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The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of unprecedented ferment in Europe, not only in the social realm – resonating with the aftershocks of the French Revolution – but also in the world of culture and the arts. The revolutionary period, in both its successes and its failures, had exploded the shared sense of communal order that had prevailed at least from the end of the Dark Ages and led people to consider themselves as individual strivers pursuing some as yet indistinct goal. One result of this uncertainty was Romanticism, whose first fully-formed exponent in music was Hector Berlioz. His life and art, in combination, became models for his successors just as Byron’s had been in literature.
At the end of the century music sought a fresh direction. The fires of Romanticism were burning down in a Wagnerian twilight of gods and artists. In that moment of searching anticipation Claude Debussy synthesized, from the glowing orchestration of Wagner’s Parsifal, the novel sounds of the Russian Mussorgsky and the Javanese gamelan and the symbolist poetry of Mallarmé and Maeterlinck, a new music free of the constraints of tonal and temporal organization that even Wagner felt compelled to respect and that Berlioz had struggled without success to escape, music that lit the path to modernism.
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Claude Debussy was marked from early youth as a remarkable musical talent, who was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at age ten, as promising a pianist as he was a budding composer. From the beginning he was a difficult student, refusing to accept without challenge the rigidities of received opinion regarding style. Nevertheless, it was almost inevitable that he would eventually win the Prix de Rome, the annual competition that had since the time of Napoléon been the gateway to success for young French composers (and that Berlioz had won 54 years earlier). The prize included a two-year residency at the French Academy in Rome, on the assumption that absorption in an environment of Classical antiquity would temper native talent with the necessary patina of academic discretion, an assumption that in the visual arts had already been shattered by the popular success of the Salon des Refusés and the Impressionists. Debussy, like Berlioz before him, found Rome stifling and was able to compose little during his time there. The pieces he did send as required “envois” the authorities back home criticized as “courting the unusual” – for them a damning condemnation, though to Debussy it must have come as a welcome affirmation of his self-direction. Visits to Bayreuth for the annual Wagner festivals of 1888 and 1889 were decisive (first as formative influences, later as provocations toward an ultimate rejection of the Wagnerian ethos), as was his exposure to the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition in 1889. During a period of consolidation amid relative silence at the beginning of the 1890s Debussy came to know the opera Boris Godunov and other works of Mussorgsky; these, and his continued admiration for the orientalism of Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalîla added to Debussy’s widening store of disparate resources. His discovery of the symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé, which predated his Rome experience, became the final piece in a puzzle whose ultimate form Debussy only slowly would come to recognize.
Debussy completed his first setting of Mallarmé in 1884, when his personal style was yet unformed and influenced largely by Massenet. He first read the poet’s masterpiece L’Après-midi d’un faune on his return from Rome in 1887, eleven years after its definitive publication. Mallarmé himself hoped that his eclogue would be set to music and staged as a sort of mini-opera; a perhaps apocryphal story has it that he proposed Debussy (a regular attendee at his weekly gatherings) as its composer. Whether true or not, the Faune initially took second place to Debussy’s operatic treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, which would be completed only in 1902; its first mention in print was as a proposed Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’Après-midi d’un faune. But at its first performance in December 1894 and ever since, all that was heard was the Prélude, which thereby became not so much an accompaniment to or a translated version of the poem but a reflection of its atmosphere.
It has often been remarked that Debussy’s Prélude was a decisive step toward modernism, a beacon for the avant-garde. (Pierre Boulez: “…just as modern poetry surely took root in certain of Baudelaire’s poems, so one is justified in saying that modern music was awakened by L’Après-midi d’un faune.”) But what is it in the Faune that is so new, and so prophetic?
Musical development during the preceding era had concerned itself with two elements in particular: tonality and form, expanding the available resources of both. Berlioz broke through the wall that separated symphonic and dramatic music, in Symphonie fantastique and Roméo et Juliette. Wagner achieved tonal and formal ambiguity (a blurring of boundaries necessary in order to achieve long unbroken stretches of music drama, replacing the earlier clear demarcations of recitative and aria) by strongly pushing toward harmonic destinations before slipping away from them. But in doing so he implicitly recognized the primacy of traditional procedures: the breaker of rules at least recognizes that there are rules to be broken. Debussy goes further; his Faune simply avoids the fundamental principles of opposition on which Western music had been based at least from Renaissance times.
The opening section of the work offers four differently-harmonized versions of the initial flute arabesque, each time avoiding closure; the first cadence in the work occurs only in the thirtieth bar: a tour de force of harmonic legerdemain. This continual non-arrival in a harmonic journey that never really seems to have begun (the music suggesting languid stasis rather than purposeful motion) is as far from Wagner’s ecstatic approach to and slippage away from implied tonal goals as it is from all previous Western music, anchored in directional processes. The music is less an illustration of the poem than the poem, depicting the idyll musings of a woodland creature whose assigned role is to be a sexual predator but who would really rather take a nap and perpetuate his objects by dreaming of them, is a pretext for musical procedures that Debussy was leading toward anyway.
The structure tantalizingly suggests aspects of sonata form, without confirming them through tonal conflict. Alternatively, the work’s sandwich-like structure carries a whiff of the old da capo aria, and Debussy’s insistence on presenting the flute’s motif differently each time it appears anticipates the doctrine of continuous variation that became a fetish for Arnold Schoenberg, and which he traced to Brahms (a good German) rather than to the “musicien français” Debussy. This plasticity of form and freedom from any determinism – tonal or otherwise – most marks the Faune as modern, though modernists would later chain themselves to new methods of formalist organization. The Faune is a peak of utterly sure intuitive mastery, by a master whose fastidiousness is worlds apart from the Impressionists to whom he is often compared.
Freedom from the tyranny of themes and their development, from the dramatic signification of Wagner’s Leitmotive; freedom from the structural opposition of two tonalities that characterizes sonata form, which had held hegemonic sway since the eighteenth century. Though the Faune is nominally in the key of E major – such is its key signature and final chord – E is never made explicit before the latter portion of the piece and even then is only approached indirectly, coyly. The tonic is never opposed by its so-called dominant, B; the traditionally necessary sequence of dominant chord leading to tonic is heard only five bars before the end. Unlike earlier works in which such a progression is a microcosm of large-scale organization, here it is merely a cathartic vestige of habitual practice, transcendently jarring in its dreamlike recollection of a departed age.
Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is not about love but about a dream of love. In distancing itself from direct experience, despite its lush and fragrant atmosphere, it is quintessentially French; as in Stendhal, consummation is never as delicious as desire. “The end is the last line prolonged: ‘Couple, good-bye! To see the shadow you become, I go.’”
Hector Berlioz was an anomaly among French composers. French art and music tend toward ironic detachment. Formality, stylization, symbolism, ornament all serve to mask, to enable consideration from above. This was as true of Lully and Rameau as for Satie, Ravel and Poulenc and as it continued in the music of Boulez. Berlioz, though, explodes with overwhelming passion, merging his own subjective experience with his art to an unprecedented degree. In his “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette he breaks the wall between performer and audience, placing us right in the middle of the protagonists’ inner sensations by separating the plot from its emotional resonances, the essential action taking place only within the orchestra despite the presence of a chorus and vocal soloists, so that each of us can recreate it according to our own inner relationship to such experience. And in his first large-scale composition, the Messe solennelle, he overwhelms the formal bounds of sacred music by introducing operatic grandiosity into a church setting. He makes the secular sacred, the sacred secular. It is no wonder that, until recently, he was appreciated more away from home – first in Germany, later in Britain and the United States – than in France.
Berlioz was among the first generation of musicians who recognized the artistic – as opposed to the personally enriching – potential of star power. Niccolò Paganini, about twenty years older, became well known outside Italy only after Berlioz was already beginning to exercise his ambitions in Paris; Franz Liszt was several years younger, but as a child prodigy was already recognized when Berlioz was still a student. Berlioz knew that for himself, as a composer who unprecedentedly was not a virtuoso performer (his “instrument” was the orchestra, but it was still the dawn of conducting as a profession), the path to the fame and fortune he craved was through the Grand Opéra in Paris. Throughout his life he worked toward achieving success there, but his first effort, Benvenuto Cellini (an opera about an artist) was a commercial failure in 1838, his magnum opus Les Troyens was not performed in its entirety until 1921 (and even then in a heavily cut edition), and his final opera, Béatrice et Bénédict – like Roméo et Juliette based on Shakespeare – was during his lifetime successful only in Germany.
Berlioz had always been intensely influenced by literature, but he was largely unfamiliar with Shakespeare before the appearance in Paris of a British theatrical troupe in 1827, performing Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. It is unclear which made the stronger initial impression: the plays themselves, which he cannot have fully comprehended as at the time he spoke no English, or Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Ophelia and Juliet. Berlioz’s immediate and overwhelming passion for her was to inspire his first masterpiece, the semi-autobiographical Symphonie fantastique; its first performance, which she attended, led to their meeting and eventual marriage. (In true Romantic fashion, fantasy was far more successful than reality; the marriage was a failure and the couple eventually separated.)
One characteristic of Romanticism was the glorification of the individual. Beginning with the object of artistic contemplation, this focus eventually came to include its subject: the artist himself. In the Symphonie fantastique Berlioz had dramatized his as-yet-unrequited passion for Harriet Smithson in a vision of opium-induced fantasy. In Roméo et Juliette, composed after their marriage and in a sense harking back to the events that brought them together, he universalized the same passions by connecting them to a familiar theme.
Roméo et Juliette was made possible by Paganini, who had acquired a superb Stradivarius viola and commissioned Berlioz in 1833 to compose a solo for it. When Berlioz instead produced Harold en Italie, a symphony for viola and orchestra whose solo part is subordinate rather than dominating, Paganini declined to play it. But after finally hearing it in 1838 he was overwhelmed, dragged Berlioz onto the stage, knelt before him and kissed his hand. More to the point, a few days later he sent the composer a bank draft for 20,000 francs that enabled Berlioz to settle his debts, suspend his work as a music critic and devote the next year to composition. Vincenzo Bellini had produced his Romeo and Juliet opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 1830. It reached Paris in 1833 and incensed Berlioz with its departures from Shakespeare. (What Berlioz didn’t know was that Bellini’s librettist had based it on early Italian sources that predated Shakespeare.) Aside from his love for the play and for what it had meant in his life, Berlioz’s purpose in writing his Roméo was to set things right.
The “dramatic symphony” is divided into three parts, taking in all about 95 minutes to play. In the first part or prologue, the story is summarized, with particular focus on the awakening of young love. The second is primarily orchestral, presenting three symphonic episodes: Romeo’s melancholy interrupted by the Capulet’s ball, the Love Scene (in which all the interactions between the two protagonists are merged into one extended moment), and a Scherzo in which Mercutio’s first-act speech about Queen Mab – a momentary diversion in the play – is expanded into a foundation pillar. The third part includes both narrative and illustrative elements: first, a funeral procession for Juliet, followed by a purely orchestral depiction of Romeo at Juliet’s tomb and the deaths of the two lovers, and a choral finale in which Friar Lawrence, explaining the mystery, finally prevails upon the Montague and Capulet clans to make peace. But the Scène d’amour is the symphony’s heart, thematically, architecturally and spiritually. The action is all in the orchestra. When words are insufficient to portray deepest feeling, music must take over.
There are many musical works that seek in various ways to portray physical love; Tristan und Isolde, Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Symphonia domestica, and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk come to mind. But these all seem to see it from a purely masculine perspective. Berlioz’s accomplishment in the Scène d’amour is to suggest, in alternation and jointly, both the boy’s and the girl’s experience. Not only that, but the piece is true not only to love but to young love, passionate yet innocent, undirected and a bit confused, unsure of what to do exactly but desperately grasping hold of love as though to protect life in the midst of the families’ deadly feud.
Berlioz was as much a modernist in his own era as Debussy was in his. In the Scène d’amour the insertion of narrative into a musical structure dominates any formal scheme. Program music itself was nothing new; Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had barking dogs; Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony had burbling brooks, birdsong and a storm. Berlioz’s innovation was to focus on the emotional journey that a program provokes. The Love Scene’s form is as plastic as that of Debussy’s Faune; at the same time its specific narrative progress is unclear. Between the work’s completion in 1839 and its first publication eight years later the composer made cuts, removing the scene’s direct narrative connection to the play and elevating it beyond the worldly story of Romeo and Juliet into a reverential realm of pure love. Of all his works the Scène d’amour was Berlioz’s favorite; to the great conductor Arturo Toscanini it was the most beautiful music in the world.
If in Roméo et Juliette Berlioz sanctified the profane, in his Messe solennelle he brought the glitter of opera into the church.
The Messe solennelle is his first large-scale composition to have been performed, and his earliest work to survive. It was composed in 1824 on commission from the church of St. Roch in Paris, and was first performed there the following year. Berlioz had been studying music formally for little more than a year, but was already the cherished pupil of Jean-François Le Sueur, director of the court chapel and one of the most influential musicians in Paris. After a single further performance, at the church of St. Eustache in 1827 (which in a money-saving move became the composer’s début as a conductor, a role in which he would later become famous), Berlioz rejected the Mass as unworthy of his maturing craft, burning the vocal scores and orchestral parts. He mined the work for its thematic material, re-using motives from it in the Symphonie fantastique, the opera Benvenuto Cellini (and the Roman Carnival overture derived from it), the Requiem, the Damnation of Faust and the Te Deum.
But one manuscript copy of the score escaped destruction, enabling the Mass’s revival. Berlioz made a gift of it to a friend, a Belgian violinist named Bessems who had been a fellow student at the Paris Conservatory. After Bessems’ death the souvenir passed to his brother, the organist and choir director at a church in Antwerp, who placed it in a chest in the choir loft, where it lay forgotten after his death in 1892 until its rediscovery a hundred years later enabled the first performance since 1827.
St. Roch’s commission was for a Mass, but Berlioz’s ambitions lay in opera, and there is much here that feels more dramatic than spiritual. Like any young creator producing his first major work Berlioz put into it everything he then knew, whether or not it ideally fit. The Masses that were his models, by Le Seuer and Cherubini, were grand but also somewhat austere; Berlioz adopted their grandeur but there was no room in his armory of resources for austerity. Like many French Masses, Berlioz’s includes, in addition to the usual Kyrie, Gloria (divided into three parts), Credo (in four), Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the Communion hymn O salutaris hostia in place of the Benedictus. To these he added the Offertory motet Quis similis tui, its text a verse from Moses’ song of praise following the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. As a theatrically boisterous finale he set a verse from Psalm XIX, Domine salvum fac regem, chanted in French churches since the days of the Ancien Régime as a prayer for the welfare of the head of state (whether king or emperor), and especially apt in a work composed the year of Louis XVIII’s death and first performed in the year of Charles X’s coronation.
The Messe solennelle illustrates both Berlioz’s youth and inexperience and his budding genius. At the time he composed it he was evidently more skilled in writing for orchestral than for choral forces; he frequently wrote for voices as if they are instruments, and often forced words awkwardly into the musical line, disregarding their proper accents. There are occasional gaucheries in the vocal writing, making it more difficult to sing than perhaps it needs to be. But in the crescendos and accelerandos of the Kyrie, Gloria and Resurrexit, the long cantilena of the Gratias (which, embellished, would become the main theme of the Symphonie fantastique’s central movement), the majestic brass fanfares that usher in the Et iterum venturus est (rewritten for four brass bands placed North, South, East and West for the Tuba mirum in the Requiem) we hear the struggle for self-discovery from which would emerge the ineffable architectural virtuosity of Berlioz’s mature masterworks.
- Jerome Hoberman -