Bienvenue, Berlioz!

He was a tortured genius. He wrote some of the most original music of the 19th century. So why do the French have such a problem with Hector Berlioz, asks Tom Rosenthal. And are this month's bicentennial celebrations in Paris enough to make amends?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Sir John Eliot Gardiner raised his baton earlier this month for the first performance of Berlioz's The Trojans at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, I began to realise the dream of a lifetime: to hear this greatest of all French operas staged in Berlioz's own capital, complete at last. The Châtelet performances celebrate the bicentenary of the composer's birth in December 1803 and one of the many tragedies of his tormented life was that, by the time he died in 1869, he had only ever heard three of its five acts performed.

Born in La Côte-Saint André, Hector Berlioz was sent by his doctor father to study medicine in Paris. To his parents' despair he devoted himself to music, supporting himself as a journalist and operetta chorus singer. He rarely had his work performed, and never as he envisaged it. While he was safely abroad with his Prix de Rome, his fiancée's mother gave her daughter to a wealthy piano manufacturer. His passion for the beautiful Irish actress Harriet Smithson led to the Symphonie Fantastique and, eventually, marriage, which produced a son, Louis, who died young in the Navy. Smithson became an alcoholic. The man who should have been fêted for his operas, orchestral pieces, choral music and songs was neglected, repeatedly scorned and always broke. But he was, surely, a true genius.

For my own lifelong passion for Berlioz, as with other aspects of my somewhat eccentric character, I blame my mother. I was 15 and my haphazard musical tastes were just beginning to form when, purely as a matter of filial duty, I went to hear her sing in the chorus of a semi-professional concert performance of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. While, in 1950, the phrase did not yet exist, I was blown away. The wild energy and that extraordinary blend of sensual and cerebral excitement lives for me even now and has never been equalled except, perhaps, for the recent concert performances of The Trojans conducted by Colin Davis at the Barbican.

Unlike most teenage passions, this one became deeper in maturity and, as I now look back over half a century, my enthusiasm probably shaded over into obsession and coloured much of my professional and personal life - in which Berlioz loomed as a continual presence. Not even I can believe that all of the serendipitous events related here were only serendipity.

For nearly 20 years I enjoyed the friendship of the painter, sculptor and writer Michael Ayrton. My copy of his book Berlioz: A Singular Obsession, published to coincide with his brilliant BBC TV documentary, is inscribed: "For Tom, a fellow obsessionist." After Ayrton died I became his literary executor and in his will I was bequeathed one of his small bronze heads of Berlioz whose eagle gaze has been on my desk ever since and looks over me as I write this.

I was also lucky enough to become friendly with Colin Davis. One evening I asked him, since I wanted to start my elder son off in pursuit of my own love of opera, what I should begin with. Having advised Figaro he then went on to say that probably a dress rehearsal of some other opera would also work. So I took my son out of school one day and we sat in solitary splendour while Davis conducted the dress rehearsal at the Royal Opera House of Benvenuto Cellini. As an introduction to Berlioz, and to opera, it could hardly have been bettered. My son became a gynaecologist.

My deepest Berlioz relationship has been with David Cairns, from whom, after I had read his superb translation of Berlioz's Memoirs in 1969, I commissioned a biography. As I successively worked at or ran three different publishing houses, I always took the Cairns contract with me and managed to publish the first volume myself. Unfortunately I had retired from publishing before the second volume was ready and it was issued by a fourth publishing house. It did, however, win the Whitbread and Samuel Johnson Prizes, and next month Cairns will make the oration at a Berlioz Bicentenary dinner in London.

I asked Cairns, a Francophile, why Berlioz was so loved in Britain and largely neglected in France. He replied that in the 19th century "the academic and critical establishment was consistently hostile to innovation in all the arts, not just music - think of the treatment of Balzac, reviled in the press and never elected to the Institut. Berlioz acquired the reputation of a maverick. In England he benefited from the more open-minded, wide-ranging culture, in which classicism and academicism had always coexisted with Shakespeare. In France, the problem was exacerbated by ignorance; Berlioz's greatest work, The Trojans, was virtually unknown. But the French being a people who are expected to have decided opinions about art, knowledge was replaced by idées reçues - and there is nothing more difficult to eradicate than received ideas about music, once they have taken root."

Colin Davis was also eloquent on the disparity of British and French attitudes: "We have a far better appreciation of originality than the French. It was obvious that he had prodigious gifts and that he wasn't going to toe the line and he didn't. He was constantly frustrated by second-rate academics who preferred the slightly suburban quality of Gounod and Massenet. Berlioz was a man of really true fire and the French love regulation. Think of Racine. They couldn't really cope with Berlioz who was a wild horse with all the freedoms."

Between rehearsals at the Châtelet John Eliot Gardiner explained why, apart from the anniversary, he was so attracted to The Trojans: "I've been bowled over by it since I first heard Colin Davis doing it with the Chelsea Opera Group in Cambridge in 1964," he said. "There's nothing quite like its dramatic power. It is epic but it is also quite human. I loved the orchestral tapestry that surrounds the singing. There's none of that porridgy effect you get in so much 19th-century French Grand Opera, Halévy, Meyerbeer, etc, which Berlioz simply leapfrogs.

"Everyone sees Gluck as Berlioz's chosen hero, but I think he's more indebted to Lully and Rameau. There are similar harmonic progressions. I love the way that so many of the so-called divertissements are in effect counterparts to Dido's mood of tragedy and vulnerability. The juxtaposition of public and private moods in the opera is wonderfully conceived and worked out."

When I asked him the inevitable question as to why the French never properly valued Berlioz, he said: "Because he's not chic like Debussy. He's a composer of excess."

For me, Berlioz has always towered above all his compatriots; Gardiner's beloved Lully and Rameau and even Bizet, Massenet, Debussy and Ravel - let alone Meyerbeer, Halévy, César Franck, Poulenc - are pygmies in comparison.

And it is surely for what Gardiner calls his "excess" that we love him. The Trojans, for which Berlioz, like Wagner, wrote his own libretto (based on Virgil's Aeneid), lasts for more than five hours including intervals. For conductors like Davis and Gardiner, let alone the singers and players, it is, because of its intensity as well as its "excess", a tremendous test of stamina.

My expectations, and indeed those of a sell-out audience at the Châtelet, were so high that I was prepared for disappointment. I should not have worried. Gardiner got such a performance out of his cast and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique - what a perfectly Berliozian name - that I had to walk back miles to my hotel at midnight to calm down, my elation matched only by the sadness of realising the anguish of a composer who had never heard such a performance of his greatest work.

At the Bibliothèque nationale there is a superb commemorative exhibition entitled Berlioz: The Voice of Romanticism, which will appeal to far more than the proverbial Berlioz anorak. There are autographed scores and family letters, portraits, posters, instruments and memorabilia which truly give you the feel of mid-19th-century cultural life and the professional career of this arch-romantic.

There is a front page of the Journal des Débats for which Berlioz wrote some 400 pieces of music criticism to provide the exiguous income his unperformed works denied him. There's an engraving of the masterly and masterful portrait of the periodical's publisher - and hence the composer's most vital patron - Louis-François Bertin by Ingres.

I gently remonstrated to the curator about the absence of the original oil painting, perhaps the finest male portrait ever done by Ingres, but reluctantly had to agree with her when she said that it was such a powerful, dominating painting that it would have made even Courbet's portrait of Berlioz seem ordinary.

We see the certificate of Berlioz's degree of Bachelor of Letters, "Au nom du Roi", and his conducting baton, as well as a beautiful, six-string guitar signed by him and Paganini who had frequently, and generously, helped him with money. There are various saxophones - including a monumentally heavy bass version, made by Adolphe Sax himself - as well as some of Berlioz's favourite instruments for which he wrote especially, such as the serpent and the ophicleide. (One should remember that Richard Strauss called Berlioz "the inventor of the modern orchestra".)

We also see superb portraits of the fellow composers whom he admired, or who admired him, including Liszt and an allegorical picture of Cherubini by Ingres.

There's a whole section on Berlioz in London, but for me the most poignant exhibit is the poster announcing the 1863 production of The Trojans at the Théâtre Lyric. (The Opéra, to Berlioz's chagrin, wouldn't touch it.) It's a fine poster and it describes The Trojans as an "Opera in Five Acts". But, in the end, as we know, the Lyric put on only three of them to frustrate this Lear-like figure yet again.

Apart from the Châtelet Trojans and the exhibition, there is also a new film, Moi, Hector Berlioz by Pierre Dupouey. So the French have at least made spectacular, if belated, amends for a century and a half of neglect and have celebrated the bicentenary nobly.

'The Trojans': Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris (00 33 1 4028 2840), today and Wednesday. 'Berlioz - The Voice of Romanticism': Bibliothèque nationale de France (Mitterrand site), Paris (00 33 1 5379 5959), to 18 January 2004