07 August 2008

blogging with Berlioz

Feuilletonist to blogger is not that big a leap; in fact, this all seems like a case of plus ca change, as so many things do. . . . (All quotations are from the David Cairns translation of The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Everyman's Library/Knopf edition; anything in square brackets after this point is from me, not Berlioz.)

The Leonore overture, a truly gigantic piece, played with rare precision and verve, was received with only the feeblest applause, and I later heard a gentleman at dinner complain at their not doing Haydn’s symphonies instead of this ‘uncivilized music with no tunes in it’!! Even in Paris we do not have that kind of bourgeois any more. (p. 288)

[I think we still have them in Boston and San Francisco, though, because I swear I’ve overheard the same remark (possibly from the same old man), only with Beethoven’s name in place of Haydn’s.]

Let me now tell you about the Prague choral society. It is like all such bodies in Germany in being composed almost entirely of amateurs from the middle classes. . . . Unlike some institutions of the sort it does not have as its sole aim in life the rehearsal and performance of ancient masterpieces, to the exclusion of contemporary works. Such institutions are, if I may so describe them, mere sects, musical consistories where under pretext of a real or pretended enthusiasm for the dead they complacently dismiss the living, of whom they know nothing, deplore the growing influence of Baal, and consign all supposed golden calves and their worshippers [that would be Moses und Aron, I suppose] to perdition. These meeting houses of musical puritanism are the repositories of the religion not of the beautiful, whatever its age, but of the old, whatever its quality: a narrow, rancorous religion with its own Bible and the works of two or three evangelists, over which the faithful pore tirelessly, producing ever more subtle interpretations of passages whose meaning is transparently clear. . . . (p. 441)

I have never been able to bring myself to dilate on matters of which I am quite ignorant. It may come, in time and by force of example. Meanwhile you must forgive me if I keep silent. (p. 442)

Not only working men from Prague but also peasants came to the concert that I gave in the theatre, the low price of some of the seats having put it within their means, and I could tell from their fresh, uninhibited reaction to the more unexpected effects in the music how interested they were in what I was trying to do. . . . (p. 444)

. . .the season would open with an English version of that sparkling novelty, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. . . . (p. 490)

[OMFG! Hector, I love Lucia but ROFLMAO!!!! And that little jab at opera-house programming was written over one hundred and fifty years ago!]

Shakespeare! Where is he? Where art thou? I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other [Berlioz is writing about the death of his wife, the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had first seen as Juliet and Ophelia]. Shakespeare! You were a man. You, if you still exist, must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven.
God standing aloof in his infinite unconcern is revolting and absurd
[interesting to think that the artist indifferently paring his nails over his creation became the ideal that replaced the Romanticism of Berlioz and his generation]. Thou alone for the souls of artists are the living and loving God. Receive us, father, into thy bosom, guard us, save us! De profundis ad te clamo. What are death and nothingness? Genius is immortal! What? ‘O fool, fool, fool!’ [He closes with a quotation from Othello; his wife also played Desdemona, and in a strange reversal of the play was intensely jealous of him after they married.] (p. 505)

He repeats himself, the reader will say. It is only too true. The same endless rhythm: remembrance, regret, a soul clutching at the past, a pitiful blind urge to arrest the present and hold it as it flies, a hopeless struggle with time, a mad desire to realize the impossible, a desperate craving for limitless love. How should I not repeat myself? The sea repeats itself; its waves are all alike. (p. 552)

[Amen, Brother Berlioz.]


vicmarcam said...

Wow! Things don't really change much, do they? Which, I guess, is what makes that beautiful last paragraph especially fitting.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

One thing I particularly love about that last paragraph is that it's so open and unashamed -- I think a contemporary writer might feel it was a little too purple and poetic.