Why Berlioz?


I’ve just listened to that turgid and meandering extract from Romeo et Juliette on Classical Collection, BBC Radio 3 this morning. I just don’t get Berlioz – I’ve tried, please believe me. There’s not a flicker of interest, whatever of his I’ve listened to. I always feel as though I’m waiting for the music to take flight, but it remains resolutely earthbound. There is very little music that leaves me completely cold, but I’m afraid Berlioz does.

Forty years ago Colin Davis asked “Why Berlioz?” in an essay. Among other things he said:

Only Berlioz dared mix his genres as Shakespeare did, and only Berlioz, I think, comes near Shakespeare in his ability to suspend the apparent forward motion of time by the creation of a poetry of unbelievable and scarcely bearable beauty. Another imaginative world that reminds me of Berlioz’ is that of William Blake … Blake’s obsession with line is comparable to Berlioz’ reliance on melody; the lineaments of Berlioz’ music have all the definition and courage that Blake would have liked.

Each person asks of music that which reflects the make-up of his own psyche. Those who do not wish to be disturbed by music will not take to Berlioz; neither will those who seek logical patterns. But those who admit to themselves the inherent discrepancies of this fallen universe, who are no longer surprised that love and hate call each other into being, will find in Berlioz’ music a reflection of their knowledge.

In his magisterial biography of Berlioz, David Cairns (a writer I admire) opens his prologue by saying:

For a long time the music of Berlioz remained a sealed book to me … There are musicians and music-lovers who are drawn to Berlioz’s music irresistibly and for whom its idiosyncrasies of style are no barrier … To many others it seems alien when they first hear it and perhaps for a long afterwards, as it did to me.

His sister’s excitement at the Symphonie Fantastique did not persuade him; he was only partly persuaded by the 1957 Covent Garden production of Les Troyens. It was a performance of La Damnation de Faust when he “realized with delight that the language which ten years before had been so much gibberish to my musical understanding had become familiar and made sense, thrilling, unimagined sense after all.”

So I think I’ll persevere.


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