eviens, reviens

If ever the physiological structure of a man had to be taken into
account in trying to explain the nature of his work, it is surely when
we are dealing with Berlioz. We have only to look at his portrait to
see how highly strung he was, how prone he must have been to disorders
of the nervous system. There is a passage in one of his letters that
seems to indicate an anxiety for his health on the part of his father,
who, being a doctor, would probably understand his son’s bias towards
nervous troubles: “Je suis vos instructions quant au régime,” writes
Hector; “je mange ordinairement peu et ne bois presque plus de thé.”
His early life, after he left the paternal home, was certainly one of
great privation. He moreover seems to have been exceedingly careless
of his health, indulging in long walks without a proper supply of
food–presuming upon a nervous energy that to him no doubt seemed like
a solid physical constitution. Worse even than this was his occasional
deliberate resort to starvation, as one of his friends tells us, “pour
connaître les maux par lesquels le génie pouvait passer.” The wonder
is not that he should always have been a prey to some trouble or other
of the nerves, or that in middle age he should have been attacked by
a frightful intestinal disorder, but that he should have lived as
long as he did, and found strength enough for such work as he has
bequeathed to us. “How unhappily I am put together,” he once wrote to
his friend Ferrand–“a veritable barometer, now up, now down, always
susceptible to the changes of the atmosphere–bright or sombre–of my
consuming thoughts.” As it was, the nerves plainly underwent a gradual
deterioration. There are the same general mental characteristics in his
later work as in his earlier, but the music of the last fifteen years
of his life will as a whole hardly bear comparison with that written
between the ages of twenty-five and forty. The fine bloom seemed to
have been rubbed off his spirit; even where the music still has the
nervous energy of former years it is almost entirely an external
thing–a mere tendency to break out into the unexpected because of
the impossibility of continuing for long on the one level path; while
too often there is a sheer dulness that evidently comes from the
long-continued stilling of his pains with opium. But until his system
wore itself out in this way through every kind of over-strain, it was
clearly one of extraordinary sensitivity, susceptible to a hundred
impressions that must have remained a sealed book to every other French
musician of the time.

This was the keynote to his mental life and to the world which he
tried to reproduce in art; and if we study his physical organisation
he becomes far more typical of the Romantic movement than the most
brilliant of his contemporaries. If their distinguishing mark was
the extraordinary seriousness with which they took their artistic
impressions, the strange convulsions produced in them by the sight of a
beautiful thing or by the mere rapturous act of composition, it must be
said that not one of them can compare with Berlioz in this respect. A
hundred passages, in his _Memoirs_, his letters, and his prose works,
reveal his temperament as perhaps the most extraordinarily volcanic
thing in the history of music. Musicians as a whole have an unenviable
notoriety for not being as other men are; they surpass even the poets
in the fineness of their nerves and the tendency of these to evade
the control of the higher centres. But surely, outside the history of
religious mania or the ecstasy of the mystics, there is nothing to
parallel the abnormal state into which Berlioz was thrown by music.
“When I hear certain pieces of music, my vital forces at first seem to
be doubled. I feel a delicious pleasure, in which reason has no part;
the habit of analysis comes afterwards to give birth to admiration;
the emotion, increasing in proportion to the energy or the grandeur
of the ideas of the composer, soon produces a strange agitation in
the circulation of the blood; tears, which generally indicate the
end of the paroxysm, often indicate only a progressive state of it,
leading to something still more intense. In this case I have spasmodic
contractions of the muscles, a trembling in all my limbs, a complete
torpor of the feet and the hands, a partial paralysis of the nerves
of sight and hearing; I no longer see, I scarcely hear: vertigo …
a semi-swoon.” Still more curious is the effect created on him by
music he does not like. “One can imagine,” he says, “that sensations
carried to this degree of violence are rather rare, and that there
is a vigorous contrast to them, namely _the painful musical effect_,
producing the contrary of admiration and pleasure. No music acts
more strongly in this respect than that whose principal fault seems
to me to be platitude plus falsity of expression. Then I redden as if
with shame; a veritable anger takes possession of me; to look at me,
you would think I had just received an unpardonable insult; to get
rid of the impression I have received, there is a general upheaval of
my being, an effort of expulsion in the whole organism, analogous to
the effort of vomiting, when the stomach wishes to reject a nauseous
liquor. It is disgust and hatred carried to their extreme limit; this
music exasperates me, and I vomit it through all my pores.”

This is not a piece of merely literary exaggeration, for time after
time in his letters we come across corroborative evidence that Berlioz
was really affected by music in this way. He thus surpasses in nervous
extravagance the most abnormal of the young poets and painters of his
time. And as with them the susceptibility of their physical organisms
led to a new sympathy with things, a new tenderness, a new pity, so did
the weakness of Berlioz lead him to the discovery of shades of emotion
that had never before found expression in music. Madame de Staël’s
remark, that “la littérature romantique … se sert de nos impressions
personnelles pour nous émouvoir,” had a wider application than she
imagined. The French Romantic was a new type in art; in most cases a
nervous sufferer himself, he had glimpses of a whole world of human
pain and pathos that were denied his forerunners. The great figures of
the eighteenth century are for the most part objective, travelling
by the way of reason rather than that of emotion, philosophers rather
than artists, living in the central stream of things, and with a
broad, clear outlook on the actual affairs of their own day. Their
very sentiment is a different thing from the sentiment of the later
generation; it is more under control, has less heart and more brain
in it, is less suggestive of an overwhelming surge along the nerves.
Only now and again in the literature of the eighteenth century do we
catch a foreshadowing of that species of quivering emotion which found,
sometimes only too easily, expression in the Romantics. We have it in a
noteworthy passage of Diderot: “Le premier serment que se firent deux
êtres de chair, ce fut au pied d’un rocher qui tombait en poussière;
ils attestèrent de leur constance un ciel qui n’est pas un instant
le même; tout passait en eux, autour d’eux, et ils croyaient leurs
cœurs affranchis de vicissitudes. O enfants! toujours enfants!”
This, in the literature of its time, is like a lyric of Heine appearing
among the pages of Lessing, a song of Schumann in the middle of a
score of Gluck. We have something of the same tone again, a similar
adumbration of the romantic spirit, here and there in the _Rêveries_
of Rousseau. But it is in the Romantics that we first find the full
expression of that new tremor of feeling that comes from the sense of
the weakness of our poor flesh, the sense of the mortality of our clay,
our hourly nearness to corruption, our community with everything that
suffers and perishes.

Before coming to consider his music, let us complete the study of
Berlioz as an organism by examining his prose, where we shall find many
things that throw light on his structure. The assistance given to the
student of musical psychology by the prose writings of musicians is so
great, that one could almost wish that every composer of any note had
left the world a volume or two of criticism or of autobiography. They
would not necessarily have added very much to our positive knowledge
of life or art; but a book is such an unconscious revelation of its
writer, he shows himself in it so faithfully and so completely, no
matter how much he may desire to pose or deceive, that the psychologist
is able to reconstruct the man’s mind from it as the scientist can
reconstruct in imagination the body of an animal from a few of its
bones. One does not lay much store, for example, by the actual contents
of the volumes of prose which Wagner was unkind enough to bequeath to
us; but after all one would not willingly let them die, for they are of
the utmost help to the study of Wagner, indirectly, if not directly,
throwing sidelights on him of which he was quite unconscious. The
prose of Berlioz has greater intrinsic interest. Deeply as he said he
loathed his journalistic work, he was after all a born journalist, a
fluent writer, a cynical wit, an accomplished story-teller in certain
_genres_, a master of polished and mordant irony. My present purpose,
however, is not to attempt an appreciation of Berlioz’s prose as a
whole, but to call attention to certain curious elements in it that
have not, so far as I am aware, been pointed out before, and that
are extremely interesting to the student of so strange and complex a
personality as Berlioz.

Readers of Hennequin’s fine, if not quite convincing, essay on
Flaubert in _Quelques Écrivains Français_, will remember the attempt
to exhibit the structure and functioning of the novelist’s brain by
dissection of his prose. Flaubert, he shows, tends always to write
thus and thus; he has a vocabulary of such and such a kind, and he
tends to build up words in such and such a way. Proceeding from this
basis, Hennequin goes on to examine Flaubert’s construction of his
sentences, then of his paragraphs, then of his chapters, then of his
novels, and thus to explain the final form of the books in terms of
a fundamental intellectual structure that has been conditioned by a
certain verbal faculty. Hennequin, I think, pushes his method rather
too far here, making blindly for his thesis regardless of all that
may be urged against it; but on the whole the essay is a novel and
valuable contribution to a neglected science–the study of a man’s
brain through the medium of his forms of expression. Now any one who
reads critically through the prose works of Berlioz must be struck by
certain elements in the prose that seem to give the key to much that
is almost inexplicable in his music and his character. “Extravagant,”
“theatrical,” “bizarre”–these are the terms that have always been
used of Berlioz. Sir Hubert Parry takes the easy course of attributing
his theatricalism to his being a Frenchman, oblivious of the fact that
the French disliked it and ridiculed it more than any other nation.
The early prose of Berlioz indicates that he was a man of a cerebral
structure that tended always to express itself extravagantly; a man who
did not see things upon the ordinary level of earth quite so clearly as
shapes in cloud and on mountain-top.

The big effects at which he aimed in music were, indeed, only one
form of manifestation of a curious faculty that was always leading
him to the grandiose. The ordinary orchestra, the ordinary chorus,
the ordinary concert-room would never do for him; everything must be
magnified, as it were, beyond life-size. Similarly in his prose, the
ordinary similes, the ordinary metaphors rarely occur to him; the
dilated brain can only express itself in a dilation of language. Thus
one adjective is rarely enough for Berlioz; there must generally be at
least three, and these of the most exaggerated kind. A thing is never
beautiful or ugly for Berlioz; it is either divine or horrible. A scene
in his early work, where Cleopatra reflects on the welcome to be given
her by the Pharaohs entombed in the pyramids, is “terrible, frightful.”
His _Francs Juges_ overture in one place is described as “monstrous,
colossal, horrible.” On another occasion he writes, “There is nothing
so terribly frightful as my overture…. It is a hymn to despair, but
the most despairing despair one can imagine–horrible and tender.”
Everywhere there is the same tumefaction of language. When he ponders
over the memory of his first wife and her sufferings, he is overcome
by “an immense, frightful, incommensurable, infinite pity.” Towards
the end of his life he is seized by “the furious desire for immense
affections.” He can hardly speak of anything that has moved him without
this piling-up of the most tremendous adjectives in the language.

As might be expected, his imagery is of the same order; the very
largest things in the universe are impressed into the service of his
similes and metaphors. He speaks in one place of “those superhuman
adagios, where the genius of Beethoven soars aloft, immense and
solitary, like the colossal bird above the snowy summit of Chimborazo.”
He had never seen the bird above the summit of Chimborazo, but his
brain reverts spontaneously to this conception in the effort to express
the sensation of immensity and solitude given him by Beethoven’s
music. The pyramids, being conveniently large, frequently enter into
his similes. “It needs a very rare order of genius to create the
things that both artists and public can take to at once–things whose
simplicity is in direct proportion to their mass, like the pyramids
of Djizeh.” “Yesterday,” he writes after a certain performance of his
works, “I had a pyramidal success.” When the pyramids fail him he
falls back on Ossian, or on Babylon and Nineveh. After having heard
6500 children’s voices in St. Paul’s, he writes, “It was, without
comparison, the most imposing, the most Babylonian ceremony I had
ever beheld.” The “Tibi omnes” and the “Judex” of his _Te Deum_ are
“Babylonian, Ninivitish pieces.” One night he hears the north wind
“lament, moan, and howl like several generations in agony. My chimney
resounds cavernously like a sixty-four feet organ-pipe. I have never
been able to resist these Ossianic noises.”

Occasionally the heaping of Pelion on Ossa becomes necessary in order
to enable him to give the reader a faint impression of what he feels.
Beethoven is “a Titan, an Archangel, a Throne, a Domination.” When he
is writing his hated feuilletons, “the lobes of my brain seem ready to
crack asunder. I seem to have burning cinders in my veins.” The scene
of the benediction of the poniards in the _Huguenots_ is a terrible
piece, “written as it were in electric fluid by a gigantic Voltaic
pile; it seems to be accompanied by the bursting of thunderbolts and
sung by the tempests.” A reminiscence of some incident in his career
brings out this ejaculation–“Destruction, fire and thunder, blood and
tears! my brain shrivels up in my skull as I think of these horrors!”
His second love, he tells us, “appeared to me with Shakespeare, in the
age of my virility, in the burning bush of a Sinai, in the midst of the
clouds, the thunders, the lightnings of a poetry that was new to me.”

All his youthful conceptions and desires were of this extravagant
order. He writes in a letter of 1831, from Florence, “I should like to
have gone into Calabria or Sicily, and enlisted in the ranks of some
chief of _bravi_, even if I were to be no more than a mere brigand.
Then at least I should have seen magnificent crimes, robberies,
assassinations, rapes, conflagrations, instead of all these miserable
little crimes, these mean perfidies that make one sick at heart. Yes,
yes, that is the world for me: a volcano, rocks, rich spoils heaped up
in caverns, a concert of cries of horror accompanied by an orchestra
of pistols and carbines; blood and lacryma christi: a bed of lava
rocked by earthquakes; come now, that’s life!”[9] In the same year
he has the idea of a colossal oratorio on the subject of “The Last
Day of the World.” There are to be three or four soloists, choruses,
and two orchestras, one of sixty, the other of two or three hundred
executants. This is the plan of the work: “Mankind having reached the
ultimate degree of corruption, give themselves up to every kind of
infamy; a sort of Antichrist governs them despotically. A few just men,
directed by a prophet, are found amid the general depravation. The
despot tortures them, steals their virgins, insults their beliefs, and
commands their sacred books to be burnt in the midst of an orgy. The
prophet comes to reproach him for his crimes, and announces the end of
the world and the Last Judgment. The irritated despot has him thrown
into prison, and, delivering himself up again to his impious pleasures,
is surprised in the midst of a feast by the terrible trumpets of the
Resurrection; the dead come out of their graves, the doomed living
utter cries of horror, the worlds are shattered, the angels thunder in
the clouds–that is the end of this musical drama.”

These examples will be sufficient to show the peculiarity of mind to
which I have referred. The early ideas of Berlioz seem to bear the same
relation to those of ordinary men as a gas does to a solid or a liquid;
the moment they are liberated they try to diffuse themselves through as
much space as they can. In this connection it is interesting to note
that from his earliest years he had a love for books of travel and
for pondering dreamily over maps of the world; he sought the remoter
conceptions that were not limited by any narrow boundary. One gets a
curious sensation, after reading much of his prose, that the things
of the world have lost their ordinary proportions and perspectives;
the adjectives are so big and so numerous that one begins to take this
inflated diction as the normal speech of men. Occasionally a truly
superb effect of vastness, of distance, is produced, an effect we also
get sometimes in Berlioz’s music. It has always seemed to me, for
example, that the opening of his song “Reviens, reviens,” gave the most
perfect suggestion of some one being recalled from a great distance;
the whole atmosphere seems to be attenuated, rarefied almost away; the
melancholy is the melancholy of a regret that sweeps the ocean to the
horizon and fails to find what the eyes hunger for.

It is time, however, to remind ourselves that the picture painted
so far does not represent the complete Berlioz. It is all the more
necessary to give ourselves this reminder because the only Berlioz
known to most people is this being of wild excitement and frenzied
exaggeration, with a dash in him here and there of pose. There is
a “legend” of each great composer–a kind of half-true, half-false
conception of him that gradually settles into people’s minds and
prevents them, as a rule, from thinking out the man’s character and
achievement for themselves. There is the Mozart legend, the Beethoven
legend, the Liszt legend, the authenticity of which not one amateur in
a thousand thinks of questioning. There is the Berlioz legend, too, the
causes of the growth of which, in this country especially, are not far
to seek. We really know very little of him over here. The _Carnaval
romain_ overture and the _Faust_ are heard occasionally; but the
average English amateur, when he thinks of Berlioz, has chiefly in mind
the _Symphonie fantastique_ and the _Harold en Italie_–particularly
the final movements with their orgies of brigands, witches, and what
not. Industrious compilers of biographies and of programme notes do
their best to keep this side of Berlioz uppermost in the public mind,
by always harping upon the eccentricities of his youth. One needs
to remember that Berlioz died in 1869, and that from, say, 1835 to
1869 he was a very different man, both in his music and in his prose,
from what he was between 1821 and 1835. His letters to the Princess
Sayn-Wittgenstein hardly suggest for a moment the Berlioz of the
earlier letters to Humbert Ferrand and others. And as for his music,
the British public that winks and leers knowingly at the mention of
his name, thinking all the time of the _Symphonie fantastique_ and the
_Harold en Italie_, would do well to reflect that it knows nothing, or
next to nothing, of the _Waverley_, _Francs Juges_, _Le Roi Lear_ and
other overtures, of _Lélio_, of the _Tristia_, of _Le Cinq Mai_, of
the _Messe des Morts_, of the operas–_Benvenuto Cellini_, _Béatrice
et Benedict_, _La Prise de Troie_, and _Les Troyens à Carthage_–of
the _Symphonie funèbre et triomphale_, of the _Roméo et Juliette_, of
_L’Enfance du Christ_, of the _Te Deum_, and of other works, to say
nothing of the score or so of songs. In the whole history of music,
there is probably no musician about whose merit the average man is so
sublimely confident on the basis of so sublime an ignorance of his work.