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Shakespeare and Berlioz & Berlioz the Writer

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Introduction by Carol Anderson

Charles Kasbarian, a resident of Teaneck for the past 37 years, was introduced in his early and late teens to the works of Shakespeare and Berlioz. Since that time the two subjects have intertwined themselves in his consciousness as a constant reminder of what the best of literature and music have to offer. He was a member of the Berlioz Society which was organized in 1953 for the purpose of encouraging greater public awareness of the much neglected master by actively promoting performance, recording, and publication of his works. After six years of tireless activity, having succeeded in realizing its aims, the Society disbanded.

His topic today is twofold:

Shakespeare & Berlioz

and

Berlioz the Writer

This lecture should have been delivered on or about April 23, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. However scheduling problems prevented that from happening, and so the soonest after that is this month of May. The year 2003 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hector Berlioz, the multi-faceted genius of 19th Century Romanticism.

Teaneck Public Library May 2003


SHAKESPEARE AND BERLIOZ & BERLIOZ THE WRITER

Shakespeare’s plays have served to inspire works by many composers of serious music, from the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn, through the operas, “Macbeth”, “Otello” and “Falstaff” by Verdi, to the various treatments of “Romeo and Juliet” by Gounod, Tchaikowsky and Prokofieff.

Not the least of those inspired by Shakespeare was a French composer by the name of Hector Berlioz, who lived from 1803-1869, and who characterized the Romantic Age in word and deed.

You may have heard of the 3Bs of music who are generally regarded to be Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. However, what you probably don’t know is that the original 3Bs included Berlioz.

Peter Cornelius, the German composer, wrote in an article published in Berlin in 1854, “On the heights where Bach and Beethoven already dwell, there will the third great B first find recognition... Allow me then ... to sound a small fanfare for my favorite modern master, for the proud and daring hero, Hector, for the many-voiced composer and many sided writer Berlioz, who is also one of the great humorists of our 19th century... three cheers, now: Bach! Beethoven! Berlioz!”

It was Hans Von Bulow who later, under the influence of Bismarck and German Nationalism, substituted Brahms for Berlioz.

By way of a postscript to the foregoing, it was the Russian composer, Moussorgsky, who referred to Beethoven as “The Thinker” and to Berlioz as “The Superthinker”.

Berlioz was sent to Paris as a young man to study medicine. His heart wasn’t in it (no pun intended) and he persevered only because his father, a country doctor from the south of France, wouldn’t finance his son’s stay in Paris unless he agreed to follow in his father’s footsteps and it was the only way young Hector could remain in the big city where he could immerse himself in its artistic life.

There is some evidence that he completed his medical studies although he never practiced medicine. He subsequently applied to the Paris Conservatory and was accepted for music studies. He couldn’t play the piano, only the guitar and flageolet, a forerunner of the flute. Yet he was to become one of the two giants of 19th century orchestral music, the other being Wagner in Germany.

He completed his music studies and won 1st prize for one of his compositions that entitled him to spend 2 years in the French Academy at Rome, and 2 years traveling in Germany in furtherance of his career. However, he cut short fulfillment of his scholarship requirements and returned to Paris in order to arrange concerts to bring his compositions to the attention of the public.

Berlioz was never fully successful in launching his career and keeping it afloat. Although he was widely recognized as an innovator and appreciated in England, Germany and Russia where he traveled to conduct performances of his works, he did not fully achieve in his own time the crowning glory of his ambition: to be recognized in France, his own country. He made his living for a long time by writing music reviews for a Paris newspaper, reviews very often of music greatly inferior to his own.

It is interesting to note that Berlioz, who couldn’t play either the piano or violin, should have been intimately acquainted with the two great piano and violin virtuosos of the day, Franz Liszt and Nicolo Paganini. He and Liszt were companions-in-arms for forty years, dedicating one another’s work to each other. Paganini’s relationship is illustrated by the following story. He sought out Berlioz as the only composer who could do justice to a Stradivarius viola in Paganini’s possession and commissioned Berlioz to write a work for it. Some time later, Paganini visited Berlioz to see how the work was progressing. After looking over the first movement he complained that there was not enough for the viola to do compared to the orchestra. “I must be playing all the time”, he insisted. Paganini lost interest in the project and Berlioz completed the work to suit his own artistic taste. What resulted was a symphony with viola obbligato, that is, with the orchestra playing the primary role and the viola playing, so to speak, second fiddle. Byron’s poem, “Childe Harold”, became the inspiration for the work which Berlioz titled “Harold in Italy”.

With this background on Berlioz, it is opportune to introduce Shakespeare. In 1827, an English company came over to perform Shakespeare’s plays, then entirely unknown in France. Hamlet, in which an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson appeared as Ophelia, so electrified the 24 yr. old Hector that he became depressed and could not work. He kept wandering about Paris and the neighboring countryside. After realizing the consequences to his emotional state of the first performance of Hamlet, Hector swore to subject himself never again to a similar experience. He could not, however, resist seeing Romeo and Juliet, and it merely added fire to his agonized condition. Hector Berlioz fell desperately in love with Harriet Smithson. It wasn’t until five years later after a stormy chase and the performance of his first symphony, composed as the glorification and justification of his passion, that she consented to marry him. Shortly before that she had suffered a fall that had left her lame and which eventually terminated her career as a Shakespearean actress. This development merely served to add to Berlioz’s woes in his efforts to gain recognition as a composer.

When Paganini eventually heard “Harold in Italy”, the work for which he was indirectly responsible, he was so impressed by it that he wrote to the composer “Beethoven is dead, and Berlioz alone can revive him”, and with that, made a gift of 20,000 francs to Berlioz to encourage his music activities. It was this temporary solution to the material question that enabled Berlioz to put aside everything to devote himself to the composition of his Romeo & Juliet Symphony. Note that the work is called a symphony and not an opera despite the fact that it calls for soloists, chorus and orchestra. In fact, Romeo & Juliet are not specific roles assigned to soloists but are personified, in the great love scene, by the orchestra. Of course, Berlioz’s critics jeered at the prospect of hearing a musical rendering of the Shakespeare play without the persons of Romeo & Juliet.

Other Shakespearean works treated by Berlioz are a concert overture, King Lear and the comic-opera, Beatrice & Benedict based upon “Much Ado About Nothing”, where the name change was designed to prevent Berlioz’s enemies from commenting on how aptly the title described the music: Much Ado About Nothing.

One of Berlioz’s grandest works is the 5 hour opera “The Trojans” based upon Virgil’s “Aeneid”. However, the scene in Carthaginian Queen Dido’s garden by the sea, where the lovers, Dido and Aeneas, tenderly reproach each other, is a skillful adaptation of a passage in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Here is part of the dialogue in Act V between Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica:

LORENZO The moon shines bright: in such a night as this, When the sweet wind did gently touch the trees And they did make no noise, in such a night Troilus, methinks mounted the Troyan walls, And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents, Where Cressid lay that night.

LORENZO In such a night Stood Dido with a willow in her hand Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love To come again to Carthage.



JESSICA In such a night Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well, Stealing her soul with many vows of faith, And ne’er a true one.

LORENZO In such a night Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew, Slander her love, and he forgave it her.

Observe how Berlioz uses Shakespeare’s framework to transmute the love scene into high poetic sentiments befitting the exchange between Dido and Aeneas, words that Berlioz himself acknowledged, he stole from Shakespeare and Virgilianized.

DIDO:

    On such a night, her brow wreathed in blossom,
    Your mother Venus followed the fair Anchises
    To Ida’s groves.

AENEAS:

    On such a night, mad with love and joy,
    Troilus awaited, under the walls of Troy,
    The lovely Cressida.

AENEAS;

    On such a night the modest Diana
    At last let fall her gauzy veil
    Before Endymion’s eyes.

DIDO;

    On such a night Cytherea’s son
    Responded coldly to the passionate love
    of Queen Dido!

AENEAS;

    On that same night, alas, when the Queen
    Unjustly accused her lover, he gladly gave her
    the tenderest forgiveness.

This wonderful exchange is preceded by, interspersed with, and followed by the refrain:

DIDO, AENEAS:

     Night of boundless ecstasy and rapture!
     Golden Phoebe, and you, great stars of her court
     Pour on us your enchanted light;
     Flowers of heaven, smile on our immortal love.

Writing to his friend, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, who had praised his poem, he said, “It is beautiful because it is Virgil, it is striking because it is Shakespeare. I have ransacked the gardens of two geniuses and cut there a swath of flowers to make a couch for Music, where God grant she may not perish overcome by the fragrance.”

Now let us hear how admirably Berlioz set to music all this lovely poetry.

Troyens- Love Scene-music)

What you heard at the end of the love duet, as the lovers retire from view, is the appearance of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, striking Aeneas’ shield twice, pointing to the sea, and reminding Aeneas of his mission to sail to Italy and found a new Troy, Rome.

Finally, we have a dramatic fantasy with chorus on Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and some occasional pieces that Berlioz set to music from Hamlet: “The Death of Ophelia” for female choir and orchestra and a Funeral March for the last scene. In his memoires, Berlioz describes his feelings upon the death of his wife, from whom he had separated years earlier, as follows: “Shakespeare, Shakespeare! where art thou? He, alone, of all intelligent beings, could have understood me...have understood us both. He alone could have looked with pity on two poor artists, at once loving and lacerating each other. Shakespeare, the true man, if he is still in existence, must know how to succor the wretched. He is our father, our father in heaven - if there be a heaven. An almighty being, wrapped in his infinite indifference is an atrocious absurdity. Shakespeare alone is the good God to the soul of the artist.” At the very end. Berlioz sums things up in typical Shakespearean fashion: Which of the two powers, Love or Music, can elevate man to the sublimest heights? It is a great problem and yet it seems to me that this is the answer: “Love can give no idea of music; music can give an idea of love.” Why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.


At this point I would like to make a brief digression by leaving off Berlioz for a moment and taking up Shakespeare and the Bible. Here is what Richard Lederer, best-selling author and newspaper columnist on language, has to say in his book, The Miracle of Language.

“The most famous of all biblical translations is the King James Version, the brainchild of James I, who fancied himself a scholar and theologian. The king decided to assure his immortality by sponsoring a new Bible worthy of the splendor of his kingdom. To this end James appointed a commission of fifty-four learned clerical and lay scholars, divided into three groups in Cambridge, Westminster and Oxford. Three years of loving labor, 1608-1611, produced what John Livingston Lowes called “the noblest monument of English prose.” Few readers would dissent from that verdict. Among the many wonders of the King James Bible is that it stands as one of the few great accomplishments achieved by a committee. At the same time, some commentators have wondered why William Shakespeare was apparently not included among the fifty-four translators chosen. After all, Shakespeare had already written Macbeth in honor of King James (who also fancied himself an expert on witchcraft), and what better committee member could one ask for than the greatest poet of his age to work with the greatest collection of religious literature of all ages? But an intriguing peculiarity in the King James Bible indicates that Shakespeare was not entirely absent from the monumental project. No one knows who made the astonishing discovery or how on earth he or she did it.

In 1610, the year of the most intensive work on the translation, Shakespeare was forty-six years old. Given this clue, we turn to the forty-sixth psalm as it appears in the King James Bible. Count down to the forty-sixth word from the beginning and then count up to the forty-sixth word from the end, excluding the cadential Selah If you counted accurately, your finger eventually lit upon the two words shake and spear. Shakespeare. Whether or not he created the majesty of the forty-sixth psalm, he is in it. Whether the embedded shake spear is a purposeful plant or the product of happy chance, the name of the world’s most famous poet reposes cunningly in the text of the world’s most famous translation.” .

Back to Berlioz

I’ve already given some idea of Berlioz’s gifts as a librettist in connection with the text he had written for The Trojans.
  Let’s take a look at his dramatic legend “The Damnation of Faust” for additional proof. Berlioz’ introduction to the Faust legend was through a French translation of Goethe’s philosophical poem. But, whereas Goethe redeems Faust, Berlioz falls back on the legend of Faust’s damnation as the result of making a pact with the Devil. In fact, Berlioz goes beyond the contractual terms that the legendary Mephistopheles honors. Berlioz has Mephisto trick Faust into signing over his soul in exchange for being taken to see his Marguerite  Instead of fulfilling his bargain, Mephisto takes Faust straight to the abyss. Berlioz’s critics were quick to criticize him for making Mephisto break his bargain, to which Berlioz replied that now they were accusing him of vilifying the devil.

Using the French translation merely as a vehicle, Berlioz wrote the verses himself using Goethe’s words as inspiration. Let’s compare the treatments of the Cavern and Forest scene where Faust renders his

Invocation to Nature - Goethe(Bayard Taylor)

Spirit sublime, thou gav’st me, gav’st me all For which I prayed. Not unto me in vain Hast thou thy countenance revealed in fire. Thou gav’st me Nature as a kingdom grand, With power to feel and to enjoy it. Thou Not only cold, amazed acquaintance yield’st, But grantest, that in her profoundest breast I gaze, as in the bosom of a friend. The ranks of living creatures thou dost lead Before me, teaching me to know my brothers In air and water and the silent wood.

And when the storm in forests roars and grinds, The giant firs, in falling, neighbor boughs And neighbor trunks with crushing weight bear down, And falling, fill the hills with hollow thunders, Then to the cave secure thou leadest me, Then show’st me mine own self, and in my breast The deep, mysterious miracles unfold. And when the perfect moon before my gaze Comes up with soothing light, around me float From every precipice and thicket damp The silvery phantoms of the ages past, And temper the austere delight of thought.

That nothing can be perfect unto Man I now am conscious. With this ecstacy, Which brings me near and nearer to the Gods, Thou gav’st the comrade, whom I now no more Can do without, though, cold and scornful, he Demeans me to myself, and with a breath, A word, transforms thy gifts to nothingness. Within my breast he fans a lawless fire, Unwearied, for that fair and lovely form: Thus in desire hasten to enjoyment, And in enjoyment pine to feel desire.

Now, the Berlioz version:

Invocation to Nature - Berlioz (Words)

O boundless nature, spirit sublime, mysterious Alone thou givest comfort to my unhappy soul On thy breast mighty power is my sorrow abated and my strength, reviving, I seem to live again! Blow, ye fierce howling winds! Cry out ye boundless forests! Fall down, fall down, ye rocks! And roar ye mountain streams, wildly rushing! With your thundering sounds my voice loves to unite.

Ye rocks and streams and woods, accept my homage Bright sparkling worlds above, towards you leaps forth the piteous cry of a heart in anguish, of a soul madly longing, vainly striving for joy.

Let’s listen to the musical treatment. Notice at the end how the music leaves us with that very feeling of unsatisfied longing.

Invocation to Nature - Berlioz (Music)


Berlioz the Writer

Hector Berlioz was something rare among composers: a highly educated man-a classicist widely read in the literatures of Europe, a scholar in the music of the past and of his own day, and an observant traveler with a retentive memory. He had also had medical training and showed a leaning toward the sciences. Thus by talent and experience he was judicious, as well as practical- he was for 40 years his own impresario. The fiery side was his genius-passionate, vehement, sarcastic, and incorruptible. In conversation he was witty and urbane and in his relations with performers and colleagues punctiliously polite. he reserved his burning arrows for those who in any manner desecrated art, whether by giving mutilated versions of masterpieces, by vulgarizing the use of music, or by defaming the great masters in any art. (A Travers Chants - Barzun)

Berlioz’ problem was his versatility. He was destined by nature to be a composer, yet he was forced to develop two additional careers, both of which were intended to further his standing as a composer, but which in fact impeded it. His work as a journalist--his main source of income throughout his life--did not win the public to his cause but simply made enemies of powerful figures and antagonized everyone whose tastes were not his; the baton, taken up to prevent incompetents from conducting his own music, provided an escape from Paris and the opportunity to offer his music to audiences in Germany, Russia, and England. To be known in Paris as a witty columnist and in London as a virtuoso conductor was no particular help in promoting his art, and it left him very little time for composing. (Hugh MacDonald - Program notes)

As a conductor and artistic director he gave ample proof of the high standards to which he subscribed when in 1841 the Paris Opera put him in charge of the production of a revival of Weber’s Der Freischutz. In addition to conducting the work, he was asked to write ballet music for the opera, as the Parisian public would not tolerate an opera without ballet. He steadfastly refused to tamper with Weber’s masterpiece, but when it appeared the project would fall through, relented to the extent of orchestrating Weber’s own piano music. Thus was born what has become a celebrated concert favorite, the “Invitation to the Dance.”

Berlioz, it is commonly agreed, was a master of readable prose. As music critic for the Parisian Journal des Debats, he provided lengthy articles at least once a month for thirty years. According to Harold Schonberg of the New York Times, he was the “foremost music critic of his time, possibly of all time.”

His pungent wit was ever at his command. He could take a well-worn phrase and turn it on its head with humorous effect. A good example are the words uttered by Jesus to the Pharisees, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” In describing a related incident, he wrote, “The only thing to do is to render unto Caesar, as usual, what does not belong to Caesar.”

He was a gifted and prodigious letter writer. No one knows for sure how many he wrote in his lifetime, but the number that is known to have survived is over 3,500. His published books include:

His Memoirs A Treatise on Instrumentation & Orchestration, including The Art of Conducting Collections of articles on musical topics in the three volumes titled: Les Soirees de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra) Les grotesques de la Musique (Curiosities in Music) A Travers Chants (Traversing Music)

A Travers Chants is the collection of writings he himself selected from his thirty-odd years of musical journalism. (A Travers Chants - D.J. flap) These essays cover a wide spectrum of intellectual inquiry, notably his analysis of Beethoven’s nine symphonies and his opera Fidelio. His powers of narration are evident in the following anecdote concerning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata:

“There is a composition of Beethoven’s known as the Sonata in C-sharp minor, whose Adagio is poetry of the kind that no human language can describe. Technically, it is very simple: the left hand plays soft broad chords full of a solemn sadness and that last long enough to allow the piano’s vibrations to fade gradually upon each of them. Above, the lower fingers of the right hand play an ostinato accompaniment in arpeggios that hardly varies from the first measure to the last, while the other fingers play a sort of lament, a melodic expansion of this dark harmony. One day thirty years ago I was present when Liszt played this Adagio for a small gathering of friends. Following the custom he had adopted to win the applause of the fashionable public, he distorted the music: instead of playing those long sustained notes in the bass, instead of maintaining the severe uniformity of rhythm and tempo I have just referred to, he added trills and tremolos; he accelerated and slowed down the tempo, thus making passion intrude into the sad tranquility. He made thunder growl in a cloudless sky, where the only source of darkness consists in the sun’s vanishing. I suffered cruelly, I confess, even more than I had suffered when hearing our wretched singers embroider the great aria in Der Freischutz. For added to this torture was my distress at seeing such an artist as Liszt fall into the bad habits usually played only by the second-rate. But what could one do? At that time Liszt was like one of those children who, without crying, pick themselves up after a fall-a fall one pretends not to have seen-and who burst into tears if one gives them a helping hand. Liszt picked himself up, proudly. Anyhow, a few years later it was no longer he who pursued success, but success which breathlessly pursued him. They had traded roles. But to return to our sonata. Recently, one of those men with a mind and heart, whom we artists are fortunate to meet, had gathered together a few friends; I was one of their number. Liszt joined us later in the evening, and finding the conversation concerned with a composition by Weber that the public had received badly at a recent concert, either because of the performer’s inadequacy or for some other reason, sat down at the piano to reply in his own way to Weber’s detractors. His argument was unanswerable, and we were forced to admit that a work of genius had been misjudged. As he came to the end, the lamp lighting the room seemed about to go out. Someone got up to trim it for more light. I said, “Don’t do it, please. If Liszt will only play Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Adagio, this semidarkness won’t spoil a thing.” “Gladly,” said Liszt, “but turn the light down altogether, and cover the fire, too, so the darkness will be complete.” Then, after a pause to collect his thoughts, out of the darkness emerged the noble elegy that he had once so perversely distorted. It was now heard in its sublime simplicity; not a single note, not an accent was added to the composer’s notes and accents. It was the shade of Beethoven himself, his great voice that we heard, called forth by the virtuoso. Each of us felt the characteristic frisson (thrill) in silence and, after the last chord died away, we were still silent-we were weeping. (A Travers Chants- Berlioz)

Berlioz sums up his estimate of Beethoven as follows:

The great sonatas of Beethoven will become the yardstick by which we can measure the development of our musical intelligence. (A Travers Chants- Berlioz)

On the subject of music in general he has this to say:

“Music is the art of combining sounds so as to touch the emotions of intelligent persons endowed with special, cultivated faculties. To define music in this way is to confess that I do not believe it to be, as the phrase goes, meant for everybody. No matter what the music is like or how it has been composed, whether it is simple or complex, gentle or energetic, a great number of people can neither feel nor understand its power. It has always seemed obvious to the impartial observer that these people were not meant for music and therefore music was not meant for them.” (A Travers Chants - Berlioz)

On the subject of the true artist who is prepared to make every sacrifice for his art, Berlioz has this to say, from his own experience:

The artist, however gifted he may be with qualities of strength of mind and will, is like a loaded shell, which goes straight to its point and overthrows everything on its way, but is doomed to burst and perish at the end of its course. Speaking generally, I would make every possible sacrifice; but there are circumstances in which sacrifice ceases to be generous, and becomes in the highest degree culpable. Two years ago, before my wife’s health had become hopeless and when it was the cause of great expense to me, I dreamt that I was composing a symphony. On awaking next morning I recollected nearly the whole of the first movement, which I can still remember was an allegro in 2 time, in the key of A minor. I had gone to my table to begin writing it down when I suddenly reflected: “If I write this part I shall let myself be carried on to write the rest. The natural tendency of my mind to expand the material is sure to make it very long. I may perhaps spend three or four months exclusively upon it (I took seven to write Romeo and Juliet); meantime I shall do no newspaper articles, or next to none, and my income will suffer. When the symphony is finished I shall be weak enough to allow my copyist to copy it out, and thus immediately incur a debt of one thousand or twelve hundred francs. Once the parts are copied I shall be harassed by the temptation to have the work performed; I shall give a concert, in which, as is sure to be the case in these days, the receipts will barely cover half the expenses; I shall lose what I have not got; I shall want the necessaries of life for my poor invalid, and shall have no money either for myself or my son’s keep on board ship!” These thoughts made me shudder! I threw down my pen, saying, “Bah! I shall have forgotten the symphony tomorrow.” But the following night the obstinate symphony again presented itself, and I distinctly heard the allegro in A minor, and, what was more, saw it written down. I awoke in a state of feverish agitation, and hummed the theme. The form and character of it pleased me extremely; I was about to rise . . . but the reflections of the preceding night again restrained me. I hardened myself against temptation. I clung to the hope of forgetting. At last I fell asleep again, and when I awoke next day all recollection had vanished for ever. Some young fanatic -- whose contempt I forgive beforehand -- will say: “Coward! you should have dared! You should have written! You should have ruined yourself! You have no right thus to banish thought, to force back into nothingness a work of art that is striving to escape from it into life!” Ah, my young friend, you, who call me a coward, would be less severe if you saw the sight that was then too constantly before my eyes. In early days, when the consequences of my bold ventures were still doubtful, I never hesitated. At that time there was a small select audience in Paris. The princes of the house of Orleans and the queen herself took an interest in music. My wife was then in her prime, and was ever the first to encourage me. “You ought to bring out this work,” she would say, “and have it worthily and grandly performed. Fear nothing, we will bear whatever it may cost us. We must! Go on!” And I did go on. But at the time of my dream, when she was lying there half-dead, only able to groan, and requiring three nurses and an almost daily visit from the doctor; when I was certain -- as absolutely certain as that the Parisians are barbarians -- that every musical enterprise of mine would have the disastrous ending I have just described, it was no cowardice to abstain. No! my conscience tells me that I was simply humane; and while convinced that I am quite as much devoted to art as yourself or anyone else, I believe that I honor it by not treating it as a monster greedy for human victims, and by proving that it has not left me so wholly devoid of reason as not to be capable of distinguishing courage from ferocity. One can’t help but make the observation that Beethoven wrote a celebrated 5th symphony, Brahms never wrote one (he stopped at 4), and Berlioz suppressed his.

L’Enfance -

Well, we’ve covered the subject of Shakespeare and the Bible. Perhaps now would be a good time to touch on Berlioz and the Bible. Berlioz was quite conversant with Holy Scripture, and those who know of his disaffection with the Roman Church may be wondering how he was able to capture so sublimely in music the story of the Christ child in his sacred trilogy L’Enfance du Christ Here, from his Memoirs are his own words:

“I need hardly state that I was brought up as a member of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. Since she has ceased to inculcate the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming. I held them happily for seven years; and, though we quarreled long ago, I still retain the tenderest recollections of that form of religious belief.”

Thus was he able to conjure up the mood and spirit for the composition of his oratorio on the infancy of Christ, the text for which Berlioz also wrote.

Being fully cognizant of the details contained in Holy Scripture, Berlioz nevertheless took liberties with the tale of the Christ child to suit his dramatic purposes. For example, he has King Herod of Judea, troubled by recurrent dreams that threaten his throne and peace of mind, call in the Jewish soothsayers to interpret his dreams. The soothsayers consult the dark forces by performing a ritual dance in the form of a cabalistic ceremony, the cabala being an esoteric and occult system of interpreting scripture. As seven is a mystical number in cabalistic lore, Berlioz uses a time signature of 3/4 followed by 4/4 to produce a composite time of 7/4. Let’s listen to his musical treatment of this ceremonial dance. (Cabalistic Ceremony-Music)

Rather strange-sounding, wouldn’t you say? Somewhat eerie, even weird.

The genesis of L’Enfance came about as follows:

One evening during 1849, Berlioz, visiting at a friend’s home, was bored because the other guests were playing cards. He began idly to sketch out a brief organ composition. His friend Pierre Duc, architect of the Bastille Column, dissuaded him from continuing this Andantino, however, and turned him to composing something for a souvenir album. The resulting music, thus idly begun, shortly became a chorus in which a group of shepherds bids farewell to the Holy Family leaving for the flight into Egypt. As a joke of which Duc shared the knowledge, Berlioz next invented a seventeenth century chapel-master named Pierre Ducre, “dated” the “Adieu des Bergers” 1679, and gave out that it was Ducre’s work. Over the next few years he expanded what he had begun to a full-scale trilogy and called it L’Enfance du Christ. Although Berlioz knew that a listener would have to be as “ignorant as a fish” to believe that any seventeenth-century composer could have produced a work so clearly modern in harmony, most Parisian critics swallowed the hoax. The work proved to be an enthusiastic success, and Berlioz acknowledged his authorship. Even so unlikely a Berliozian as Johannes Brahms considered it to be, at least in part, the French composer’s masterpiece. When congratulated on his change of style by those who were accustomed to judge him by what they considered his grandiose and bombastic works, such as the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy, and Requiem, he protested that he had not changed his style at all but merely his subject matter., and the appropriate treatment it called for. The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy family on its flight into Egypt, which was the first part of the score to be composed, is a prime example of Berlioz’ power to compose telling simplicities, that side of his multiple genius which is far too often kept from the public ear by the ridiculous notion that he could work only with colossal batteries of whirling instruments and mighty phalanxes of screaming singers. Here is the very essence of honest adoration.

Shepherds’ Farewell (Text) He is going far from the land where, in the stable, he first saw the light of day. May he remain the constant love of his father and mother! May he grow, may he prosper, and may he be a good father in his turn! If ever, in the land of idol-worshippers, he comes to feel sorrow, he can return to happiness among us, fleeing that unkind land! May the shepherd’s poverty remain forever dear to his heart! Dear child, may God bless you. God bless you, happy pair. May you never feel the blows of injustice! May a good angel warn you of the dangers hovering over you!

And here is the musical setting:

Shepherds’ Farewell (Music)

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the sources of much of the material presented here today. Authors whose words I have interwoven among my own, either by quote or paraphrase, are: Jacques Barzun David Cairns Elizabeth Cziczery-Ronay Edwin Evans Richard Lederer Hugh Macdonald Ernest Newman Bayard Taylor Herbert Weinstock and, of course, Goethe, Shakespeare and Berlioz.

And so, this concludes my lecture. Thank you for listening.