Berlioz in Postclassical Context

A second thought about Berlioz. When we think of Brahms’s life, we think of his works being championed by Joachim, Clara Schumann, Hans von Bulow. We think of Beethoven’s aristocratic patrons begging him to remain in Vienna and pooling their resources to give him a salary. We think of Chopin and Liszt playing piano to entertain at aristocratic soirees. But when we think of Berlioz’s life, it’s of him consumed with scribbling newspaper reviews, writing about musical nonentities for money, forced to put together his own early performances without institutional help. He did enjoy considerable success as a conductor on tours outside France, but he never lived to hear some of his projects performed, the complete Les Troyens in particular. Likewise, in a more profound sense than any other major 19th-century fiigure, we think of him composing in a vacuum. The extraordinary innovations of Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo et Juliet (stream of consciousness, ostinato, col legno, motivic linkage between movements, free rhythm of fermatas) often waited until the 20th century to find an echo. If his early works were too incendiary for the early Romantic movement he electroshocked into existence, later in life he retreated to an objective, Gluck-obsessed classicism that seemed even more strangely unrelated to his surrounding context. (One movement from the much-underrated L’enfance du Christ he actually passed off at first as a new 18th-century find.)

Composing without finding cultural resonance, pouring energy into a dayjob, unsupported by institutions and on his own – though incomplete, this thumbnail sketch makes Berlioz sound like a proto-American, even a Downtowner, a first draft for Charles Ives. More than any other 19th-century figure (although Mozart in Vienna was somewhat in the same boat, and the Swedish Franz Berwald worked as a glasses manufacturer, Ives-like), Berlioz faced the artistic conditions that we American composers face. We see him with a shock of self-recognition that we don’t get from Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler. It makes me wonder if more than just Berlioz’s wild music and wonderful sense of rhythmic surprise were involved in my early fascination for him. I devoured his Memoires and collected all his recordings years before it ever occurred to me to become, like Berlioz, a critic.

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