month, Charles Dutoit led the Philharmonic, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the tenor Paul Groves in a cool, masterly performance of the “Requiem.” I only wish that someone had taken on the “Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale,” in which Berlioz raises the military band music of his youth to awesome heights.
It used to be said that the “Symphonie Fantastique” was Berlioz’s sole masterpiece, and that his later works unmasked him as a “genius without talent”—a dilettante who mixed magnificent orchestral effects with inept fugues and insipid arias. Berlioz scholars, such as Cairns, Jacques Barzun, Hugh Macdonald, and Peter Bloom, have argued forcefully that the composer knew exactly what he was doing, and that whenever he sounds awkward he is actually ahead of his time. Indeed, pieces like “The Trojans” and “Beatrice and Benedict” show Berlioz fast-forwarding through the entire modernist revolution into the world of the neoclassical Stravinsky. Their austere vocal lines and gossamer textures sound strange only if the listener is waiting for a reprise of the “Fantastique.” Berlioz specialists, like Davis and Dutoit, know how to sustain tension over long lyrical paragraphs, which otherwise threaten to meander into a meta-stylistic nowhere.
The challenge in listening to this composer is to resist the preconceptions that we bring to nineteenth-century music, especially those derived from Wagner. It is a tricky thing to do, since Berlioz and Wagner resembled each other in so many ways. Both sought unheard-of masses of sound, and both used isolated orchestral timbres as themes in themselves. What’s more, Wagner ripped off many of his ideas directly from Berlioz, as a side-by-side comparison of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Tristan und Isolde” attests. But the two Romantic revolutionaries were opposed on almost every aesthetic question of the day. Wagner wanted to break down historic musical forms; Berlioz wanted to preserve them. Wagner threatened to discard melody as a concept, whereas Berlioz wrote easy-flowing tunes of almost aggressive sentimentality and naïveté.
Berlioz’s music should somehow be played and heard in an alternative universe in which Wagner never existed. This is what Davis understands so well; instead of marking time until the next sonic spectacular, as James Levine sometimes did while conducting “Trojans” at the Met, Davis exulted in all the oddities and incongruities. In “The Damnation of Faust,” he whipped up Hungarian marches, student songs, and peasant rounds as enthusiastically as he did the shimmering string effects and jagged assaults of the brass. He convinced us that this stop-and-start narrative—in which Faust never advances far into the realms of the sublime without being interrupted by some form of street music—came out of a dramatic, keenly ironic sensibility. His singers, the tenor Stuart Neill, the mezzo-soprano Petra Lang, and the bass Alastair Miles, took up the idiom without a trace of awkwardness or self-consciousness. Lang’s singing of “The King of Thule”—gentle on the surface, tense and sad beneath—afforded a glimpse of the composer’s innermost world, where, for once, no shadows fell between the music and the heart.
For decades, modern French composers have been devoted to precisely the sort of stylistic purity and progressive ideology that Berlioz disdained. But a recent concert of the music of Marc-André Dalbavie at the Guggenheim Museum suggested that a new diversity may be emerging in the world so long governed by Pierre Boulez. The Dalbavie concert was part of a monthlong, citywide festival called Sounds French; still to come are Pascal Dusapin’s opera “To Be Sung,” an eerie blend of voices and electronics, and Olivier Messiaen’s opulent piano cycle “Catalogue d’Oiseaux,” to be played bravely in one sitting by Roger Muraro.
Dalbavie, who is perhaps the most widely performed of French composers younger than fifty, has written a fair amount of music of the twittering, skittering, Boulezian kind. But the three pieces heard at the Guggenheim broke free of modernist clichés. “Palimpsest,” for violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano, conjured an extraordinary variety of sounds from fragments of a Gesualdo madrigal, at one point erupting into furious scales right out of a Vivaldi concerto. “Sextine Cyclus” was a beautifully arranged though somewhat overextended anthology of medieval songs; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sang them with loving eloquence, and members of the Orchestre de Paris provided a glistening accompaniment.
Most striking was “Chants,” for six singers and a chamber ensemble, based on Ezra Pound’s adaptations of classical poetry and troubadour songs. This was a world première, and a significant one. Tonality seemed to dissolve and reform several times, as if a new language were struggling to be born. The splendid vocalists of the New York group Lionheart, for whom the piece was written, stood in a ring around the audience, answering each other antiphonally or uniting in high, unearthly harmonies. I thought for a moment of the Tuba Mirum of Berlioz’s “Requiem,” in which the trumpets of the Last Judgment sound from all corners of the hall. Dalbavie’s music felt like the last echo of that catastrophe as it dissipated into empty space.
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