Thursday, 11 May 2017


Hector Berlioz
Today’s Quote of the Day comes to us from 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz, and concerns the megalomanic composer’s visceral reaction to music (which, incidentally, is reminiscent of my own whenever I listen Wagner’s Tristan: Isolde’s delicious climax as performed by Margaret Price under maestro Kleiber is nothing short of a full body experience for me).

Berlioz may not have been as eternally fond of Herr Wagner as I (the two seemed to have a love-hate relationship: with Hector and Richard supping together one night over wine, the next with Berlioz denouncing his contemporary as a “traitor” and “damning” the composers’ masterworks to oblivion – and other times still, behaving like a churlish adolescent, refusing to acknowledge generous gifts of music – or even Wagner himself – at one point going so far as to defiantly refuse outright to even speak his ally/nemesis’ name).[1]

It’s more than evident by reviewing the copious amounts of writing left behind by Hector that the composer often fluctuated between uncertain bouts of adulation and despisal – in terms of both contemporaries and popular music itself. Of one thing, however, Berlioz was certain: when the moody Frenchman was taken with a particularly moving piece of music, he was fully enchanted – mesmerized by a melody’s intoxicating spell.

This is just but one of the superfluously verbose and highly romantic descriptions of beautiful music to come from the pen of Berlioz:

“I feel a delicious pleasure in which the reasoning faculty has no share… emotion, increasing proportionately with the energy and loftiness of the composers inspiration, soon produced a strange commotion in my circulation… there are spasmodic muscular contractions, a trembling of all the limbs, a total numbness of feet and hands… vertigo… a half swoon… ”

When it comes to the art of the swoon, fans of the temperamental composer often find themselves feeling light in the head and yearning for air upon listening to Berlioz’ divine aria D'amour L'ardent Flamme from the maestro’s 1846 “légende dramatique” La Damnation de Faust – Hector’s take on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterful treatment of the Faust legend in which he was fully entranced.[2]

It’s easy to see why fans of the old curmudgeon find themselves so transfixed – listen below to a performance of the aria, as performed by American diva Jessye Norman under maestro Seiji Ozawa.

[1] Berlioz certainly knew how to wound his former confidante – he had experience, after all, in just the sort of the petulant behavior he displayed with Herr Wagner in 1860 (Richard had dutifully shipped a first copy of Tristan to Hector – which he had thoughtfully inscribed “To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde” – a gift which Berlioz ignored entirely – refusing to even acknowledge having received the score, much less thanking it’s creator. Wagner would later express a sense of emotional trauma at the slight between the former allies). Berlioz had been slapped by the same scolding hand at Paris in 1846, following an apathetic premiere of La Damnation de Faust at the Opéra Comique. Critics, unsure of how to respond to a work that was not quite an operanot quite a cantata – were nonplussed. The underwhelming response given to the ‘legende dramatique’ impacted Berlioz deeply. He would write in his memoirs "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference.”

Interesting Hector would find ‘indifference’ to be the most ‘wounding’ commentary on La Damnation de Faust: the projects’ first official draft – merely a choral setting Berlioz entitled “Eight Scenes from Goethe's Faust, Op. 1” - was rejected by Goethe himself! The composer had famously sent a copy of the score to the beloved author for critique, which he dually received - it came not from Goethe himself (who had remained personally silent on the work) but rather, through the writers’ musical advisor, Friedrich Zelter, who denounced the work as “an abortion!”

[2] Berlioz famously wrote of Goethe's treatment of Faust (book I): "I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street."

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