|“Which of the two powers, Love or Music, can elevate man to the
sublimest heights?…It is a great problem, and yet it seems to me that this
is the answer: ‘Love can give no idea of music; music can give an idea
of love’…Why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.”
- Hector Berlioz
Classical music lovers familiar with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique
will know of the supposed genesis of the symphony: the young composer’s
infatuation for Harriet Smithson, the Irish Shakespearean actress. Yet
this passion was only part of the transformation that Berlioz experienced
when he first saw Harriet as Ophelia in the performance of Hamlet
at the Odéon Theatre, Paris, in 1827. As he relates in his memoirs,
“This sudden revelation of Shakespeare overwhelmed me. The lightning flash
of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me, illuminating its
remotest depths in a single flash…” From then on the dramatic works of
Shakespeare shaped his musical imagination in the creation of such works
as the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, the comic opera
Béatrice et Bénédict, and shorter works - the
King Lear Overture, Fantasy on The Tempest and the memorial to his
love for Harriet, La Mort d’Ophélie.
Shakespeare’s works made their appearance in France some time after
their influence shaped German Romantic thought in the late eighteenth century
- and it was largely through the eloquence and persistence of writers such
as Stendhal, de Vigny and Victor Hugo that the Parisian public became receptive
to the plays in the 1820s - so that the English acting troupe managed by
William Abbot arrived in Paris in 1827 with reasonable hopes of success.
Whilst it was only a modest touring company, leading actors of the London
stage, including Edmund Kean and Charles Kemble, were engaged in the principal
roles for the Paris season. The latter required a leading actress to play
Ophelia opposite his Hamlet; however, the actress chosen for the part,
Maria Foote, fell ill at an inopportune moment and a minor actress in the
company, Harriet Smithson, was given the part. Although the performance
of Hamlet was entirely in English it was a huge success, mainly
because of the emotional power of Harriet Smithson as the grief stricken
Ophelia, who became the toast of Paris: so much so that it was unthinkable
for another actress to replace her during the Paris season. The emotionally
fragile Berlioz was shattered by the experience. Two nights later the company
staged Romeo and Juliet, again to rapturous applause for Harriet,
this time as Juliet, and it became a legend that Berlioz had cried “I will
marry that woman and write my grandest symphony on that play” - something
he was later at pains to deny. He was not alone in his enthusiasm: Harriet
became a symbol of Romanticism for the group of young artists in Paris
at the time - she is the model for the famous Delacroix painting La
Mort d’Ophélie which hangs in the Louvre.
Following his success in the Prix de Rome and while waiting for the
formalities to be completed, Berlioz accepted an appointment as a guitar
teacher at a girls’ school. There the piano teacher was an attractive eighteen-year-old
woman, Camille Moke, a friend of an acquaintance. The flirtatious young
lady let it be known to Hector that Harriet was having affairs with her
leading men - which was quite untrue. But the news had the effect of unhinging
Hector’s already unstable emotions and he wandered the countryside for
days, grief stricken. When he returned, Camille was waiting to console
him, and after a short idyll in the country which caused him to forget
Harriet completely, they were betrothed. Berlioz tried desperately to avoid
the two years’ residence in Rome required as a condition of his prize,
but was unsuccessful, leaving for Rome in January 1831, after spending
New Year at La Côte Saint-André with his family, now reconciled
to his choice of career and proud of their son’s success.
On 9 December 1832 the rewritten Symphonie fantastique was performed before a glittering audience, including Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt and the great violin virtuoso, Paganini. Harriet was also present, as guest of the editor of an English magazine in Paris - and was the subject of knowing glances by those aware of the personal drama being enacted. Reading the libretto she instantly recognised herself and also the tempestuous young man who had pursued her. The symphony was a triumph and Berlioz was acclaimed by his peers - Paganini announced that Berlioz began where Beethoven and Weber left off - and Harriet was at last won over. Introductions were made through a mutual friend; they met and talked of the events of the previous five years - and by the end of the week they were engaged to be married.
Both families were opposed to the match and even Franz Liszt counselled his friend against the marriage. Berlioz senior refused to accept an “actress” into the family and Harriet’s mother in Ireland had heard the story of the mad Frenchman who had pursued her daughter. The woes of Harriet’s indebtedness were compounded by an accident she suffered while alighting from a carriage, resulting in a broken leg. An elder sister, sent from London to nurse Harriet, took an instant dislike to Hector, and the long engagement was marred by bitter quarrels and a suicide attempt by Hector. Harriet eventually agreed to a date and the wedding took place on 3 October 1833.
The marriage was everything Berlioz had dreamed of, despite the fact that he did not understand spoken English and Harriet had no French, and even though he had assumed Harriet’s debts and horrendous medical bills, while neither had any sort of regular income or resources. Their only child - a son, Louis, born in 1834 - added to the financial burden; music alone would not provide the wherewithal to live and Berlioz therefore embarked on his career as a writer of articles and reviews for various periodicals, the income from which was to sustain the family for years to come.
In December 1838 Berlioz unexpectedly received a gift from Paganini of a bank draft for 20,000 francs; the accompanying note said in part, “Beethoven is dead and only Berlioz can revive him ...” Having paid off his debts, Berlioz resolved to repay his generous patron by writing “a masterpiece, full of passion and imagination”: the result was his great symphony Roméo et Juliette. Before commencing work he studied five existing works on the subject, finding them all inadequate in expressing what to him was the essence of Shakespeare - the pure expression of romantic love.
Roméo et Juliette is a dramatic symphony - a choral symphony with some parts which are almost operatic, with verses by the poet’s friend Emile Deschamps, who translated several of Shakespeare’s plays into French during the 1830s. The symphony is based on the eighteenth-century Garrick version of the play, which extends Act 5 to include a funeral procession, so that the ending is prolonged; to the Shakespearean the tragedy might appear more that of the Montagues and Capulets than of the two lovers, as the drama opens with the skirmish between the rival houses and ends with their reconciliation, effected by the catharsis of the lover’s deaths. The heart of the symphony is the adagio of the lengthy third movement - Scène d’amour - a purely orchestral expression of the balcony scene in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play. Here the evocation of place and the lovers’ tender exchanges are superbly realised by the interweaving of strings and woodwind ensembles in different registers, given effect by Berlioz’ innovative use of the new instruments introduced into the orchestra in the early nineteenth century.
The symphony is in seven movements:
1. Introduction - Combat, Tumult, Intervention of the Prince
2. At the Capulets’ House - Romeo alone, Sounds of
5. Funeral Cortege
6. Tomb Scene - Romeo at the Capulets’ Tomb
Unfortunately, Berlioz’ increasing success, particularly following triumphant tours through Germany, aided by Liszt and Mendelssohn, was not reflected in his personal life. Harriet’s career had not flourished after the marriage - her broken leg had left her with a permanent limp and she had put on weight after the birth of her son, so that she was no longer a credible Juliet. She became increasingly shrewish and made Berlioz’ life intolerable; eventually she was found to be addicted to eau de vie, a highly addictive alcoholic beverage in vogue at the time. Berlioz rented a cottage in the country and a nurse to care for her and embarked on an exhausting series of tours through Europe to earn the money necessary to support his extended family. His companion on these tours was a young Spanish/French soprano, Marie Recio (Marie Genevieve Martin) who insisted on singing at the tour concerts. But he never forsook Harriet, during the unhappy years before their separation in 1844. Berlioz wrote La Mort d’Ophélie in memory of the wonderful actress he had fallen in love with all those years ago. The verses of Ernest Legouvé were adapted from Gertrude’s speech in Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet “There is a willow grows aslant a brook”. Through all these family trials, their son Louis suffered a miserable and lonely existence, living at boarding school until at fifteen he expressed a desire to go to sea. His cadetship on board a training vessel was costly and added to the financial burden Berlioz was already experiencing with Harriet’s medical costs. Once at sea, Louis was impressed to find that his father’s fame had spread to foreign countries, and in time he became close to his parents.
In 1844, Harriet suffered a stroke and was incapacitated for the remainder of her unhappy life - she died in 1854. Liszt wrote from Weimar, “She inspired you, you sang of her, her task was done.” Now free, Berlioz married Marie Recio, but her voice had not improved with age. Critics were uniformly unkind and even her loyal supporter, Berlioz, was eventually forced to confide in a letter to Liszt, “She sings like a cat.”
Through all his personal vicissitudes, Berlioz continued to compose. In 1854, he wrote the Christmas oratorio L’Enfance du Christ, and the following year his most ambitious work Les troyens, an enormous opera to be performed over two nights, including a love duet between Dido and Aeneas, based on the verses in Act 5, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. But the scale of the work gave his enemies at the Opéra the excuse that the work was too expensive to stage. Eventually, the second part, Troyens à Carthage, was staged at a smaller theatre and was received with enthusiasm. For some months in 1860, the Opéra vacillated between Les troyens and the premiere of Wagner’s Tannhauser, finally settling for the latter, and the complete opera was never performed in Berlioz’ lifetime. In 1860 he was given a commission to write a comic opera to celebrate the opening of a new theatre at Baden Baden, the fashionable German Spa. Béatrice et Bénédict is based on Much Ado About Nothing; Berlioz himself wrote the libretto borrowing dialogue straight from the play, reducing the cast to the two pairs of lovers, plus Don Pedro and Ursula, and introducing a new comic character in the musical pedant Somarone, a satirical sketch of members of the Paris musical establishment he had been at odds with for most of his life. The premiere of the opera at Baden Baden was a huge success, its light-hearted story and melodic score ensuring its permanent place in the comic opera repertoire.
While rehearsing Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz was interrupted by the news that Marie Recio had taken ill. By the time he reached her bedside she had died of a heart attack at the age of 48; Berlioz was now alone in the world, his only son being away at sea. In his loneliness he was seized by the urge to revisit the Meylan of his youth, which led to a meeting with Estelle Duboeuf, now Madame Fornier, a widow and a grandmother. While honoured by the attention of the famous Hector Berlioz, she made it clear that there was no room in her life for a deeper relationship and his loneliness continued.
In June 1867, Berlioz received the sad news that Louis had died of yellow fever in Havana. When he had recovered from the shock he went to the Conservatoire and, with the aid of the porter, burnt all the mementoes of his life, keeping only the conductor’s baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar, a present from Paganini.
In the same year, he visited Moscow and St Petersburg to give a series of six concerts, but he was ill and stayed in bed at the palace except for rehearsals and concerts. It was winter and the exhausting journey permanently damaged his health. On his return to Paris he immediately left for Nice to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine, but while walking on the shore he slipped and fell on the rocks, possibly because of a stroke. He had to return to Paris and lived there as an invalid until his death on 8 March 1869.
His funeral was a day-long ceremony with all the notable figures in the musical and art world present. He was buried in the family plot at Montmartre cemetery between Harriet and Marie Recio. Those who had frustrated his soaring talent throughout his career now posthumously honoured him and celebrated his greatness.
Most of what is known of Berlioz is drawn from his Memoirs, 1803-65, the main source of the present article. Good modern translations are by Ernest Newman (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1932) and David Cairns (Gollancz, London, 1977). Cairns is also the author of the most recent 2 volume life, in Penguin. An earlier life is by Holoman in Faber. Berlioz’ massive contribution to the development of the modern symphony orchestra is held in translation by the State Library of Victoria - Call No A 781.374.
From Vol.2 No.2: December 2001 and Vol.2 No.3: March 2002 of the "The Melbourne Shakespearean"
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