Hector Berlioz

As announced in the preface to his Hector Berlioz, Mr. Apthorp’s aim has been “ to show what the man was, rather than what he did.” The work is practically divided into three parts: first, a Biographical Sketch by the author, principally based upon Berlioz’s Autobiography ; then follow ten letters written by the master for publication during his professional tour through Germany in 1841-1842; and finally a faithful translation of selections from his three highly original volumes, entitled respectively, Les Soirées d’ Orchestre, Les Grotesques de la Musique, and A Travers Chants.

Mr. Apthorp has skillfully drawn from a somewhat abundant material only that which shall lend color and form to the characterization of his subject. The book is not a mere conglomeration of odds and ends, having no definite purpose in view, but a finely composed mosaic, each part being carefully fitted to its neighbor, and its separate value and identity made to subserve the general effect, in the excellent portrait of the master thus wrought from the original material prepared by his own hands. For this reason the author has preferred to make “ some apparently trivial selections,” rather than others that might have been considered of “ more serious value to the art of music.” But the careful reader will be amply repaid by the keen realization thus afforded of a character so uncommon that no one will dispute his biographer’s estimate, thus tersely given : “ Take him all in all, he was a man ; one so genuine through and through that it may be doubted whether he could even form a conception of what a sham really was. And surely history can show us few figures in which utter veracity of character exhibits itself in so explosive and drastic a shape.”

The ten letters from Germany, forming the second division of the volume, give “ a vivid picture of certain phases of the composer’s professional life ; ” they are “ extremely familiar in form,” and afford the reader welcome opportunities for becoming acquainted with musicians of all grades and shades of eccentricity, from Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer down to the little man belonging to the big drum, as our hero meets them while he journeys from place to place superintending the production of his own compositions. Nothing escapes his attention that is of interest to musicians, and his notes by the way are full of value. His vigorous sentences carry us over the road, through a dozen German cities and back to Paris, before we are sensible of a touch of weariness, or conscious of the weight of our newly acquired information.

Concerning the spirit in which the translations have been made, Mr. Apthorp says, “ Berlioz’s style is peculiarly colloquial, often slangy, fora Frenchman. . . . In this I have followed him closely. I have also been more anxious to preserve what I could of the characteristic cut of French phraseology than to make a translation which could lay claim to distinct literary merit from an English point of view.” That he has succeeded admirably in this respect is apparent, especially in the third and last division of the work before mentioned. Berlioz’s whimsical wit and extravagant fancy are here given full liberty, and one must be dexterous indeed to capture the volatile conceits and transfuse them through our obstinate English.

The volume concludes with appendices containing the Funeral Discourse over the body of Hector Berlioz, delivered by M. Guillaume, president of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and a Catalogue of Berlioz’s published works

An opportunity for becoming personally acquainted with so remarkable a man as Berlioz should be welcomed by all, and musical people who have hitherto known him only through his compositions will be glad of the close companionship which Mr. Apthorp’s volume affords. A biography too often means but a lifeless portraiture, where the features stare at one voraciously enough, but warmth of feeling and the charm of a magnetic individuality are wholly lacking. Mr. Apthorp affords the reader a keen and thorough appreciation of his subject’s personality.

Whatever Berlioz undertook received the full measure of his energy and strength. We find him hurrying from Rome toward Paris in the summer of 1830, a disappointed and frenzied lover, armed to the teeth, and bent upon the destruction of the false one, her mother, her newly acquired husband, and, to complete the massacre—himself. Luckily, the road was a long one, so that his fury had time to abate, and his common sense, of which he had a plenty, reasserted itself. At the age of nineteen he writes a mass, the first imperfect performance of which reveals defects that he diligently labors to remedy ; he spends three months in the mere copying of the parts, being unable to pay professional copyists. By dint of persistence he at last succeeds in obtaining the twelve hundred francs necessary for a second production, from “ an enthusiastic young friend,” and then, “ after the performance, becoming convinced of the worthlessness of the work, he burned it, together with the scene from Beverly, the opera of Estelle, and a Latin oratorio, The Passage through the Red Sea, which he had just finished.”

Refined and sensitive souls ordinarily shrink from exposing their innermost recesses to the vulgar gaze, and at first thought the spectacle of our hero “ wearing his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at ” creates the suspicion that his expressed determination “to avow everything ” may be the unblushing frankness of insensibility. But we finally conclude that it is but another evidence of a strong emotional nature scorning hypocrisy, and seeking the only possible relief in tempestuous avowals. His religious opinions may be indicated by the incident he relates concerning Mendelssohn : “ One evening we were exploring the bath of Caracalla together, debating the question of the merit and demerit of human actions and their reward in this life. As I was answering his wholly religious and orthodox expressions of opinion by I forget what enormity, his foot slipped, and down he rolled, with many bruises and scratches, down the ruins of a very steep staircase. ‘ Admire the divine justice,’ said I, while helping him up: ‘ I blaspheme, and you fall.’ ”

It is, perhaps, as a master of instrumentation that Berlioz receives the most homage among musicians. His Traité d’Instrumentation is widely known, being published in French, English, German, and Italian. His perfect command of the resources of the orchestra entitle his opinions to great weight. It is somewhat remarkable that he should have acquired the reputation of being noisy. The writer remembers to have overheard a discussion, a few years since, among several well-informed amateur musicians, at the Central Park Garden in New York, immediately after a fine performance of his version of the Ràkóczy March, wherein Berlioz was declared by universal consent to be “ too fond of the trombone and cymbals.” In his autobiography he says, “ I am reproached with an excess of noise, a predilection for the big drum, which I have used only in a small number of my compositions where its use is perfectly natural, and I alone, among all critics, have for twenty years protested against the revolting abuse of noise, — against the insensate use of the big drum, trombones, etc.”

In his forcible style, he inveighs against many foibles common amongst popular singers; so true and so common that we sigh, as we smile, at his characteristic denunciation: “If a woman has for her only possession an exceptional compass of voice; if she can give pertinently or not a low G or F more like a death-rattle than a musical tone, or else a high F that is quite as pleasant to the ear as the squeal of a little dog when you step on his tail, that is enough to make the whole house resound with acclamations.” “ No sooner does she shoot forth her squibs and skyrockets at the rate of sixteen sixteenth notes per bar ; no sooner does her infernal trill drill into your tympanum with ferocious persistency for a whole minute without stopping to take breath, than you are sure to see,” etc.

Orchestral leaders who take unwarrantable liberties in “ improving original scores ” receive unmerciful and merited flagellation at his hands. Valuable hints concerning the management of large choruses are entitled to especial notice; the drilling of the several parts separately, before uniting in a general rehearsal, is strongly recommended. How an artistic composition may be utterly lost in a large theatre is scientifically explained, and the universal custom of permitting the orchestra to drown the miserable singer in a sea of tumult, or force him to shout his protest, is described in a sufficiently harrowing manner.

Apart from other interests which may attach to this entertaining volume, the pungent satire, sparkling wit, and comical absurdities with which it abounds, especially in the chapters entitled Evenings with the Orchestra, Musical Grotesques, and A Travers Chants, entitle it to a place beside the best productions of modern humorists. In the experience of the man whose personality is here so vividly presented, we find tragedy, comedy, and farce strangely commingled, as indeed they must needs be in the truthful history of every human life that glows with such intensity. It is only when the brave heart, self-consumed, is about to crumble in ashes that we find the sad words, “ Let us try to think no more of art. . . . I can now die without bitterness and without anger.”

  1. Hector Berlioz. Selections from his Letters, and Æsthetic, Humorous, and Satirical Writings. Translated, and preceded by a Biographical Sketch of the Author, by WM. F. APTHORP. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1879.