Shakespeare is the greatest figure

Let us first of all look at him biographically and historically, as
he was in himself and in his relations to his contemporaries. His is
perhaps the strangest story in all the records of music. In contrast
to musicians like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, and a score of
others, who grew up from childhood in an atmosphere saturated with
music, Berlioz is born in a country town that is practically destitute
of musical life. Even the piano is not cultivated there, the harp and
guitar being almost the sole instruments known; in 1808–five years
after the birth of Berlioz–there is still only one piano in the
Department. There is no teacher of music in the place; Berlioz’s father
ultimately combines with other residents to bring over for this purpose
a second violinist from the theatre at Lyons. Although the music in the
boy cannot quite be kept down, for nearly the first twenty years of his
life he is, to all intents and purposes, ignorant of the elements of
technique, and never hears a bar of first-rate music. “When I arrived
in Paris in 1820,”[2] he says, “I had never yet set foot in a theatre;
all I knew of instrumental music was the quartets of Pleyel with which
the four amateurs composing the Philharmonic Society of my native town
used to regale me each Sunday after mass; and I had no other idea of
dramatic music than what I had been able to get in running through a
collection of old operatic airs arranged with an accompaniment for
the guitar.” Yet, untutored as he was, and practically ignorant of
even the elements of harmony, he had from his boyhood been writing
music. The opening melody of the _Symphonie fantastique_ was really
written by Berlioz in his twelfth year, to some verses from Florian’s
_Estelle_;[3] and we know of other boyish compositions, fragments
of which have been conserved in some of his later works. It may not
be absolutely true, as M. Edmond Hippeau says, that until the age
of twenty-three he was “ignorant of the most elementary principles
of music”; but at all events he was just beginning to learn these
principles at an age when nine other composers out of ten have left far
behind them all the drudgery of the apprentice. In Paris he does indeed
study after a fashion; but it is characteristic of him that he gets
most of his musical experience from the performances at the Opera, and
from a diligent reading of the scores of Gluck in the library of the

Even in Paris, at that time, there was little to call out the best
there was in such a man as Berlioz–little that could teach him the
proper use of his own strange faculties, or by whose standard he could
test the worth of his own inspiration. He did indeed hear a little
Gluck occasionally, and a travesty of Weber; but it was not until 1828
that Beethoven made any impression on Paris. Orchestras were generally
incompetent and audiences ignorant. The calibre of the average French
orchestra of the time may be gauged from the fact that even the more
reputable bands found Mozart’s symphonies by no means easy. One
shudders to think what the ordinary orchestras must have been like,
and what was the quality of music to which they had grown accustomed.
As for the audiences, where they were not extremely uneducated they
were extremely prejudiced, clinging blindly to the remains of the
pseudo-classical principles that had been bequeathed to them by their
fathers. An audience that could be worked into a perfect frenzy of rage
because an actor, outraging all the proprieties of the time, actually
referred in _Othello_ to something so vulgar as a handkerchief, would
hardly look with favour on anything revolutionary either in idea or
technique. At the opera the Italians were most in vogue. The French
public knew little of instrumental music pure and simple, and were
almost entirely ignorant of the huge developments of German music.
Cherubini, of course, was a stately and impressive figure, a serious
thinker of the same breed as the great Germans; but apart from him,
there were no Parisian composers who could by any stretch of the
imagination be called modern, or could do anything to teach a man
like Berlioz. Lesueur, the favourite master of Berlioz, seems to have
been progressive–indeed, revolutionary–in some of his theories of
music and poetry; but his theory was better than his practice. From
such a type as the amiable and ineffectual Boïeldieu nothing new could
possibly come. He frankly avowed his inability to understand Beethoven,
and declared to Berlioz his preference for “la musique qui me berce.”
Yet this young musician from the country, with years of lost time to
regret, with little musical education, with the very slightest of
stimuli from the great music of the past, and with little encouragement
in his own surroundings, produces in quick succession a number of works
of the most startling originality–original in every way, in the turn
of their melodies, in their harmonic _facture_, in their orchestration,
in their rhythm, in their view of men and things. Now that the complete
Berlioz is being printed, we know a good deal more of him than was
possible even a few years ago. We do not now commence our study of him
with the _Symphonie fantastique_; we can watch the workings of his
brain in the two early cantatas–_Herminie_ and _Cléopâtre_–that in
the eyes of two sapient juries of the time were insufficient to win
him the _Prix de_ _Rome_. Here we see a freshness of outlook and of
style–particularly in the matter of rhythm–that is one of the most
remarkable phenomena in the history of music. In his earliest years, as
in his latest, Berlioz was himself, a solitary figure owing practically
nothing to other people’s music, an artist, we may almost say, without
ancestry and without posterity. Mozart builds upon Haydn and influences
Beethoven; Beethoven imitates Mozart and in turn influences the
practice of all later symphonists; Wagner learns from Weber and gives
birth to a host of imitators. But with Berlioz–and it is a point to
be insisted on–there is no one whose speech he tried to copy in his
early years, and there is no one since who speaks with _his_ voice. How
many things in the early Beethoven were made in the factory of Mozart;
how many times does the early Wagner speak with the voice of Weber!
But who can turn over the scores of Berlioz’s early works and find a
single phrase that can be fathered upon any previous or contemporary
writer? There was never any one, before his time or since, who thought
and wrote just like him; his musical style especially is absolutely
his own. Now and then in _L’Enfance du Christ_ he suggests Gluck–not
in the turn of his phrases but in the general atmosphere of an aria;
but apart from this it is the rarest thing for him to remind us of any
other composer. His melody, his harmony, his rhythm, are absolutely his

We are face to face, then, with a personality which, whether we like
it or not, is of extraordinary strength and originality. If we are to
realise what kind of force he was, and how he came to do the work he
did, we must study him both from the standpoint of history and from
that of physiological and psychological science. Musical criticism is
apt to become too much a mere matter of wine-tasting, a bare statement
of a preference of this vintage or a decided dislike for that. We need
to study musicians as a whole, as complete organisms hanging together
by virtue of certain peculiarities of structure. If a man does not
like Liszt’s music he compares it disparagingly with Wagner’s–as if
this placing of people on the higher or lower rungs of a ladder were
the be-all and the end-all of criticism. Shakespeare is the greatest
figure of the Elizabethan literary world; but what critic thinks of
disposing of Ford and Massinger and Jonson and Webster and Marlowe
and Tourneur with the off-hand remark that not one of them was a
Shakespeare? In the same way it is not sufficient to write down Berlioz
as a purveyor of extravagant ideas clothed sometimes in ugly and
unpleasing forms; it is much more profitable to set ourselves to find
out why he came to have such a bias in art, and what were his relations
to the general intellectual movements of his time. It is only when we
study him from the historical standpoint that we can understand many
of his ideals; and to understand them is more important than to rail
at them. The criticism that rejects the less beautiful specimens of
an art because they are not perfect is like the natural history that
would take account only of the typical organisms, passing over the many
instructive variations from the type. In the long run human folly and
human failure are just as interesting to the student of humanity as its
wisdom and its triumphs; and the critic should always aim at being an
impartial student of humanity, not a mere wine-taster or a magistrate.

As we have seen, whatever other qualities we may deny to Berlioz,
we cannot at any rate refuse his claim to originality. Readers of
Théophile Gautier’s _Histoire du Romantisme_, in which the cool,
objective poet and critic reviews all the leading figures of the
Romantic movement–Victor Hugo, Gérard de Nerval, Alfred de Vigny,
Delacroix, and a score or so of lesser lights–will remember that
Berlioz is the only musician admitted to that brilliant company.
It was not due to any personal preference on Gautier’s part, or to
his ignorance of the other Romantic musicians; there simply were no
others. So far as music was concerned, the whole Romantic movement
began and ended with Berlioz. When we are tempted to feel annoyed at
some of his extravagances or banalities we should remember that he had
to conquer a new world unaided. He was not only without colleagues
but without progenitors. When he arrived in Paris in 1821, at the
age of eighteen, what was the position of music in France? Gluck’s
epoch-making work had terminated in 1779 with _Iphigenia in Tauris_;
the dramatic school of which he was the leader made something like its
last effort in Sacchini’s _Œdipe à Colone_ in 1789. The often charming
but flimsy work of Dauvergne, Duni, Monsigny, Dalayrac and Grétry was
without any importance for the opera of the future. Two musicians
alone commanded serious respect–the great Cherubini, who, however,
was neither typically French nor very revolutionary, and Méhul, whose
_Joseph_ appeared in 1807. Lesueur and Berton do not count; while
Hérold, strong man as he was in some ways, was not strikingly original
either in form or in expression. The French music produced during the
years of Berlioz’s early manhood was of the type of Boïeldieu’s _La
Dame Blanche_ (1828), Auber’s _Masaniello_ (1828) and _Fra Diavolo_
(1830), or Adam’s _Postillon de Longjumeau_ (1836). Neither Spontini
in the first decade of the century, nor Rossini in later years, were a
necessary link in the chain of development of French music. In fact,
of almost all the music heard in Paris between 1790 and 1830 we may
say that whenever it was great it was not French, and whenever it was
French it was not great. Above all it was scarcely ever _contemporary_
music; it rarely showed any trace of having assimilated the life and
art of its own day. Especially was it unaffected by the hot young
Romantic blood that in the second and third decades of the century was
transforming both French poetry and French painting. Think of the
artists and poets, and then think of the musicians, and you seem to
enter another and inferior world of thought.

It was Berlioz, and Berlioz alone, who brought French music into line
with the activities of intelligent men in other departments. He put
into it a ferocity and turbulence of imagination and an audacity of
style to which it had hitherto been a stranger. Often when I listen
to him now I feel that we do not even yet quite appreciate his
originality. Even after the lapse of so many years the music sometimes
strikes us, in spite of all the enormous development of the art between
his day and ours, as startlingly new and unconventional. What then must
it have sounded like in the ears of those who heard it for the first
time? Imagine the bourgeois audience of those days suddenly assailed by
the March to the Scaffold, or the Witches’ Sabbath, in the _Symphonie
fantastique_! There was here as violent a rupture with the staid
formulas of the classic and the pseudo-classic as anything achieved by
Victor Hugo or Delacroix or Gros or Géricault.

The springs that moved Berlioz, in fact, were just the springs that
moved his great contemporaries. The essence of their revolt was an
insistence upon the truth that beauty is co-extensive almost with
life itself. The nerves of the younger men were sharper than their
fathers’; their ears were more acute, their eyes more observant. They
saw and felt more of life, and tried to express in art what they had
seen and felt; which could not be done without not only breaking the
mould of the pseudo-classic technique, but also finding voice for a lot
of sensations and ideas to which the men of the previous generation
had been impervious. Recent French critics have noticed, as one
evidence of the more sensitive nerves of the early Romanticists, the
fineness and variety of their perceptions of colour. To the literary
man of the eighteenth century an object is merely blue or red; the
new writers perceive a dozen shades of blue and red, and ransack the
whole vocabulary to find the right discriminating word.[4] There was
a general effort to escape from the conventions that had fast-bound
poetry, painting, the drama, and the opera. The dress of the actors
and singers now aimed at some correspondence with that of the epoch of
the play, instead of making the vain attempt to produce an historical
illusion with the costume of their own time. The subjects of dramas,
novels, poems, and operas, instead of being exclusively classic, were
now sought in contemporary manners or in earlier European history; and
with the change of matter there necessarily came a change of style. At
the same time there sprang up an intellectual intimacy, previously
unknown, between all classes of artists. The poet and the musician hung
about the studio of the painter; the painter and the poet sang the
songs of the musician, or attended the performances of his opera, to
criticise it from the point of view of men who themselves were used to
thinking in art. The imagination of each was stimulated and enriched
by the ideas and sensations of the others. The new achievements of
line or colour or language or sound prompted the devotee of each art
to fresh experiments in his own medium. This in turn led to another
new phenomenon, of particular importance in the history of music.
There came to the front an original type–the literary musician, who
made a practice, and sometimes a profession, of writing about his
art, of educating the public at the same time as he clarified his own
ideas and tested his own powers. This type was accompanied by yet
another new product–the literary man or poet who wrote on music, not
as a professor or a pedant, and not after the manner of the Rousseaus
and Suards of the eighteenth century, but with dynamic force and
directness, correlating music with life and thought, estimating it by
its actual meaning to living men. There was nothing in the eighteenth
century to correspond to the prose writings of musicians like Berlioz
and Schumann, nothing to compare with the treatment of musical subjects
by literary men such as Hoffmann and Baudelaire.[5] And yet, while
there was in this way a greater actual expenditure of brain-power
upon music and art generally, the men themselves were not such solid
types as the men of the eighteenth century. Neither Hugo, nor Gautier,
nor Delacroix, nor Berlioz had the intellectual weight and fixity of
Diderot, or Condorcet, or David, or Gluck. The reason of the eighteenth
century was transformed into sentiment, its activity into reflection,
its repose into enthusiasm, its sobriety into passion.

Against this spirit the now anæmic idealism of pseudo-classical art
could not stand for long. If artists had taught the public to believe
that whatever tasted of real life was vulgar or barbaric, the public
must now be disabused of that notion. All life was claimed as the
province of the artist; he claimed also the right to draw it as he had
seen it. “There are no good subjects or bad subjects,” said Victor
Hugo; “there are only good poets and bad poets.” Expression–vital
expression, biting to the very heart of the theme–was now the
ideal; beauty, in the limited sense that had been given to it by the
false classics, was only a formula more or less platitudinous. “The
realisation of beauty by the expression of character” was the avowed
purpose of the Romanticists. M. Brunetière aptly contrasts with this
the classic theorem of Winckelmann, that the ideal beauty was “like
pure water, having no particular savour.” “We must say it and repeat
it,” cries Hugo in the preface of 1824 to the _Odes et Ballades_; “it
is not the need for novelty that torments our minds; it is the need
for truth–and that need is immense.” Delacroix summed up the general
falsity of the conventional attitude towards art when he wrote: “In
order to make an ideal head of a negro, our teachers make him resemble
as far as possible the profile of Antinous, and then say, ‘We have done
our utmost; if he is, nevertheless, not beautiful, we must abstain
altogether from this freak of nature, this squat nose and thick lips,
which are so unendurable to the eyes.'” A journalist of 1826 (cited
by M. Gustave Lanson in his admirable _Histoire de la Littérature
française_) cried, “Vive la nature _brute et sauvage_ qui revit si
bien dans les vers de M. de Vigny, Jules Lefèvre, Victor Hugo!” It was
not that they worshipped ugliness and violence in themselves, but that
they felt there are certain occasions when truth can be reached only
through the repellent and the extravagant, which, however, may be bent
by a wise eclecticism to the purposes of the ideal. There is scarcely
anything in the imagination of Berlioz that is not paralleled in the
imaginations of the contemporary poets and painters; there is no leap
of theirs towards freer verse or more expressive colour that was not
also taken by the musician. Only while they had at least some roots in
the past, not only in their own country but in England and Germany, and
while they were many and could support and purify each other by mutual
criticism, Berlioz stood by himself, without any musician, dead or
living, being of any practical value to him in the course he took.

Few literary and artistic movements have their social and physical
roots laid as clearly open to us as the Romantic. The most astonishing
thing in connection with this chain of causes and results is that there
should be only the solitary figure of Berlioz to represent the musical
side of it. One would have thought that the vast liberation of nervous
energy effected by the Revolution and the Napoleonic period would have
been too great to be confined to literature and the plastic arts–that
a really French school of music would have arisen, interwoven with the
past and the present of French history and social life, and as typical
of contemporary French culture in its own way as the poetry, drama,
and painting of the time were in theirs. That this did not happen was
in all probability due to the confirmed hold which the theatre had
upon music-lovers in France. To nine men out of ten there music was
synonymous with opera; and opera meant a spectacle in which only the
greatest pleasure of the greatest number had to be consulted. It was
an art-form in which compromise was carried to its highest points; the
audience was cosmopolitan and not too critical, and the composers,
whether native or foreign, had to think only in the second place of
art, and in the first place of speaking a musical language that would
be intelligible and acceptable to all. No independent, contemporary
expression of culture could be expected in opera, for no one, composer
or spectator, took it quite seriously enough for that.

On the other hand, there was no purely instrumental form existing that
could serve as a vehicle for such revolutionary modes of feeling as
found expression in the literature and painting of the day. Finally,
there was no public with sufficient musical training to demand a
new revelation in music, or to comprehend it if it came. The French
orchestras of the time, as we have seen, were almost uniformly
inefficient, incapable of playing great music with any intelligence. It
was impossible, then, for the public to be as alive, as up-to-date, in
music as it was in other things; and music, more than any other art, is
dependent upon collective as distinguished from individual patronage.
Perhaps, also, the language of French music was as yet not sufficiently
developed to fit it to answer the needs of the young generation of
Romanticists. It was not real enough, not close enough to actual life
to spur the energies of men either into approval or disgust. There
was no mistaking the angry flare of the new spirit in other fields.
The realism of Gros or of Delacroix was patent to every eye; the mere
change in the choice of subjects was a challenge and a provocation. So
again in poetry, one could not fail to be agitated by the incessant
whipping of the language to new feats of technique, the perpetual
evocation of new forms of expression, new vibrations of verbal colour.
All this was on very much the same plane as the everyday life of men.
It was something they could feel a fighting interest in. But no one
took music so seriously. It was long before it lost the grand manner,
the trick of wig and sword, of the eighteenth century; and when it did
there was nothing of equal grandeur to take its place. Where it was
great, and had the large stride and the flowing cloak, it breathed of
the psychology of the past; where it took part in the lives of the
men of its own day it attacked them only on their more sensuous, more
frankly epicurean side. It was a mistress, not a wife.

In Berlioz alone, then, the Romantic movement expended its musical
energies. He alone among French musicians of the time shows the same
characteristics of body and mind as went to the making of the art
or literature of his contemporaries. With him, as with them, the
physiological structure counts for very much. No doubt a good deal of
the motive-power came from the great awakening of the Napoleonic era.
The nation that had been wrestling for a generation with every country
in Europe necessarily touched life on more sides than it had ever
done before. The old formalities no longer sufficed; indeed, the mere
antiquity of any thought or any practice was no recommendation of it
in the eyes of this people, to whom the strange kaleidoscopic present
was a spectacle of ever-changing interest. It was this aspect of the
situation to which Stendhal gave expression when he compared his own
century with the eighteenth, the classic nutriment with the romantic.
“The classic pieces are like religions–the time for creating them has
gone by. They are like a clock that points to midday when it is four
in the afternoon. This kind of poetry was all right for the people
who, at Fontenoy, raised their hats and said to the English column,
‘Gentlemen, be good enough to fire first.’ And it is expected that this
poetry should satisfy a Frenchman who took part in the retreat from
Moscow!” When the Napoleonic empire had fallen, a new motive-power of
great literary value was discovered in the intense melancholy which,
according to Musset, seized upon the younger spirits at the sudden
limitation of the nation’s activities. “A feeling of inexpressible
_malaise_ commenced to ferment in every young heart. Condemned to
inaction by the sovereigns of the world, given up to indolence, to
_ennui_, the young men … experienced, at the foundation of their
souls, a misery that was insupportable.”

The physiological causes, however, of this nervous irritability, this
dissatisfaction with existing things, which is as strongly marked in
Berlioz as in Musset or Delacroix, were probably more important than
the moral ones. The majority of the artists and literary men of this
epoch had a poor, neurotic physique. In almost all of them there was a
tendency to nervous derangement, or some weakness of the heart or lungs
that would predispose them to melancholy. Maxime du Camp bore strong
testimony to the physical lassitude that characterised this epoch. “The
artistic and literary generation that preceded me,” he wrote, “that
to which I belonged, had a youth of artistic sadness, inherent in the
constitution of men or in the epoch.” Again, speaking of the proclivity
to suicide among the young men of the time, he says, “It was not
merely a fashion, as one might believe; it was a kind of general
debility that made the heart sad and the mind gloomy, and caused death
to be looked upon as a deliverance.”

This _défaillance générale_, this _tristesse sans cause comme sans
objet_, _tristesse abstraite_, must have had its roots in something
deeper than the mere psychological outlook of the youth of the period.
It seems probable that there was a general physical exhaustion, a
widespread undermining of physique. The children born about the
beginning of the century must have had for their parents, in many
cases, people who had lived in an atmosphere of intense social and
political excitement, and had probably undergone a considerable amount
of actual physical hardship. The Napoleonic wars can hardly have
failed to leave their mark upon the physiological constitution of the
French race. If it be true that the fine nervous quality of the Irish
comes in part from the centuries of troubled life through which the
race has passed, there must certainly have been some impression left
upon the physique of France by the lurid, swiftly changing episodes
of the Revolution and the Empire. The mere loss of young blood must
have counted for a good deal. De Musset, indeed, in his _Confession
d’un enfant du siècle_, bears testimony to the melancholy of the young
generation–“une génération ardente, pâle, nerveuse,” “conceived
between two battles,” and born of “les mères inquiètes.”[6] Maxime Du
Camp too suggests this explanation of the morbidity of the time, and
adds to it another. “Often I have asked myself whether this depression
may not have been the outcome of physiological causes. The nation was
exhausted by the wars of the empire, and the children had inherited
their fathers’ weakness. Besides, the system of medicine and hygiene
then prevalent was disastrous. Broussais was the leader of thought,
and doctors went everywhere lancet in hand. At school they bled us for
a headache. When I had typhoid fever I was bled three times in one
week, sixty leeches were applied, and I could only have recovered by a
miracle. The doctrines preached by Molière’s Diafoiruses had lasted on
to our day, and resulted in the anæmic constitution so frequently met
with. Poverty of blood combined with the nervous temperament makes a
man melancholy and depressed.”

One consequence of this flawed physique was that the young men of the
time not only had extravagant conceptions, but that they took these
and themselves with enormous seriousness. The majority of them posed
unconscionably at times. They could not be unhappy without playing
upon their own sensations for the benefit of an audience; there was
something of the actor in almost all of them. Each was a Werther in
his own eyes, a person towards whom the cosmos had behaved with a
special and quite unpardonable malevolence. Listen, for example, to
the declamation of Chateaubriand: “I have never been happy, I have
never attained happiness though I have pursued it with a perseverance
corresponding with the natural ardour of my soul; no one knows what
the happiness was that I sought, no one has fully known the depths of
my heart; the majority of my sentiments have remained immured there,
or have only appeared in my works as applied to imaginary beings.
To-day, when I still regret my chimæras without however pursuing
them, when, having reached the summit of life, I descend towards the
tomb, I wish, before dying, to revert to those precious years, _to
explain my inexplicable heart_, to see, in short, what I can say when
my pen abandons itself unconstrainedly to all my recollections.”[7]
One detects a little note of insincerity in it all. The gentleman
doth protest too much; he is wearing his heart too visibly on his
coat-sleeve, trafficking in melancholy as a man traffics in cotton
or steel, simply because there is a market for that kind of thing.
We need to read Berlioz’s letters with this suspicion always before
us if we are to take them at their real value. A fair summary of the
half-sincere, half-posing mood that was prevalent among the young
men of genius of the time is to be had in Géricault’s portrait of
himself, in the Louvre, with the forced melodrama of the skull on the
shelf intruding itself upon the real earnestness of the picture as a
whole. We get plenty of this somewhat far-fetched and too conscious
_diablerie_ in some of the early work of Berlioz; and there is no need
to be more contemptuous of it there than when we meet with it in the
poets or the painters who were his contemporaries. To say nothing of
the grandiloquent Hugo and his youthful followers, even so strong and
philosophical a type as Flaubert was decoyed now and then into the same
kind of pose of exaggeration. His early letters have their full share
of sentimentality, of talk about man being as a frail skiff in the
tempest, and all the other formulas of the school,[8] although Flaubert
expressly dissociated himself from the more lymphatic specimens of
Romanticism. “Do you know,” he wrote, “that the new generation of the
schools is extremely stupid; formerly it had more sense; it occupied
itself with women, sword-thrusts, orgies; now it apes Byron…. It is
who shall have the palest face and say in the best manner ‘I am _blasé,
blasé_!’ What a pity! _blasé_ at eighteen!”