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Rrecuperating from The Trojans

I’m still attempting to digest Berlioz’s The Trojans, as performed by Valery Gergiev and his Kirov soloists, orchestra, and chorus at Carnegie Hall last week. The experience was humbling, overwhelming, enobling.
A sentient listener can only shrink in the presence of Berlioz’s masterpiece, an opera in two parts not wholly knowable. Its power, obviously, is archetypal (it sets Virgil). Its originality is pertinent. Defying genre, it surprises at every turn. Its unpredictability is existential.
In all these respects, the experience of The Trojans resembles the experience of Wagner’s Ring. But the differences are great. Unlike Wagner and his heroes, Berlioz does not challenge or problematize fate. He evokes “a vast and noble vision of the ancient world,” writes the Berlioz scholar David Cairns, “a heroic age in which human beings suffer and are subject of the blind forces of fate but, while they live, live proudly and ungrudgingly in the shadow of their doom.”
And Berlioz’s originality, unlike Wagner’s, wonderfully co-exists with an aesthetic privileging lucidity and coherence. For Wagner, music arises from a morass of deep subjectivity: from dreams. He is consumed by an interior life of feelings and ideas. Berlioz’s characters lack this kind of inner reality: they are more like statues come to life. They are iconic because archetypal in situation and response. Wagner’s archetypes are of psychology.
Henry Krehbiel, the greatest (and most proactive) of all American music critics, prepared an English-language version of part two of The Trojans “as a dramatic cantata,” performed in New York in 1887. And he (of course) reviewed it in the Tribune. Krehbiel’s review is long, thoughtful, full of interest. A confirmed Wagnerite, he regards The Trojans as unperformable as composed by Berlioz — too much like an oratorio; too sporadic in inspiration. But Berlioz, in fin-de-siecle New York, was nonetheless a pillar of the Music of the Future, alongside Wagner and Liszt. Anton Seidl, the high priest of American Wagnerism (and the hero of my Wagner Nights: An American History), gave Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in concert at the Met in 1896.
Here is some of what Krehbiel has to say in his Trojans review:
“Berlioz shows that there was much sincerity in his admiration for the operas of Gluck and Spontini based on classical subjects, and that though the bent of his mind was toward the invention of new devices to increase the effect of his representations, he was not deaf to the terrific dramatic power which lies in the direct and simple methods of Gluck.”
“A remodeling of [The Trojans] by an adept in the art of dramatic construction might save [part two: The Trojans at Carthage] for the stage; but the prospect that it will be submitted to such a process in not imminent. One plan to give its music a hearing under circumstances which would insure its appeal to the fancy as well as the sense, seemed feasible, however, and this was put into execution in the present arrangement of the book and music.”
(In addition to translating all that was sung, Krehbiel created connecting narratives in English in Virgilian style. He cites two such. They are magnificent.)
“I come to a consideration of the music and have no hesitation in saying at the outset that no estimate of Berlioz’s works is complete which does not take this score into account. In The Trojans are to be found musical numbers which dwarf the best features of the compositions on which Berlioz’s popularity rests in this country. Three of them I specify at once — [the finale to part two/act one, in which Aeneas throws off his disguise; the Royal Hunt and Storm; and the chant of the priests at Dido’s funeral]. In all the music of Berlioz with which I am acquainted I know of nothing to compare in dignity, dramatic power, and real expressiveness with these pieces.”
(But Krehbiel finds the duets of Dido/Anna and Dido/Aeneas to be “sentimental.”)
Remember: all this is from a review in a daily newspaper. Absorb: whatever his reservations about The Trojans, Krehbiel undertook, for an American premiere performance, to translate and abridge part two, and to prepare connecting speeches. The prescience and enterprise of this response cannot be sufficiently praised. Afterward – after the fin-de-siecle Wagner moment — The Trojans disappeared into a fog of obscurity. Has any music of comparable importance been so triumphantly (and yet insufficiently) resurrected in the past half century?
Certainly Gergiev’s incendiary performance – divided into two consecutive evenings – silenced Krehbiel’s reservations about consistency and construction. But it supported (however unintentionally) the logic of giving this work as a “dramatic cantata.” Certainly the Met’s staging (premiered in 1973) diminishes The Trojans. And I would say the same of Robert Lepage’s recent Met production of The Damnation of Faust (which I had occasion to review for the Times Literary Supplement). It’s not just that it’s hard to render the Trojan horse, or the Royal Hunt and Storm. Wagner is plainly a German Romantic; his music and dramaturgy foster a specific stage aesthetic which can be supported or dialectically challenged. Berlioz, aesthetically elusive, eludes the eye. He knew what he was doing when he cast The Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet as concert pieces.
I would like to see a semi-staged Trojans, in which Andromache’s formidable pantomime is not ignored. But I would be surprised to encounter a full staging as potent as the Kirov Trojans at Carnegie Hall – or the Colin Davis Trojans (in English) that I was privileged to hear at an historic London Proms concert in 1968. The program book (which I have kept) reminds me that we began at 4:30 pm, and that an hour-long interval divided parts one and two. For the Proms, there are no seats on the main floor – we stood for something like four hours. A glorious memory, now rekindled.


  1. Dale Cockrell says:

    Thanks for this, Joe. As you know, I was there too and the music still resounds in my head: I still find the hairs standing on my neck at the strangest times, a response to the memory. Just an extraordinary experience.
    I’d always read that Berlioz was treated kindly by audiences and critics in the 19th century America, but had never bothered to dig that out. What you write is fascinating. (If I remember, Berlioz considered an offer to come to the USA; wonder what that would have done for music in this nation.)
    Of all you write, though, I’m still not convinced completely by the statuary simile: Didon might appear to be a statue, but it’s the flesh and blood we come to care about; same with Cassandra; only Aeneas is finally a statue and ….we don’t finally care as much for him (nor did Berlioz, I think). And, as compelling as the concert version was, I can still imagine a thoroughly successful staged production. One of the images I take from the 1973-4 Met production (which I saw on 16 March 1974, according to the program I’ve found) is of Shirley Verrett as Cassandra, costumed differently than the other Trojans and subtly spotlighted, winding her manic way among the jubilant masses: visually, it made the music yet more powerful.
    Digging through my old files, I see I have a review by Alan Rich in New York Magazine, dated “ca. 9 Nov. 1973” in my pen, that starts: “It’s a week later, and I’m still haunted by Les Troyens . . . His music represents a body of artistic daring that is unique in the annals of the arts.” Another “Roadie!” I remember writing to Hugh MacDonald (who edited the LT score) soon after I first heard the Colin Davis recording, and telling him of weeping at its unexpected beauty and power. He wrote back describing his “Road to Damascus” experience with this great piece. I’ve since discovered there’s a coterie of us Roadies out there. It’s just an astounding piece.
    Thanks again.

  2. Tom Simone says:

    The performances of “The Trojans” in London in December 2000 under the inspired direction of Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra were transcendent. My wife and I had complimentary air tickets from being bumped from a flight from Italy. We went across the ocean just to see two of the three performances. Musicians of the caliber of Mitsuko Uchida and Michael Tilson Thomas were in the audience. A grandeur and beauty beyond belief. Never exceeded and only a few times equaled in more than 40 years of musical experience.
    As someone noted quite a while ago, not just a country but a continent of art and beauty.

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