Beethoven vs. Berlioz

No one asked me to use the words “miserable failure” and “George W. Bush” in a sentence (I do it often enough without being asked – and look up “miserable failure” on Google if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but I was asked to participate today in a “blog burst” for Beethoven’s birthday. I don’t have very original thoughts about Beethoven at the moment. Count Waldstein set the stage for a three-person Classical Era when he wrote to the young Beethoven, who was leaving for Vienna, “You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn,” and against that aristocratic fiat I’ve long agitated for a more complex view of that era, teaching the finer works of Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel for a fuller picture. Many of Beethoven’s works, it strikes me, are played too often, but I’ll admit that the last six piano sonatas and last five string quartets are played far too seldom. And the slow movement of Op. 111, which has had a tremendous continuing impact on my own music, is just a miracle.

If begged to comment on classical music, I would rather comment on Hector Berlioz, whose bicentennial (1803-1869) has passed without too much hoopla. All of us Berlioz fans – and I’ve been one since way back – seem incapable of eulogizing him without simultaneously noting how sadly neglected his music is. And yet what composer in history (before Henry Brant, anyway) ever made his work so inconvenient to present? How often can the Requiem, with its four brass choirs and 16 timpani, actually be pulled off? Lelio is a logistical disaster, Beatrice and Benedict similarly between genres. Violists don’t seem to like Herold in Italy, though I love it. Les Troyen is a mammoth effort, and, though nobly beautiful, a little slow once you mount the thing. Isn’t what we love about Berlioz that his idealistic vision led him to places no one would ever be able to afford to revisit often? He’s like a gorgeous canyon too difficult of access for the mere tourist. And as Charles Rosen has shown in The Romantic Generation, even the idiosyncrasies of Berlioz’s composing technique come too much from a certain kind of training, and from his being a guitarist and clarinetist rather than the more usual pianist or violinist, to have led to much influence. I suspect that Berlioz must be a more popular composer than widely assumed, but we addicts all feel a little isolated by the understandable scarcity of performances. And in the wickedness of his literary humor, he yields not even to Shaw.

It was, admittedly, shocking to go to the Paris Conservatoire a couple of years ago and see statue after statue devoted to French mediocrities like Scribe and Auber, and no monument to the Conservatoire’s most famous graduate. (The faculty there allegedly forbade its students to attend the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique, and then repeated the feat decades later with Debussy’s Pelleas.) But I’m not sorry to have one hero whose pedestal is so high and inconveniently placed that experiencing him becomes a special pleasure of rediscovery every time. Since my Berlioz fanaticism is of such old origin, my complete collection of his work remains largely on vinyl, so let it be recorded that I marked his centennial by purchasing the Metropolitan Opera’s ponderous but classic DVD of Les Troyens.

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