Happy 200th Birthday! A Vindicating Berlioz Tribute

A few Sundays ago outside Avery Fisher Hall, a man who was hoping to get into a performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust carried a sign reading “Seeking ‘Damnation’ tickets. Willing to sell soul for the right offer.” What brought a smile to my face was not only the man’s wit, but his eagerness to hear the music of a figure whose claim to being one of the greatest of composers is still in contention more than 130 years after his death. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and a few composers who died in the last century (Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky) have a secure place in most people’s pantheon. But Berlioz, the supreme colorist of French Romanticism, who was fully their match in ambition and influence, remains the odd man out, the composer whose brilliance with large-scale architecture, kaleidoscopic orchestration and serpentine melodies somehow doesn’t quite add up to a profile of unassailable achievement.

Part of the problem is the man himself. Hector Berlioz, who lived from 1803 to 1869, was no lofty scribbler in an ivory tower, no noble servant yoked to ecclesiastic or aristocratic masters. He was perhaps the first great individualist among composers, a man of parts who was fully of and often against his post-Napoleonic times-a critic, theorist, conductor and producer who was unafraid of giving passionate expression to his convictions, no matter what the fallout might be. His personal and professional lives were embattled: a marriage of infatuation with a Shakespearean actress that soon ran its course; endless struggles to get his groundbreaking works heard by a large, sufficiently paying public. Of all the first-rank composers (excepting the latter-day stateless ones, like Stravinsky), he was the least supported by his own people-the French culturati, with their love of showiness and effete entertainment. His originality was recognized only by other geniuses of his time-Paganini, Liszt and, on occasion, Wagner.

Even more problematic are the works themselves, which were-and are-defiant of pigeonholes. A “symphony” in five parts that requires the adjective “fantastique” to describe its extravagant departures from conventional models? An “opera” in five acts set in two vastly different places (Troy and Carthage), with two heroines who have nothing to do with each other (Cassandra and Dido)? In Berlioz’s sprawling Requiem and dramatic choral symphonies, he shattered the traditional boundaries between church music and secular music, opera and instrumental music. His stuff doesn’t fit. To make matters more vexing, there’s the inimitable character of his music, which seems always to have been created out of the sheer necessity of the moment. If Bach exulted in the pleasures of humble labor in devotion to the Almighty, and if Beethoven exulted in triumphing over adversity, Berlioz exulted in nothing but the music itself. As the conductor Felix Weingartner said about the astonishing present tense of Berlioz’s works, “He does not have to seek, he finds.”

Coming at a time when we are consumed with a dark fear of the future, the ongoing celebration of the composer’s bicentennial couldn’t be more salutary. The Metropolitan Opera has had a surprise box-office bonanza with a vivid new staging of Les Troyens , and Lincoln Center’s tribute-featuring three concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis-was a sell-out. Clearly, there’s a need for the peculiar balm of Berlioz, with his muscular certitude, his embrace of disparate elements, and his determination to lift us out of the murk of our own lives.

To my regret, I did not hear the opening concert. However, jaded colleagues who were there report that the L.S.O.’s performance of Harold in Italy and Symphonie Fantastique made those hoary masterpieces seem utterly fresh-“as though the ink had dried on the page that morning,” one said. I did attend the following programs, and they were spellbinding.

Live performances of the composer’s hybrid, seven-movement adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for orchestra, chorus and the occasional soloist are rare, and having never heard one, I worried that its depiction of all those famous scenes and sentiments would descend to the level of the sort of “program music” so often decried by Berlioz’s critics. But from the first downbeat, Sir Colin-whose championing of this music goes back many years-clearly had the whole work at his fingertips. From the “Prologue,” which prefigures everything like a glittering table of contents, to the ecstatic “Love Scene,” with the calm sublimity of “blessed, blessed night,” to the lighter-than-air scherzo of the Queen Mab speech, to the unabashedly operatic finale, in which Friar Laurence tries to forge harmony between the two warring choruses, I felt the odd immensity of Berlioz’s achievement as never before. Here is an artist whose imaginative love for another artist in an entirely different medium is so finely tuned that it reawakens our love for an old, familiar tale in ways that no theatrical version could achieve. Everyone onstage-the massive orchestral and choral forces, a trio of superlative soloists (the contralto Sara Mingardo, the tenor Stuart Neill and the bass Alastair Miles)-was passionately caught up in this unusual, Janus-like enterprise. And so, through more than two hours of music without intermission, was their audience.

The blaze continued two days later with The Damnation of Faust , which was written out of Berlioz’s love for Goethe, another of his literary idols. Berlioz called this four-part work a “dramatic legend,” envisioning it as a concert opera to be performed in strictly musical rather than theatrical form, but if he had lived a century later, he might have called it a “cinematic epic.” Once again, Sir Colin and his forces (the soloists were Mr. Neill as a sweetly clarion Faust, Mr. Miles as a silkily blunt Mephistopheles and Petra Lang as a gleaming Marguerite) were revelatory. In Damnation , which was completed in 1846, seven years after Romeo et Juliette , the tone painting is even more gripping. Composed in fits and starts during a journey through Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Silesia, the result is, as Andrew Porter once wrote in The New Yorker , like reading Goethe by flashes of lightning.

From my seat next to the proscenium in the second balcony, overlooking the orchestra, the effect was almost hallucinatory. As we were propelled through the weary philosopher’s unhappy regeneration to his doom, every vision, every twist and turn, became manifest through the ear to the eye. So sure was Sir Colin’s command of pacing and the strobe-lit, almost Stravinskian transparency that the work’s near-surfeit of musical ingenuities-the bass drummer alone was equipped with five padded mallets-never felt cluttered or cloying. Years ago, Debussy-the only other French composer with a claim to a place in the pantheon-dismissed Berlioz as “the favorite of those who know little about music.” In justice, the judgment should be amended to read: “Berlioz is the favorite of those who need not know anything about music to know when music has created life.”

Happy 200th Birthday! A Vindicating Berlioz Tribute