Berlioz made a forceful impression on his contemporaries. In 1831 Mendelssohn wrote to his father:
Berlioz is a freak [verzzert, distorted, out of shape], without a spark of talent, fumbling about in the darkness and imagining himself to be the creator of a new world; he writes about the most terrible things, and dreams and thinks of nothing but Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe …
Mendelssohn was wrong about the talent, and he should have added Shakespeare to the list of idols. He was right about the feeling of creating a new world, the extreme commitment to music and literature. Berlioz’s musical genius flowered at the time when the old classical era had waned and the romantic age in music was just beginning. He wrote marvellously about that volatile time, and no biography could hope to surpass the composer’s autobiography, the famous Memoirs. Hugh Macdonald acknowledges this early on, and his book is a quite different achievement.
The story of Berlioz’s life is a Romantic one. The young Berlioz renounced medicine for music despite stem familial opposition. He worked with fanatic determination, had faith in his own genius, and managed to give concerts of some early works. In 1827 he was smitten by Shakespeare and Harriet Smithson. While she played Ophelia to a mesmerized Parisian audience the still unknown Berlioz roamed the streets of nocturnal Paris in tears, hysterical and infatuated. Nonetheless two years later he became engaged to Camille Moke, a talented pianist, who then betrayed him for a wealthy older man. Berlioz (now quite famous) heard the news in Rome. Here the story is really fit for the stage. He procured a ladies’ maid outfit for disguise, two double-barrelled pistols, some poison, and set off for England, planning to kill the fickle Camille and husband (himself afterwards). Enter bathos as Berlioz leaves his disguise behind by mistake. Life begins to appeal and anyway the 30 carabinieri think he’s a spy and force him to make a long detour. In Nice he recovers his zest for life, returns to Italy and the next two years are very happy. Macdonald allows Berlioz to speak for himself in an inspired passage from the Memoirs:
Poignant memories of days of freedom now vanished! Freedom of the heart, of the mind, of the soul, of everything. Freedom to do nothing, not even to think; freedom to forget time, to despise ambition, to laugh at fame, to dismiss love; freedom to go north, south, east or west, to sleep in the open, to drowse on little, to wander at large, to dream without forethought, to drowse away whole days immobile in the breath of the sirocco. Oh great, strong Italy, wild Italy, heedless of your sister, the Italy of art:
The lovely Juliet stretched upon her bier.
Berlioz wrote impassioned and articulate prose, although for many years of his life he had to earn a living through writing and regarded it as an appalling chore. Macdonald’s account has none of this brio but it is condensed and intelligent. He describes not only Berlioz’s powerfully felt reactions to music and poetry but how he celebrated his own sensibility, was moved by his capacity to be moved. ‘He loved listening to Liszt’s performance of the Moonlight Sonata in a darkened room, sobbing’ notes Macdonald. In a luxurious outburst of grief Berlioz wrote to his friend Hiller:
Oh! I am so unhappy! so inexpressibly unhappy!
about his passion for Harriet. The old gods of decorum were thrown to the winds. Musically he breaks rules of classical form in the Symphonie Fantastique as priority is given to subjective emotion; the famous idée fixe recurs (the musical motif signifying love for Harriet) – the obsessive return to the theme denoting the lover’s obsession.
Berlioz never began composition with musical form. He was usually inspired by literature, a poetic idea, which he would then try and render in music. When composing Romeo and Juliet he compares musical representation with the more limited medium of language:
since the very sublimity of this love opens pitfalls for any composer who attempts to paint it, he has had to give his imagination greater freedom than the precise meaning of sung words would allow, turning instead to the language of instruments, a language richer, more varied, more flexible and by its very imprecision incomparably more powerful in such circumstances.
The wordless language of music is not in itself ‘imprecise’, but music does defy precise linguistic translation. Which brings one to a perennial problem in music biographies. Macdonald has devoted over half the book to fairly close analysis of the individual musical works. The music of Berlioz is easier to discuss than most because it is so vividly pictorial. He was a master of orchestral colour and detailed effect, and Macdonald shows this clearly. But the result is nonetheless a decidedly curious narrative, with references to ‘the galloping hooves in the violins, the inexorable tread of cellos and basses’. This hybrid literary genre has a style all of its own, where instruments are a bit like people, and vice versa. Or, indeed, animals: Macdonald talks of ‘giant nocturnal birds (flapping woodwind)’. (Flapping woodwind?!) Evocative stuff. After 120 pages of this strange species of prose one is struck by the feeling that- at the risk of stating the obvious- the words attempting musical representation circle back to a strictly literary effect: an experience that has nothing whatever in common with hearing the music. The symbolists who revered music for its untranslatable secrecy had a point. It should be possible to discuss music and musical ideas (including the technical actualities of cadences, modulations etc) without a detailed linguistic paraphrase of an opus. But undoubtedly the ‘Music’ section will appeal to music students. And undoubtedly the book’s readership will be narrowed, which is a pity.
The heroine who precipitated the ‘supreme drama’ of Berlioz’s life (his own inimitably accurate phrase) is the subject of Peter Raby’s biography, The Fair Ophelia. Raby shows how Harriet Smithson was identified with the early Romantic spirit, and how much her naturalistic acting of tragic roles contributed to this. The absence of artificiality enchanted her audience, who were the young artistes of the day, all endowed with fearfully sensitive sensibilities. It is recorded that when on stage she sighed
Alas! I am wondrous faint: But that’s not strange: I have not eat these three days,
‘a deep murmur, perfectly audible, ran through the house – “Oh, mon Dieu!”’ Even the modern Peter Raby waxes a little lyrical as he talks about ‘the pure whiteness of her bosom’, although mostly he is a sympathetic biographer without being over-ardent. The book gives an excellent portrait of the theatre of the day, explaining why Shakespeare had such a powerful if belated impact on Paris. But it is clear that Harriet’s fame still rests chiefly on the fact that she was the celebrated object of Berlioz’s love.
I shall never leave her. She is my star.
he had written with great optimism and faith. He did leave her and their marriage was a disaster. She stayed at home, isolated, unable to speak French properly, possessive and alcoholic, and finally died ‘inert, disfigured with disease’. Her life reads like a sad and ironic fable of Romanticism. Berlioz fell in love with her as Juliet and Ophelia on the stage. With unwitting untruthfulness he once wrote that he felt ‘an infinite capacity for happiness’ that was ‘outraged by the want of an adequate object’. Harriet Smithson per se was inadequate; adorned with her Shakespearian identities in Berlioz’s mind she was the perfect object of desire. The actress adopting her roles is exactly analogous to Berlioz’s act of imaginative investment, his Romantic perception which transfigured her accordingly.
Peter Raby does his best to write an interesting Life, but it is hard going. Harriet herself wrote awfully little, and only three letters are cited. They don’t tell very much. Raby’s book adds the final ironic touch to the fable. His well-intentioned attempt to explore the myth, to give it substance and autonomy (the woman herself, not just the love célèbre she provoked) collapses on itself as increasingly the chief source of material is the writing of Berlioz. As she was invested with her stage personae, and mythologized by Berlioz’s Romantic imaginative love, so she is again represented by his extravagant pen, and we are back to the beginning. Access is barred, as it were. Harriet herself remains known only through the portrayals of others, and at the end of the book the autonomous woman at its centre is still more or less a mystery.