A: Harold in Italy
It seems a little pathetic to attribute such earth-shaking world-importance as I'm about to to that piece by Berlioz that everybody regards as somewhere between an enigma and a joke; a symphony for viola and orchestra. But Harold in Italy is a seminal work in the history of music, because it is the moment when classical form truly came undone for good, and there was no putting it back together.
In the first movement of Harold in Italy, the main theme is stated at the beginning, and it's never stated entirely again. That chaos that erupts at the beginning of the finale's of Beethoven's Ninth and the Hammerklavier Sonata has now invaded the etched-in-stone format of opening movements. Toward the end, you get the first four notes of the opening theme, over and over again in a canon, but no complete restatement, instead, the whole thing snowballs and disintegrates. What holds the music together is no longer form, but pure energy and imaginative fantasy that lets formal relationships of the notes get pasted randomly to the musical canvas like a collage.
So Harold in Italy, Berlioz's Symphony no. 2, which was supposed to be a viola concerto that began as a commission for Paganini, who had just acquired a viola and was looking to show his prowess on the deeper string instrument, is neither symphony nor concerto in any meaningful way. It's not even a Symphonie Fantastique, it's just Fantastique.
Berlioz memorably recounts his first meeting with Paganini after an early performance of the Symphonie Fantastique in his memoirs. He noticed that a man had stayed behind after the enormous ovation had ended:
...a man with long hair and piercing eyes and a strange, ravaged countenance, a creature haunted by genius, a Titan among giants, whom I had never seen before, the first sight of whom stirred me to the depths.About the Symphonie Fantastique the man.
...uttered glowing eulogies that thrilled me and moved me to the depths. It was Paganini.I would imagine that Paganini, said to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for his violin prowess, wanted a demonic concerto in the manner of the last movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, but Berlioz was too true an artist to ever repeat himself. The two of them announced to the Parisian public a massive partnership so ambitious that there was no way it could succeed: a work for orchestra, chorus, and viola, called The Last Moments of Mary Stuart - the Queen of Scots who was executed in 1587 by order of her sister, Elizabeth the First of England.
But Berlioz would not follow anything but his own inner voice, and the voice that called to him was Byron. When Paganini looked at the viola part with all its rests, he abandoned the commission. Paganini wanted a part in which he was playing continuously - this may have not just been ego on Paganini's part; his business model was to go from town to town with his orchestral parts in tow. could ever have been feasible The orchestral parts of his many works for violin and orchestra had to be easy enough to sightread because Paganini was often in any town for no more than one night and there would be no time for rehearsal. Harold in Italy is almost precisely the opposite of the kind of work Paganini wanted. How either could have ever thought a feasible partnership could work between two titanically egoed geniuses with such different working methods is impossible to know.
We already spoke of Byron's probable influence on the waltz in the Symphonie Fantastique. Byron was clearly a model for Berlioz - not so much for Berlioz's music but for Berlioz's artistic persona which he puts forth in certain works of his both musical - like the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy and the Damnation of Faust, and literary - you see this in both his criticism and his autobiography. The writing of Lord Byron, like Hemingway or Whitman or Goethe or the Beats was not just writing - it was the embodiment of a whole persona, a way of looking at the world. People talk about Paganini and Liszt as being the original rockstars, but Byron is a much more apropos incarnation. It is impossible to overstate his influence upon his time. He was as widely read as Shakespeare during precisely the same period when Shakespeare's eminence among all writers was cemented for all time. Shakespeare is widely loved for portraying every kind of human, whereas Byron portrayed only himself, and that was enough for people to find him as significant as anything in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.
The Byronic persona is two-faced on the one hand a glamorous and excitable gallant and wit who is excited by the world's possibilities; on the other hand a world-weary traveler who's seen everything, read everything, yet is impressed by nothing. He has an air of mystery that women seemed to find terribly erotic, women surrounded them like flies, and they treated women like flies. He's a brooding romantic hero embodied by the kind of antiheroes you read in the Brontes in the form of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, or in Pushkin in the form of Eugene Onegin. Perhaps even Captain Ahab is the Byronic hero who lived on to the mid-19th century, driven mad by living on so many years past when he should have died.
The Byronic persona can't help but be a reflection of his era, in which great hopes were lifted up, only to be completely dashed. Lord Byron was about fifteen years older than Berlioz, and already dead by the time Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique. Byron was born in 1788, so he wasn't old enough to remember the French Revolution, which happened right as he was born, but he couldn't help but be shaped by the great hopes of that era when all men might finally look upon one another as equals, only to be crushed in a maelstrom of death by French chaos, then Napoleon's dictatorship, then his emperorship, then his waging of war across Europe. At so many moments of those twenty-six years, it seemed like freedom was just out of reach, and yet every moment when it seemed that humanity would ascend to a nobler plane of existence, existence seemed to cease for another million people.
In his autobiography, Berlioz spoke of his time in Italy after winning the Prix de Rome. He found Rome incredibly disappointing. To Berlioz, the Italians were masters of every art except music - I'm sure that if the deeply atheist Berlioz had looked a bit more deeply into the music of the Catholic Church, he'd have found something to inspire him. But rather than spend the preponderance of time in Rome, Berlioz went on a series of rural sojourns. Here's a passage from Berlioz's autobiography about a trip to Sardinia:
My fellow passengers, who were all Italians, told endless stories, most of them wholly incredible, but very interesting. One had fought in the Greek War of Independence, and had known Canaris intimately (Canaris being the key figure in the movement to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire). We pestered him with questions about the revolutionary hero whose glory seemed to have flamed itself out as quickly as the flame of his own fireships. A Venetian, an underbred fellow, who spoke abominable French, avvered that he had commanded Lord Byron's corvette during the poet's adventurous excursions in the Adriatic and the Grecian Archipelago. He gave us a minute description of the brilliant uniform Lord Byron had insisted on his wearing, and the orgies in which they had indulged; and his modesty did not prevent him from repeating the praises which the illustrious traveler had bestowed on his courage. During a storm, Byron invited the Captain to play ecarté with him in his cabin; and the latter deserted his post and accepted the invitation. While they were playing, the ship gave a lurch, which upset both table and players.
"Pick up the cards and go on"
"With pleasure my lord."
"You are a brave fellow captain."So when Berlioz says 'upset both table and players', I'm pretty sure he means that Byron and the Captain vomited, and that Byron was not in the least upset by it. Berlioz, far more than a number of other composers who've left just as much literary output, seemed like excellent company, but Berlioz related a number of times in his memoirs that he viewed the Italy trip as a colossal disappointment. It's conceivable that on this trip he particularly came to identify with the disaffection of Lord Byron.
I haven't read Childe Harold all the way through, it's long, and epic poetry is not exactly a passion of our generation; but Childe Harold is fundamentally a poem about trying, and failing, to forget one's woes in a hail of travel and pleasure - which is fundamentally what Berlioz wished to do while he was in Italy.
If one takes a few quotes from Childe Harold, perhaps you can find a rough musico/poetic equivalent to them in Harold in Italy. They may not line up completely with Berlioz's descriptions, but some musicologists believe Berlioz tacked on the descriptions after he wrote the work.
On with the dance! let joy be unconfin'd;/No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet/To chase the Glowing Hours with Flying feet.”
“I live not in myself, but I become/Portion of that around me: and to me/High mountains are a feeling,
There was a sound of revelry by night,/And Belgium's capital had gathered then/Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright/The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men./A thousand hearts beat happily; and when/Music arose with its voluptuous swell,/Soft eyes looked loved to eyes which spake again,/And all went merry as a marriage bell./But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!Ironically, by the time Harold in Italy was premiered, Paganini had two months earlier retired permanently. Four years afterward, Paganini, already sick with the throat that would kill him two years later, finally had opportunity to hear Harold in Italy. So moved was he apparently that he forced Berlioz to the stage, where he kissed Berlioz's hand to the overwhelming cheers of the crowd. The next day, a letter came to Berlioz in which Paganini declared Berlioz the undisputed heir to Beethoven, along with a bank note to cash 20,000 francs.
Paganini would not hear the work Berlioz's Symphony no. 3, the Symphonie Dramatique: Romeo et Juliette, dedicated to him, and which his generous contribution obviously financed. Paganini died shortly after its premiere, but present at one of the first three performances was a little-known German composer and poet from Leipzig whom, until he heard this revelatory synthesis of music and Shakespearean poetry, was almost completely undistinguished. His name, if you haven't guessed, was Richard Wagner, and he owed Berlioz nearly everything. He'd just moved to Paris from Riga, capital of Latvia, to flee creditors, and did not speak any French at all. But even at that moment, he already knew he was Wagner, he just didn't know how to be Wagner until Berlioz showed him the way.
You hopefully recall from the last class how Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique as a document of his manic passion for Harriet Smithson. By the time Berlioz wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1839, the two were married for five years in a marriage that was, to put it mildly, tempestuous. Harriet Smithson was perhaps the great actress of her age. The very presence of women on the stage was severely curtailed right up until Smithson's generation, and many people in both London and Paris saw the eloquence of her Ophelia and her Juliet and realized what great they'd be missing were the onstage presence of actresses curtailed. But by the mid 1830s, Harriet Smithson had a broken leg that kept her off the stage for a year while both her mother and sister depended upon her for support. Berlioz had already sent her passionate love letters for roughly five years which she ignored completely until a mutual friend took her to a performance of Leilo, a lesser-known work by Berlioz which is a kind of sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique. Smithson then realized it was about her and fairly soon thereafter, the two became lovers. Even at the time of their marriage, she was rather ambivalent about it, and both the Smithson and the Berlioz families warned against the union.
Just two years after the wedding, Smithson had to end her career due to health concerns. She grew ever sicker and more overweight, while Berlioz's career was taking off like a rocket. The ensuing issues of jealousy were inevitable. By 1840, Berlioz took up with a soprano named Marie Recio who would eventually become his second wife. Poor Harriet Smithson would live on until 1854, paralyzed for her final years on the left side of her body, barely able to move or speak.
Harriet Smithson was not just the muse that drew fire in Berlioz's heart and loins but the vessel that brought Berlioz to Shakespeare. Once again, it's ironic how Shakespeare captured Berlioz's imagination because Berlioz did not speak a word of English. Until the time of the Romantics, Shakespeare was particularly unpopular in France. French drama was extremely formal and idea based. It was grounded in the '3 unities' which Aristotle maintained was important for all drama: that it all take place in 24 hours, that it all happen in the same place, and that there be no subplots. Shakespeare breaks all three rules in just about every play. To this day, the most famous French playwright is Moliere, who lived roughly fifty years after Shakespeare, and Moliere greatness is in how he mocks the upper-class. Shakespeare has a gallery of characters from all classes, but about the lower classes, Moliere has barely anything to say at all. Shakespeare's vocabulary was roughly 28,000 words, but the vocabulary of the great French tragedian, Racine, was only 4,000. Racine's poetry is written in the strictest Alexandrine form - twelve syllables in every line, further divided into six and six whose words cannot cross to the other side, with rhyming couplets at the end of every twenty-four syllables. Shakespeare wrote in blank iambic pentameter,
Voltaire, 18th century intellectual minister of classical-age Europe wrote of Shakespeare:
"France has not insults, fool’s-caps, and pillories enough for such a scoundrel. My blood boils in my own veins while I speak to you about him … And the terrible thing is that … it is I myself who was the first to speak about this Shakespeare [in France]. I was the first who showed to the French a few pearls which I had found in his enormous dunghill."
France had always been synonymous with elegance and harmony, but it had just known the bloodiest European events in 250 years. Elegance and inner harmony could not portray what the French were feeling in their hearts. French artists of so many forms - Balzac, Delacroix, Gericault, Hugo, Daumier, Gautier, Stendahl, Daumier, were creating a new kind of art in which their creations exploded onto their pages. Many expatriot artists came to France in search of that same freedom - Chopin, Liszt and Wagner among them but also Goya spent his last few years in Bordeaux, Turner came to France every ten years for inspiration, Wordsworth of course was formed by his years in France after the Revolution, Constable's paintings were popular in France decades before he ever became a hit in England.
Shakespeare is many wonderful things, but classically proportioned he is most certainly not. An era which prizes surface refinement would find Shakespeare a barbarian, but an era which glorifies emotional depth would find in Shakespeare the poet for all time.
Berlioz later recalled his first encounter with Romeo and Juliet in a letter:
… the burning sun, the balmy nights of Italy, to witness the sight of that love swift as thought, scalding like lava, urgent, eternal, vast, and pure and beautiful like the smile of angels … it was too much. By the third act, fallen shattered to my knees … , hardly breathing, and suffering as if an iron fist had grasped my heart, I proclaimed with utter conviction: ah! I am lost.
Berlioz was not more Berlioz until his encounter with Shakespeare than Wagner was Wagner until his encounter with Berlioz. There are many Shakespeares, but for Berlioz, Shakespeare was passion, sublimity, and freedom. There was no musical form which could contain him any more than Shakespeare could be contained by the traditional forms of drama.
Unless, of course, one could say that Berlioz created his own form - a kind of drama of the theater in which the orchestral instruments were the characters and their players the actors. If the Symphonie Fantastique seems to resemble the symphony in passing, or at least Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony if no other yet composed, then Berlioz's Symphonie Dramatique is a one-off in music history. No composer of note ever tried to follow Berlioz's example. Not even Berlioz himself ever did so.
Like the players of Hamlet's play-within-a-play, or the title chapters of novels before the 19th century, the entire story and action of the play is related to the audience by a literal chorus, singing mostly in unison in a manner that resembles Gregorian Chant for a full five minutes. It would be one of the weakest passages in any great work of music if it were not a deliberate attempt to be as boring as possible. Excepting a fugue to convey the violence of the Capulet Montague feud, Berlioz takes his time immersing us in the full world of his imagination.
For the first twenty minutes, we have no idea precisely what Berlioz has in mind. But after fifteen minutes of not particularly interesting singing, we suddenly hear the violins enacting the sighs of Romeo alone in the agony of love, which quickly turns into his ecstasy. And just when you think this Berlioz/Romeo surrogate might come to some resolution between these two states of being, perhaps the way a more classically minded composer like Mozart might, he comes within hearing distance of the Capulet ball, which he draws ever closer to. And what in a more symphonic work would be a chance to work the music back into equilibrium becomes an orgy of manic overstimulation.
In this movement we hear both the uses of minute harmonic steps and dissonances to convey a manic state of mind, both in its most positive and negative emotions, without the example of which the contrasts of Wagner would be impossible. We also hear those dissonant harmonic tensions which express private agony against an outward facade of public gaiety, without the example of which the contrasts of Verdi would be just as impossible.
The only point to the singing is to be a framing device. The real action, as always in Berlioz, is to be found in the orchestra. Berlioz wishes in Romeo et Juliette to convey the inner experience of the play, one would be tempted to call it his inner experience, except that it's an experience clearly shared by so many millions for four-hundred years. It's a love letter to Shakespeare, perhaps memorializing that first encounter with Shakespeare for all time which so many people have, or that first flash of doomed young love which Romeo and Juliet recalls for so many.
If Berlioz has a weakness, it is not his composition technique - when you're an artist of vision like Berlioz's, the lack of technical inhibitions can be a great strength. More on that anon good nurse. Berlioz's great weakness was a human one: he was a romantic, and his view of the world was not particularly adult. He believed in, he demanded, grand passions, and his inability or unwillingness to portray the world of the mundane meant that he was unable to portray human beings as they truly are. One of the more obscene moments in any opera is in Les Troyens, a feast of great drama, in which Berlioz devotes a full act to the mass suicide of the Vestal Virgins who want to avoid capture and doubtless much worse. And rather than play it for the pathos it deserves, perhaps as Mozart would, Berlioz plays it for heart-stopping excitement. And exciting it surely is, but it's not particularly compassionate. Even in Berlioz's most passionate love music, he did not reach as deeply into the heart as a Mozart, a Schubert, a Brahms, a Dvorak, a Mussorgsky, a Janacek.