Berlioz, Hector


Indomitable is the word which should be emphasized in any review of the life of Hector Berlioz. In the adoption of music, as a profession, Berlioz had to go against the dearest wish of his father, and deep-rooted prejudices of his mother, and give up a life of comfort and ease for a Bohemian existence, whose freedom was rather dearly bought at times. And as leader in a new movement, Berlioz followed during his entire life the rock-strewn path of the reformer. Hector Berlioz was born Dec. 11, 1803, at Cote-Saint-Andre, France, a little town near Grenoble. His father was a country doctor of very considerable reputation and a well-established practice, and what more natural than that the son should be expected to follow where the father had been so successful? " Never, perhaps, was there a more unfortunate milieu for a man of genius. Handel, who was also a doctor s son, found one staunch supporter at home; Schiller, after a long struggle succeeded in conciliating his mother's antagonism, but Berlioz had both battles to fight at the same time. No opportune ally came to carry him off, as Frankh carried off Haydn; no Crown Prince surrounded his early efforts with the splendors of imperial patronage; alone and unaided he had to scale an immovable earthwork of argument under a galling fire of appeal and invective."

But there was a pleasant, sunny childhood, though mention might be made of the precocious sad love affair; the lad of eleven enamored with the maid of eighteen, Estelle of the " shining eyes " and " pink shoes." And mention might be made of the fact that a half-century later, Estelle, a half-century older, still had power to move the heart of Hector Berlioz. Some little instruction in music Berlioz received as a boy, learning to play on the flageolet, flute and guitar, his father believing in music as an accomplishment if not as an vocation. By himself, he made some study of harmony, and certain fragments of composition mark this period. Enthusiasm for the great world of music was fired by the reading of the biographies of musicians, and the discovery in his father's library of some bits of Gluck's Orfeo. It was with anxiety that the father noticed this enthusiasm, and with all haste sent off young Hector to the Medical School in Paris.

But the Academy saw more of him than the Medical School. And attendance at the opera bringing back remembrances of Orfeo, Berlioz took to haunting the Conservatory library, spending his days in the study of Gluck's scores. He now wrote his father that he had fully made up his mind to become a musician. The heated argument that came in reply did not change this decision; neither did the cutting-off of his allowance that finally resulted. He lived in a garret, on a fare of bread and dates, taught what pupils he could get, and when in extremity hired out as chorus-singer at the Theatre de Nouveautes.

Berlioz, who had applied for lessons of Lesueur, after some preliminary training had become his pupil. This inspiring teacher first treated Berlioz with consideration, and he made rapid progress, at the end of a few months of study being able to compose a mass for the Church of St. Roch. In 1823, through Lesueur, he was admitted as a regular pupil at the Conservatory; here, impatient of academic method, he came into friction with various professors, and between him and Cnerubini, the director, there arose an active hostility. A pioneer in the Romantic movement, Berlioz was looked upon as a rebel, but amid all the opposition of conservative leaders he very seldom faltered; he believed in himself and held to his ideals with unfaltering courage.

The Mass of St. Roch, which on the day of full rehearsal proved impossible of performance, Berlioz rewrote; then borrowed money of a friend to pay concert expenses, and with it scored a well-deserved success. The mass was succeeded by the following compositions: Eight scenes from Faust, the overtures Les Franc-Juges and Waverley, Symphonic Fantastique and Fantasie on Shakespeare's Tempest. But it was not until the appearance of his cantata, La Mort de Sardanapale, that the judges of the day were ready to give him the stamp of their approval. Once and again he had tried for the Prize of Rome, the winning of which meant several years of freedom from the harassment of poverty; the third time of trial, he won the second prize, consisting of a laurel wreath, a gold medal, and a free pass to the opera; a fourth time, and kept out by conservatism and hostility, Berlioz was now in actual want; a fifth time, and at last the prize was gained, with the cantata Sardanapalus. At the presentation of La Mort de Sardanapale, Franz Liszt was present and applauded with most generous enthusiasm.

By the terms of the Prize of Rome, three years were to be spent in travel, the first two in Italy. But Berlioz remained only a year and a half, by the expiration of that time being so homesick for France, and so disdainful of the musical Italy of the day, that he petitioned to be allowed to go back to Paris, which petition was granted. With the exception of La Captive, the finest of his songs, the work done by Berlioz in Italy was not of much importance. On his return home he was greeted with the news that Miss Henrietta Smithson was again in Paris. Before his departure he had experienced a violent fancy for this lady, a celebrated Irish actress, appearing before the Paris public in interpretations of Shakespearian roles. To Berlioz's advances the actress had not responded very encouragingly, but had shown herself rather fearful of his demonstrations. Though Berlioz in the meantime had let his fancy wander, the return of Miss Smithson brought back the feeling aroused in him when first he saw her at the Odeon impersonating Ophelia and Juliet. After a more or less tempestuous courtship, Berlioz and Miss Smithson embarked on matrimony, the wedding-day hastened by reason of the retirement of the actress from the stage, caused by a fractured ankle and promise of permanent lameness. Berlioz thus tells what constituted her dowry and his prospects: " On the day of our marriage she had nothing in the world but debts and the fear of never again being able to appear to advantage on the stage. My property consisted of 300 francs, borrowed from a friend, and a fresh quarrel with my parents."

Their early married life moved on bravely in spite of their poverty. If subsistence was pretty bare, life was enriched by the friendship of Liszt, and by the birth of a son, Louis. Of this son Berlioz was passionately fond to the end. In the course of time the husband and wife became estranged, and finally separated, in 1840; though a certain friendship continued between them to the death of Henrietta, fourteen years after the separation. Berlioz's infatuation for Henrietta Smithson was characteristic of his ardent, impetuous nature, as was also characteristic his generous insistence on their marriage when she was ill and penniless, and, after the estrangement, the support of Henrietta out of his very limited income. Perhaps characteristic, also, was his entanglement with that mediocre person, Mademoiselle Martin Recio, whom, after the death of his wife he married. Mademoiselle Recio was a singer, with ambitions considerably greater than her ability.

The years immediately succeeding his marriage to Henrietta Smithson were years of strain and stress but make up a period of his life rich in results. Although forced to turn to journalism as a means of adding to his exceedingly uncertain income, Berlioz, amid all the difficulties and drudgery, produced the following compositions: The cantata on the death of Napoleon; the symphonies, Harold en Italic, Symphonic Funebre et Triomphale, Romeo et Juliette; the three-act opera, Benvenuto Cellini; various songs; the ballad, Sara la Baigneuse; and the wonderful Requiem. The money obtained from The Requiem and the symphonies made it possible for him to give up journalism, to indulge in a little travel, and to devote much more time to the art he adored. Travel abroad had been a long-cherished wish, and he now set out to try his fortune, and to seek inspiration away from home. In Germany, the French composer was received most enthusiastically, by the public as well as by the great masters, and the appreciation and plaudits there bestowed must have been balm to his spirit, at this time much disturbed by domestic upheaval and the grudgingly yielded approval of his countrymen. Visits made later to Austria and Russia added to the laurels now thick upon his brow, but Paris still remained cold to the son who so eagerly desired her favor. A new composition brought back from Austria, La Damnation de Faust, was produced in Paris, in 1846, before an audience small in numbers and lukewarm in appreciation. This work was most typical of Berlioz, and in this cantata his genius, and his defects, were most emphasized.

To understand the attitude of the French toward Berlioz, one must remember, that in his day, he was looked upon as a rebel. Year after year of Berlioz's life was marked by what Hadow so well phrases as " continued failure of high aims." The greatest French composer of his day was " left to starve because he wrote his best." Reyer, the distinguished composer and writer, declares that probably no musician has ever been more ridiculously criticized, more scoffed at, more insulted than Berlioz during the greater part of his career. The critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes condemned the work of Berlioz after this fashion: "The Chinese who amuse their leisure moments by the sound of the tom-tom; the savage who is roused into fury by the rubbing together of two stones, make music of the kind composed by M. Hector Berlioz."

Not until after his death did Berlioz meet with justice in his own country. His genius was widely recognized abroad, but at home full appreciation came very late. It was his Te Deum, written for the Paris Exhibition in 1855, that won for him partial recognition; but the history of his life in the city he so loved is a record of hardwon success followed by heart-breaking failure. His last work, the opera of Les Troyens a Carthage, which he hoped to have rank as his masterpiece, after a very short run was driven from the boards. But at this time appreciation from without continued to be shown him. His little opera, Beatrice et Benedict, produced at Baden, enjoyed great success. An invitation, which was not accepted, came from America, an offer of 100,000 francs, if Berlioz would go to New York. An Imperial invitation from Russia he did accept, and in Russia again met with cordial welcome.

Berlioz's last days were somber and lonely. His wife died in 1862. His son Louis, serving in the French navy, came to an untimely death at Havana in 1867. Private sorrow, and public indifference, mark the end of is career. Though Berlioz was in a sense without honor in his own country, yet the highest honors the country could bestow were yielded him. He had a seat in the Academy, and wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. In 1852 he received appointment to the post of Librarian of the Conservatory, a post that he occupied till his death. At the end, which occurred in Paris, March 9, 1867, he asked to be carried back to Paris to die. He was laid to rest with stately pomp and ceremony. A decade later, a Berlioz commemorative concert was given, with the Hippodrome filled to the roof. Bust and statue the awakened French people have put in place in honor of Berlioz. In 1903 the centenary of Berlioz's birth was duly celebrated in Paris, the "proud, disdainful city" whose meed he so bitterly craved.

The following are the most important of Berlioz's compositions: The Requiem, composed in memory of the fall of General Damremont and the French loss in Algiers; the Te Deum; the dramatic legend, La Damnation de Faust; the trilogie, L'Enfance du Christ; the opera Benvenuto Cellini; the comic opera Beatrice et Benedict; the grand opera Les Troyens; and his orchestral compositions, the chief of which are the overture Le Carnaval Romain, and the symphonies Harold en Italic and Romeo et Juliette. It is as master of the orchestra that Berlioz holds unquestioned rank, taking place beside Beethoven, Wagner and Dvorak. The dramatic vividness of his music may at times startle, but it must be understood that Berlioz perceived a not altogether fanciful connection between emotion and musical expression. Today he stands as one of the great masters in the field of descriptive music and also program music. Hadow, writing in Grove, says "Berlioz knew the capacities of the different instruments better than the virtuosi who played them. His work . . . marks a new era in Instrumentation, and has been directly or indirectly the guide of every composer since his day." Berlioz's criticisms of the musicians of his day were unequaled, but it should be noted that he was the first musician in Europe who truly appreciated Beethoven. His criticisms, like his compositions, are, first of all, original, fearless opinions fearlessly expressed, and the expression, marked by charm and force, makes his writings on music of unusual literary value. The list of his literary and critical works is as follows: Voyage Musical, etudes sur Beethoven, Gluck et Weber; Les Soirees de l'Orchestre; Les Grotesques de la Musique; A Travers Chants; Memoires de Berlioz; Correspondance inedite; Lettres Intimes, and Les Musiciens et la Musique. In spite of whatever is bizarre and erratic, in Berlioz's work, no one can deny to him great imaginative faculty. An artist of rare creative power, Berlioz is compared to that other most original Frenchman, Victor Hugo.