Dining with Berlioz — or Not

Among the treasures of my correspondence with Jacques Barzun is a copy of his response to a survey addressed to him by a professor of art history at a college of otherwise fair repute. Imagine, the survey asked, that you may have dinner with the artist you most admire: whom would you choose and where would you wish to dine? Barzun demurs, on the principle that even the strongest sense of affinity may not ensure compatible company for dinner. What if the admired artist should prove, at table, “disappointing or repellent”? And how is one to choose from among the many artists one cherishes in the various arts, and among the implied series of dinners? The only easy part of the question, Barzun concludes, is where to dine: obviously “on top of Mount Olympus.” In my copy of the letter he has crossed out “Olympus” and written “This should be Ida, of course!”

Whether Ida, Olympus or Parnassus (they're all Greek to me), Jacques has moved the professor's game to a higher plane, one that might have stirred the imagination of Berlioz. Our composer would have known precisely, of course, which Greek mountain to invoke. You will recall his fantasy of transporting a large orchestra composed of the best players from across Europe to the foot of Mount Ida (prudently leaving the summit to the gods). Already the despot of Euphonia, he plans to sweep the area clear of unpoetic sorts, first buying up the surrounding countryside — “l'île de Ténédos, […] le cap Sigée, et le Simoïs, et le Scamandre, Et campus ubi Troja fuit.” The quotation suggests a knowledge of Trojan geography derived chiefly from the Aeneid, but for the purposes of his event Berlioz will speak Greek — as fluently as Xenophon and Aristotle, he declares. Not that he pictures himself holding his own with those two immortals in table talk, as our surveyor professor might have it (glibly ignoring the problem of language involved, let alone of culture and epoch). No; Berlioz wants merely to read Homer in the original. His vision is thus more extravagant but also more realizable — the travel, if not the language, no problem to jet-setters today — and more effective as tribute. What better way to honour our artistic gods, Barzun regularly reminds us, than to read them and perform their works? After building a “resonant temple” — in other words a concert hall — decorated by only two statues (architecture and sculpture play a role, but a modest one), Berlioz would read and meditate the Iliad. At last, fully prepared in mind and spirit, he would “have the king of orchestras recite that other poem by the king of musicians, Beethoven's Eroica.” He himself would presumably conduct.

This passage has sometimes been taken as inspiration for Wagner's Bayreuth, even his Gesamtkunstwerk. When it appeared in the Revue et Gazette Musicale in January 1841, Wagner happened to be in Paris, eking out a living as occasional contributor to that journal. Not only did he undoubtedly take note, but he would eventually have seen the twin fantasy in Berlioz's letter to Spontini written later that same year, first published in Voyage Musical in 1844 and finally set, gem-like, in Evenings with the Orchestra — the letter imagining “a lyric pantheon exclusively devoted to the production of monumental masterpieces.” Such works, Berlioz decrees, “would be given at wide intervals, and with the care and dignity which they deserve by musical artists, and they would be listened to on the solemn festal days of art by musically sensitive and intelligent hearers.” (I quote, of course, from the Barzun translation.)

We recognize well enough the kernel of Bayreuth but — schooled by Barzun — remain alert to the differences. For one thing, Berlioz's ideal theatre is no one-man temple. In his fantasy vision as in his criticism, which is at its most eloquent in celebrating the works of others, he dreams quite naturally of serving his “gods.” Though aware that he has earned among them a rightful place, he has no compulsion to dis-place — a spirit of modesty that may be reckoned among his many affinities with Barzun, who has likewise devoted much of his life to defending and celebrating artists he admires, and to assailing a culture that slights or neglects them.

A second major difference between the Bayreuth and Berlioz models is that, with Berlioz, the arts destined for performance and celebration are not “gesamt” (i.e. fused) but at most “gesammelt” (gathered together). Happy as he is to honour Homer in his Trojan temple, Berlioz implicitly sets Beethoven on the higher pedestal. Music, in his pantheon, stands invariably at the top. Wagner’s contrary notion of music as subservient to poetry in opera struck him as preposterous — “impious,” he said of Gluck’s similar belief, the negation of a musical evolution that had taken millennia to achieve. For this musician, even the greatest poetry pales next to the “world of feelings and sensations” opened up by Beethoven, whose accents “reverberate in the deepest unexplored recesses of our souls.” Homer and Virgil themselves must stand aside: “Cover your faces, ye great poets of old, ye poor immortals,” he intones in an elegiac coda to his analysis of Beethoven’s Pastorale. “Your conventional language with all its harmonious purity cannot compete with the art of sounds. You are glorious in defeat, but defeated nonetheless. . . . Inclyti sed victi." (I quote from Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay's translation of A travers chants, closely mentored — as she has touchingly testified — by Barzun.)

But just how independent is the art that Berlioz so exalts? His pairing of the Iliad with the Eroica might lead us to wonder. Why indeed the designation of Homer as Beethoven’s counterpart when he more usually assigns that role to Shakespeare? The answer may be found a few pages earlier in A travers chants in his critical analysis not of the Third (Eroica) Symphony, but of the Fifth. In this most famous of symphonies, Berlioz contends, Beethoven has for the first time given “free rein to his vast imagination, without recourse to any idea but his own to guide him” — more literally “without taking another’s idea [une pensée étrangère] as guide or crutch.” For the earlier Eroica, he explains, Beethoven had borrowed his “idea” from none other than Homer, “one of those divine poets to whom the great artist had long ago erected a shrine in his heart.” In Beethoven's own “magnificent musical epic,” in sum, “memories of the Iliad evidently play a beautiful role.”

Evidently, does he say? Where does Berlioz get his evidence for this notion about the Iliad as inspiration for the Eroica? He elaborates specifically for the Scherzo, where he hears an evocation of funeral games such as those played by the heroes of the Iliad, and for the Funeral March, which reminds him of Virgil’s lines about the funeral procession of Pallas in the Aeneid (that epic being a sequel, after all, to Homer's). Even the Finale, built on a theme Beethoven used in three previous works, appears to him a development of the same “poetic idea,” marked by the “profound sadness” required by such a “subject.” As for what exactly that “subject” might be, we must turn to the essay on the Eroica, where Berlioz insists on the importance of taking into account Beethoven’s complete title: Heroic Symphony to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man. “Hence there is no question here of battles or triumphal marches,” he warns — the genre of the “battle symphony” being well-worn and well-mocked (e.g. by E.T.A. Hoffmann in his famous review of Beethoven’s Fifth) — “but of deep and serious thoughts, melancholy memories, and ceremonies impressive in their grandeur and sorrow. In short, the funeral rites of a hero.” The identity of this hero, meanwhile, was no secret either to Beethoven’s contemporaries or to Berlioz’s generation. When first writing of this symphony in his biography of Beethoven in 1829, Berlioz confidently identified its Napoleonic origins, relating Ries’s famous anecdote about Beethoven’s dismay at the news of the great man’s coronation, and the consequent “burial” of his hero, whom he now regarded as dead.

In his first version of the Eroica essay that will end up in A travers chants, an essay written for his very first article as new music critic for the Journal des Débats in January 1835, Berlioz retains the general idea of an elegy on the dead hero, but passes over Napoleon in favour of a Homeric cast. According to Thomas Sipe’s Cambridge Music Handbook on the symphony, the trigger for the shift may have been a certain M. Miel, whose Iliad-inspired reading of the Eroica appeared in 1834 in Schumann's Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. No one seems to have found the French original of this piece, which may not exist in published form; Schumann's journal refers to Miel’s “treatise” as having been read at the Société libre des Beaux-Arts. It seems unlikely that on such a matter Berlioz would have taken Miel’s word alone, however honeyed or reputable. But he did not need to. If (as is well possible) the Miel piece was brought to his attention by a German-speaking friend such as Schlesinger, editor of the new Gazette Musicale launched simultaneously with Schumann’s Zeitschrift, it would have reminded him of a similar theory professed by Fétis as early as 1829. In a biographical sketch prefacing a review of the Seventh Symphony, a sketch to which Berlioz directly responds in his three-part biography of Beethoven later that year, Fétis maintains that the Iliad was one of Beethoven’s favourite readings and that it had “changed” his “ideas” in music. No longer content to write mere melody, harmony, and instrumental effects in the manner of Mozart and Haydn — what we might call “pure” music — Beethoven now chose to work around “a governing idea, poetic or anecdotal, which became the framework of his thoughts and the end of all his musical means.”

Berlioz apparently shared the same supposition, but in 1829, reluctant perhaps to show himself indebted to Fétis, he chose not to explore the Homeric theory about the Eroica’s “governing idea.” In 1835, possibly prompted by Miel, he takes it up, calling the work “une homérique conception” and interpreting the various movements in that light. In January 1838, he not only identifies the Iliad as the inspiration for the Eroica — he is launching his first sequential analysis of all nine symphonies and mentions the Eroica, as we saw, in discussing the Fifth — but he also comes close to discrediting the association with Napoleon. The Eroica is a work, he dismissively allows, “which rightly or wrongly is said to have been inspired by a modern hero.” Then, reflecting perhaps that the two programmes are not incompatible and that the Napoleonic one is too entrenched to be uprooted, he implicitly accepts them both. Thus he states, not that “memories of the Iliad evidently play a beautiful role” (as the Csicsery-Rónay version has it) but that those memories play a role “no less evident” (non moins évident) than that of the aforementioned “modern hero.”

I am quite certain that it was Jacques who counselled the quiet deletion of the “no less evident” alternative. Why tax the innocent reader with such complexities, especially on the slippery matter of “programmes” (a word I let fall as unobtrusively as possible in the last paragraph)? Having several times attempted to tackle that hydra, our President knows better than anyone just how slippery it is, and how liable to keep rearing up again. Could it be that we mortals often need a “crutch,” in Berlioz’s word, and that only the immortals on Ida can live on ambrosia and take their music “pure”? Could it also be, as Barzun has patiently explained more than once, that the idea of “purity” in music is relative, even chimerical, music being as subject as any other art to association, context, and the vagaries of human interpretation?

The problem is that while each of us maintains our own right to associate or interpret, we tolerate rather poorly the interpretations of others. Berlioz was the victim of such intolerance throughout his lifetime for his one venture at an explicit programme with the Symphonie fantastique. What his contemporaries objected to was not so much the idea of the programmatic or “poetic,” as they liked to call it, but its verbalization by the composer, which implied something limiting and definitive (they were made uncomfortable by that particular programme, too, which intended to shock — but that’s another story). It could never be definitive, of course — music will always be music and escape any attempt at verbal pinning down, and Berlioz had no qualms about tinkering with his text over the years, sometimes significantly. Rather, it corresponded to a particular moment of conception — quite a late moment, in fact, when Berlioz had decided on a new “governing idea” (that of the Artist in love) in place of his earlier plans for a Faust symphony. All the evidence shows that Beethoven, in composing the Eroica, likewise toyed with different versions of his programme or “idea” both before and after composition.

So would things be simpler if we could corner the composer at table, thrust one of his little notebooks in front of him, ply him with Rhine wine and question him on his intentions? We might be spared some fastidious research (to complicate things further, some sources indicate that Beethoven preferred the Odyssey and actually disliked the Iliad!), but — trust me — his answers would inevitably generate further questions and further scholarship. (I know academics: I am one.) Once again, we would be thrown back on our usual resources of reflection, aesthetic history, logic, and common sense.

In the case of the Eroica, at all events, logic might suggest this: if, for Berlioz, memories of the Iliad play a role “no less evident” that those of Napoleon, and if Napoleon’s role is itself subject to doubt, then is the Homeric influence not equally a matter of conjecture? Of course it is; and what is most noteworthy about Berlioz’s Homeric interpretation of the Eroica is its diffidence, by which I mean not so much that he hesitates over its “truth” as that he says very little about it. There is nothing at all in his essay by way of a blow by blow description of musical events in literary terms. (There is very little of that in his programme for the Symphonie fantastique, either.) The funeral march that prompts the elegiac interpretation of the whole is, after all, a musical genre — a march — that happens to be destined for a particular occasion, a funeral. Whenever Berlioz spoke of “ideas” for music, even in opera, he always sought the inherently musical, what he called “musical ideas” — ideas that lend themselves to musical treatment. Thus when he speaks of the Iliad in connection with Beethoven he has no use — say — for Achilles’ shield, however important a role that object may play in Homer. When he speaks of “funeral games” it is by way of describing the unusual nature of the Scherzo, another musical genre whose name denotes a jest, and which ordinarily implies (like games) a spirit of pure — and purely musical — fun. The “ideas” most suitable for music, in his view, comprise a variety of moods, feelings, and emotions.

But those do not by any means exhaust the musical sphere. Even in dramatic music, Berlioz writes, expressiveness cannot be the sole aim. “It would be misguided as well as pedantic to scorn the purely sensuous pleasure that is found in certain effects of melody, harmony and instrumentation, quite independently of the way they depict the sentiments and passions of the drama.” He is objecting, here (we are again in A travers chants), to a part of Gluck’s famous profession of faith in the preface to Alceste and, by association, to Wagner’s similar conviction of music’s subservience to drama and its ability to render in sound objects and ideas that Berlioz, for his part, finds inherently unmusical. Which brings us back to the notion of musical independence that Berlioz implies when he demotes the Eroica in relation to the Fifth on the basis of the latter’s freedom from “foreign” influences — its imaginative “free rein,” with “no idea but his own to guide him.”

What Berlioz obviously does not mean here is that Beethoven reverted to the manner of Haydn and Mozart, who composed at a time when theorists were only beginning to think of a symphony as a kind of drama. For the Fifth, too, the notion of a “guiding idea” remains clearly relevant for Berlioz; only this time the idea will be the composer’s “own.” With the Eroica, meanwhile, the “idea” brings a turning point in symphonic history — Fétis seems to have got that right — but not necessarily by its identity or explicit presence, since it goes in and out of sight at various stages of composition and is notoriously subject to change. What it rather serves to convey is a general sense of the work’s spiritual and cultural import, on the one hand, and of its unified existence as a work, on the other. Ordinary performance practice in Beethoven’s day, we must remember, treated symphonies as an assemblage of pieces to be given at various moments in a concert or, at the performers’ discretion, in isolation. What struck E.T.A. Hoffmann in his review of Beethoven's Fifth, in 1810, was the novel way in which Beethoven knit the work so tightly as to defy such cavalier treatment (among other things through the pervasive presence of the opening motif — an early idée fixe, the deliberate linking of the third movement to the fourth, and the return of a portion of the Scherzo in the Finale). In a different way, the Eroica too had imparted the same compelling sense of whole. The upshot was nothing less than revolutionary in forcing a reversal of music’s long-inferior standing among the arts. For the first time in history, a musical work — an instrumental work at that — imposed itself with a power and scope as grand as epic (whence the analogy with Homer) or as gripping and dramatic as a Shakespearean tragedy (whence Berlioz's frequent description of the Fifth with reference to Othello). Whether for its priority in the series, its intrinsic importance, or its political resonance, the Eroica was the symphony chosen to inaugurate the newly founded, epoch-making Société des concerts du Conservatoire in March 1828. Berlioz never forgot that initial revelation, and despite his seemingly disparaging remark a decade later, he remains inalterably devoted to it and to its defence in the face of the relative indifference with which the first movement, in particular, is received by Conservatoire audiences (his Ida fantasy results from one such occasion).

What then does he mean by insisting that Beethoven’s “idea” in the Fifth, contrary to the Eroica, is entirely “his own”? “It is his intimate thoughts,” Berlioz explains, that Beethoven means to develop, “his secret sorrows, his pent-up anger, his dreams full of dejection, his nocturnal visions, and his outbursts of enthusiasm.” In the first movement, Berlioz goes on, the music “depicts the chaotic feelings that overwhelm a great soul when prey to despair.” And he memorably compares that despair, not to “Romeo’s dark and mute grief on learning of Juliet’s death,“ but to “Othello’s terrible rage on hearing of Desdemona’s guilt from Iago’s poisonous lies.” The constellation of enthusiasm, sorrows, dreams and nightmares, and jealous anger call to mind quite strikingly the first-movement programme of his own Fantastique. It is as though he deliberately chose, in shifting his “idea” from the “foreign” Faust to the Artist in love, to pattern his work after the independent way of the Fifth rather than the “borrowed” way of the Eroica.

The new way manifestly implies not only expression but (as we now say) self-expression. Indeed this idea is now so common, so hackneyed, that we take it for granted and may wonder at Berlioz’s insistence on Beethoven’s “idea” as deriving from his own mind: where else would it come from? But the distinction he makes between the Eroica and the Fifth reflects something historically unprecedented. Before the Romantics, artists may inevitably have “expressed themselves” in some sense, but the notion itself did not exist. Although the Baroque age went in for great outpourings of “the passions,” as they were called (i.e. emotions), and even made catalogues of them, the emotions expressed were never taken to apply to the artist’s own person. For us, on the contrary, the idea of the self-expressive artist, inherited from the Romantics, is so deeply ingrained that we often tend to think it the only way art works. That assumption alone could account for the questions of our professor, which reflect the deeper fantasy — or delusion — that sharing the same space with admired artists will somehow reveal the secrets of their art.

But the real question bears on what or who the self expressed in art may be. My literary colleagues, I like to think, would never be so naïve as to equate the artistic self unproblematically with the contingent, historical person — the ordinary person one might encounter at the dinner table. (Art professors deal in sight, which Berlioz thought the dullest of the senses because it requires the least effort of imagination.) Did not Keats declare categorically, in his famous letter on the Poetical Character, that “not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature”? It would be a rash assumption, as Barzun has shown, to equate Berlioz the man with the hero of his symphony, even if Berlioz played on that equation himself for purposes of publicity. The more fruitful way to approach the self-expressive idea is rather through the artistic fiction of the lyric poet’s “I” or the persona of the confessional novel, as in Chateaubriand’s René or Goethe’s earlier Werther. It may be useful to think of the symphonic model epitomized for Berlioz by Beethoven’s Fifth as analogous to those genres, and to recall that it was the Romantics who raised both the lyric and instrumental music from lowest to highest rank in the artistic hierarchy.

We could go on to ponder the contradictions, more apparent than real, between Beethoven’s Fifth and his Pastorale, the next in the series, or Berlioz’s Fantastique and his subsequent symphonies, in their apparent return to objective rather than subjective “ideas.” But I have more than used up my turn to speak at table, and would like to spend my final words allowing that it is perhaps not so reprehensible after all to dream of basking in the presence of the great men and women of the world, whether at their feet or at the equalizing height of the table. Berlioz often imagined himself in the company of Shakespeare and Virgil, and he ends his Memoirs with a sally of frustration at “not having known Virgil, whom I should have loved, or Gluck or Beethoven — or Shakespeare, who might perhaps have loved me.” (I quote from David Cairns’s translation.) Such regret and sorrow at missed encounters, loves, and successes reflect his strong affinity for the elegiac in art, the quality he resonates with in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica and that he creates so stirringly himself in the brooding and incomparable first movement of Harold in Italy. But the reverse of that sorrow is an equally profound delight at real or imagined encounters with those of kindred spirit. My privileged interchanges with Jacques — even, occasionally, at the dinner table — have given me a joyous glimpse of the company on Ida, where we would also find Homer’s hero along with his namesake, our own great Hector.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial