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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
TO the concert-goer the name Hector Berlioz calls up a series of vast and magnificent whirlwinds of vocal and orchestral sonority, the thoughts of scores that sound and look imposingly complex to the eyes and ears of both the educated and uneducated in the composer’s art. We have a vision of close pages embodying the most unequivocal and drastic of musical “realism.” The full audacity and mastery of a certain sort of genius are represented in his vast works. They bespeak, too, the combative musician and reformer. Berlioz took the kingdom of music by violence.  1
  His chef d’œuvres do not all say to us as much as he meant them to say, not as much as they all uttered twenty years ago. There is much clay as well as gold in them. But such tremendous products of his energy and intellect as the ‘Requiem,’ the ‘Te Deum,’ ‘The Damnation of Faust,’ his best descriptive symphonies such as the ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ are yet eloquent to the public and to the critical-minded. His best was so very good that his worst—weighed as a matter of principle or execution, regarded as music or “programme music”—can be excused.  2
  Berlioz’s actual biography is a long tale of storm and stress. Not only was he slow in gaining appreciation while he lived; full comprehension of his power was not granted him till after his energetic life was over. Recognition in his own country is incomplete to-day. He was born in 1803, near picturesque Grenoble, in the little town of Côte St. André, the son of an excellent country doctor. Sent to Paris to study medicine, he became a musician against his father’s wish, and in lieu of the allowance that his father promptly withdrew, the young man lived by engaging in the chorus of the Gymnase, and by catching at every straw for subsistence. He became a regular music-student of the Conservatory, under the admirable Lesueur and Reicha; quitted the Conservatory in disgust at its pedantry, in 1825; and lived and advanced in musical study as best he could for a considerable time. His convictions in art were founded largely on the rock of Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber; and however modern, and however widely his work departs from such academic models, Berlioz never forswore a certain allegiance to these great and serene masters. He returned to the Conservatory, studied hard, gained the Prix de Rome, gradually took a prominent place among Parisian composers, and was as enthusiastically the subject of a cult as was Wagner. His concerts and the production of his operas encountered shameful cabals. His strongest works were neglected or ill-served. To their honor, German musicians understood him, Schumann and Liszt in especial. Only in Germany to-day are his colossal operas heard. The Italian Paganini showed a generous interest in his struggles. Russia and Austria too admired him, while his compatriots hissed. His career was one of endless work, disappointments, brief successes, battles, hopes, and despairs. Personally, too, it was full of the happiness and unhappiness of the artistic temperament.  3
  It was between the two periods of his Conservatory life that he endured his chief sentimental misfortune,—his falling in love with and finally marrying Henrietta Smithson. Miss Smithson was a young English actress playing Shakespearean rôles in France with a passing success. She was exquisitely lovely—Delaroche has painted her spirituelle beauty in his ‘Ophelia.’ The marriage was the typically unfortunate artist-match; and she became a paralytic invalid for years. After her death, tours in Germany and elsewhere, new works, new troubles, enthusiasms, and disappointments filled up the remainder of the composer’s days. He returned to his beloved Dauphiné, war-worn and almost as one who has outlived life. In his provincial retreat he composed the huge operatic duology ‘The Trojans at Carthage,’ and ‘The Taking of Troy,’ turning once more to Virgil, his early literary love. Neither of them is often heard now, any more than his amazing ‘Benvenuto Cellini.’ Their author died in Dauphiné in 1869, weary, disenchanted, but conscious that he would be greater in the eyes of a coming generation than ever he had been during his harassed life.  4
  Berlioz’s literary remains are valuable as criticisms, and their personal matter is of brisk and varied charm. His intense feeling for Shakespeare influenced his whole æsthetic life. He was extremely well read. His most unchecked tendency to romanticism was balanced by a fine feeling for the classics. He loved the greater Greek and Latin writers. His Autobiography is a perfect picture of himself emotionally, and exhibits his wide æsthetic nature. His Letters are equally faithful as portraiture. He possessed a distinctively literary style. He tells us how he fell in love—twice, thrice; records the disgraceful cabals and intrigues against his professional success, and explains how a landscape affected his nerves. He is excellent reading, apparently without taking much pains to be so. Vivacity, wit, sincerity, are salient traits. In his volume of musical essays entitled ‘A Travers Chants’ (an untranslatable title which may be paraphrased ‘Memoirs of Music and Musicians’) are superior appreciations of musicians and interpreters and performances in opera-house and concert-hall, expressed with grace and taste in the feuilletonist’s best manner. In the Journal des Débats, year by year, he wrote himself down indisputably among the great French critics; and he never misused his critical post to make it a lever for his own advantage. His great treatise on Orchestration is a standard work not displaced by Gevaert or more recent authorities. He was not only a musical intelligence of enormous capacity: he offers perhaps as typical an embodiment of the French artistic temperament as can be pointed out.  5
 
 
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