Berlioz and the Listener: Frames of Reference

The first thing I thought of after recently finishing Frank Norris’s 1899 novel, McTeague, was that the book was seemingly derived from Balzac, especially Pere Goriot, and the plot was a sort of cross between Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and Prevost’s Manon Lescaut; actually, I was thinking of the operas by Massanet and Puccini, not having read the novel.  I also mentally compared the dialogue style to that of Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway.  And I wasn’t even hired by the publisher to write the afterword.

What do Balzac, et al. have to do with “McTeague”? Not too much, but readers of novels and listeners of classical music feel obligated to compare works as a means to achieve critical understanding; often as the principal means to achieve critical understanding, and in fact numerous “afterwords” published in Signet or Penguin editions, for instance, consist of little more than a string of comparisons, in place of a real analysis of the text.

In his truly great book, “The Romantic Generation”, Charles Rosen throws out this bon mot in reference to Berlioz: “It’s not his genius that is in question, it’s his competence.”  Rosen goes on to discuss the “absurd” notion of “an incompetent genius” which is in the last analysis, oxymoronic.  Many listeners and critics (who should know better) are uncomfortable with Berlioz because they don’t know his antecedants or are otherwise unable to fit Berlioz into a context.  To some extent, those puzzled by or dismissive of Berlioz have my sympathies, he doesn’t make it easy to reconcile his work with the best known composers, and his formal innovations are sui generis. Works like L’enfance du Christ and Romeo et Juliette are absolutely unique.  In Berlioz’ screamingly entertaining memoirs he discusses contemptuously the lack of critical understanding of L’enfance.

I was surprised and pleased recently, when teaching a class on the choral repertory, that the class was palpably moved by the magnificent music at the end of this piece.  The combination of tenderness and austerity in the final chorus is particularly moving (it seems that the union of tenderness and austerity is uniquely Berliozan; consider Les Nuits d’Etes, for instance, or some of the quieter passages in the Requiem, or even the majestic music for Cassandra in the first scene of Les Troyens).  I had put the piece in the curriculum with some trepidation, because its quirkiness, its gentleness, its weird formal attributes might not seem relevant to the students, and in any case, we had already devoted a session to Berlioz’ Requiem (Grand Messe des Morts) which could be considered sufficient coverage of Berlioz within the time limits of the class.  I didn’t expect the piece to be a hit, hence my surprise.  Discussing Gluck and Renaissance polyphony, on one side, and Medelssohn’s Elijah on the other, and quoting extensively from Berlioz himself, did the trick.  But I needed to say relatively little about the Brahms or Verdi Requiems, those pieces were more or less immediately understood in their essence.  Everyone recognized that the Brahms is music’s greatest song of consolation, and the anti-ecclesiastical mode of the Verdi was obvious to everybody.

I’m looking forward to discussing three of Berlioz’ symphonies in my upcoming symphony class.  Symphonie Funebre et Triumphale (which is really bathetic, I must say), Harold in Italy, and of course, the Fantastique. 

Berlioz is in the weird position of being especially popular with relatively less experienced listeners, or else popular with exceptionally knowlegable listeners, rather than with the more typical sort of listener who is somewhere in between.  Berlioz will not be understood by comparing him with his peers, or attempting to accommodate him within the mainstream central European tradition.  The “Afterword” writers for Signet and Penguin will have a hard time with Berlioz.  They may actually have to look at the work innocently, or else do some homework, God forbid.