(The apocalyptic first two acts of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, about nothing less than the destruction of a civilization.)
I spent five-and-half hour at the movies on Saturday so that I could see the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcast of Les Troyens around the world. The effort was made so that I might wrap my head around Berlioz’s crowning achievement, his five-act grand opera based on the Aeneid, a Roman epic so boring that Dante saw fit to abandon its author in Purgatory forever.
In a way I have never felt about many other operatic epics (hello Wagner!…), I left this opera absolutely convinced that Les Troyens is one of the greatest operas ever written. Even if for all its greatness, it still doesn’t reach that final level of humanity present in the two very greatest masters of the genre (only by my estimation) – Mozart and Janacek, it must surely take its place with the greatest work of other great ‘operatists’ like Verdi and Britten as being very nearly on the most sublime level of artistic achievement.
Les Troyens is an opera about nothing less than the sacrifices one must make for the constant vigilance of maintaining a civilization. The civilizations on display in Les Troyens may be distant from our own chronologically, yet they are all too similar to civilizations we know quite well. In Berlioz’s hands, it’s possible to see within the Troy of the Aeneid a thinly disguised vision of mid-19th century France, still reeling from the shocks of the French Revolution, the First French Republic, the rise of Robespierre and Napoleon, the First French Empire and the Napoleonic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration and the Hundred Days, the Four Ordinances and the July Revolution, the Charter of 1830 and the failed 1832 Revolution, the 1848 Revolution and the Second Republic, the Coup of 1851 and the Second Empire. Berlioz’s France was a land exhausted by war, intrigue, and bloodshed; all too willing to believe prematurely that an era of peace was at hand and all too willing to welcome any new development because of the colossal failures of the old paradigms. It is the France in which Les Miserables is set, rendered far more powerfully than a Cameron Mackintosh production ever could. And yet, we needn’t be too hard on poor Mackintosh (who’s worth $1.1 billion). In his hands, perhaps the Paris of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is no longer 1832 Paris. Perhaps it is the London of Margaret Thatcher.
Much, though not all, of what one finds in Les Troyens can be found in Les Mis (though much of what’s missing is the greatness). Like Les Mis, Les Troyens is a work of unfathomable pomp. Berlioz is a (perhaps THE) true romantic, less in love with emotional expression than in the grandeur which such expression provides. But dearest Hector can afford to be so outsize in his expression only because he is so completely grounded in classicism. Even in Berlioz’s most grandiose passages, he is fundamentally dealing in those tried-and-true musical and operatic principles: diatonic harmony, four-bar phrases, and singing which always advances the story. For all its romantic trappings, there’s little if anything here that Haydn and Gluck wouldn’t recognize.
(The last movement of the Symphonie Fantastique: music that may seem at first glance to operate by no law of the past. And yet, listen to that fugue – it’s pure Bach, church music for the Devil.)
Yet why is it that many still regard Berlioz as the greatest revolutionary the music world has ever seen? Berlioz’s most visceral moments may thrill as few (any?) musicans before or since, but they thrill in part because they are often put next to some of the most shockingly elegant, classically balanced music ever written. Next to Wagner, Berlioz’s music is tradition itself.
It is because Berlioz was such a classicist that he was such a revolutionary. Berlioz was the first great composer of living memory to realize that it was not revolutionary simply to put an individual stamp on the laws of classicism – even Beethoven operated within them. Berlioz was the first to understand that he could create more effective music if he sometimes broke out of the classical style altogether. Before Berlioz, the greatness of the ‘classical canon’ was not established, and the great composers of the eighteenth century were forced to forge their voices in a damp sea of popular culture mediocrity in which the music commonly heard was sufficiently bad to prevent musicians from imagining a way of making music that was completely different. Much like the great musicians of the 20th century, the best that could be done by the greats of the 18th century was to invent their own spins on rules so constricting that they crushed the individuality of all but the most resilient musical voices.
(The Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet - Berlioz can write the most visceral, most eye-poppingly dissonant music imaginable, but he can also write the most elegant, breathtakingly beautiful, music. The spirit is completely romantic, the style is almost totally classical.)
To those strong enough to prevail, it was a staggering creative blessing which initiated a rain of musical beauty without precedent or equal in human history before or since. I am firmly convinced that the greatest music ever written is still the great music composed around Vienna in the years between 1780 and 1830. Bach wrote the music of the angels, Wagner wrote the music of the demons, but Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert wrote the music of us humans on earth – music which allows all our messy complexities and emotional entanglements to be heard as though our evolving emotional states can be seen through a mirror.
(Four brass bands stationed around the concert hall and a dozen bass drums conjure a vision of the apocalypse in Berlioz’s Requiem)
But it was only with Berlioz that a musical genius felt so saturated with great music of a particular type that he felt the need to invent a completely new way of composing. Whereas his greatest predecessors looked toward humanity, only with Berlioz did composers feel privileged enough to cast their gaze not only above just as centuries of composers felt the need to afix, but also down below. Whereas Mozart wanted a brief apparition of Hell so he could rid the world of Don Giovanni, Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique as a means to stay down there forever. Whereas Beethoven wanted to expand the capacities of the orchestra, Berlioz wrote a manifesto which stated his desire to expand the orchestra to 956 musicians. If Haydn wanted to write a few oratorios based upon great literature (including a Paradise Lost oratorio for which he never got the libretto he wanted), Berlioz devoted his entire musical career to capturing literary greatness in music. As such, the grand gestures of Berlioz’s music makes him perhaps the most ‘fun’ composer to pick up a pen. Nothing in Stravinsky or James Brown or The Rolling Stones can equal the visceral thrill of Berlioz’s imagination in full flight. And yet, there is something limiting about Berlioz’s greatness – something which can only capture the human heart when at its most uninhibited. There’s something within Berlioz's makeup which is only curious about people when they are at their most dramatic, and couldn’t care less about the mundanities of everyday life. As such, he misses all too much of the flavor of human experience. In some ways, he was like a kid who plays with dangerous toys.
This is an aspect of his music brought home to me again and again through Les Troyens. There are moments in this great opera which discuss mundanities, and those scenes are uniformly dull and only served to dampen the greatness of everything else. The absolute operatic masters, Mozart and Janacek, found ways to make the dull stuff interesting. As always, you have the feeling that Berlioz is just marking time, setting up the next splendid theatrical pageant.
But that alone was not quite as troubling to me as certain scenes which make me wonder if Berlioz was not interested at all in the humanity of his characters. At the end of Act II, Berlioz invoked a truly horrific scene - a group of Trojan women debate whether to commit mass suicide so as to prevent themselves from rape and slavery at the hands of the Greeks (or perhaps slavery as a means to rape, as living memory has shown us in both Bosnia and Rwanda can exist on a mass scale). The scene is unbelievably exciting, how could a discussion of such life-or-death issues set to music of genius not be? And yet one has to ask: is Berlioz enobling the suffering of such women in wartime, or is he trivializing them? Is this a serious invocation of the women’s terror and suffering, or is it merely a grandly theatrical tableau? It’s a tribute to Berlioz that the scene can invoke both, and yet the setting is too sensational to avoid wondering if this is just another splendid piece of theater that regards mass suicide, rape, and slavery as nice fodder to excite the audience.
(the end of Act II)
Berlioz was music’s ultimate outsider – a literary man, barely proficient at his two instruments, the guitar and flute, and accepted for study quite begrudgingly by the Paris Conservatoire. In 1830, the music world was still reeling from Beethoven’s shadow, and only a true outsider could emerge from it. The only composer who could compete with Beethoven was a composer stupid enough to know more about the world than about music.
Around Berlioz was the same sea of mediocrity which surrounded every great composer since Gluck. But Berlioz lived in Paris, which during the mid-19th century had a far more dynamic culture than Vienna – a city which remained a backwater during that era in all regards except music and geopolitics. And in Paris, the kind of grandeur one finds in Berlioz was what moved mountains in all the arts.
The grand opera of the 1830’s and 40’s had to keep up with the spectacle of modern literature. Just as the grand cinema of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas killed modern theatergoer’s desire for intimacy and wit, the desire for the sparkle and elegance of Rossini or Bellini was ultimately killed not by Grand Opera, but by the sheer grandeur of the vast theatrical scenes readers could find in the novels of Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, and Stendahl (to say nothing of Walter Scott in translation). Imitating Goethe’s example, romantic poets around Europe wrote verse dramas for a ‘theater of the mind.’ Modern opera was as yet a mere imitation of what people experienced in these other genres, and at first gave lots of operas with lots of noise and expense, but little quality (sound familiar?).
With the social utility which newly bourgeois families demanded of their art, and the universal language which democratic revolutions demanded, music was the single most important artform at the turn of the 19th century, and no one should have taken offense when I declared that those years between 1780 and 1830 were a rain of musical beauty unprecedented in human history, and as yet unequaled. And even so, the effect which all this great democratic music to inflame the masses and entertain the bourgeois produced upon the world was Romanticism itself. The anthems of an age of liberty must be written in music, for music evokes passion, and Romanticism was passion’s eruption. The poets and philosophers of the extremely unimperial and relatively free late-18th century Germany – Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Herder, Schiller, Hamann, Lessing, Kleist, Klopstock, Hoffman, Fichte, - awakened the Romantic urge to express more than the two constricting polls of an artist’s goal: to inspire worship and to entertain, which was then given passion to the masses by Beethoven. Meanwhile, turn of the 19th century English poets like Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, and Coleridge read their German predecessors, and so did painters from both countries like Turner and Friedrich, who then passed their influence to early 19th century French painters like Delacroix and Gericault, who then passed their influence to French writers and poets like Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, and Stendahl; who then passed on their influence to poets like Alfred de Musset, Gerard de Nerval, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Theophile Gautier. Beethoven may have captured the world-spirit of the age, the other arts lay in wait like sleeping giants, and when Romanticism hit Europe, they pounced back upon the cultural scene. All music could do was to catch up.