Read BERLIOZ of Views and Reviews Essays in appreciation , free online book, by William Ernest Henley, on ReadCentral.com.

The Critic.

One of the very few great musicians who have been able to write their own language with vigour and perspicuity, Berlioz was for many years among the kings of the feuilleton, among the most accomplished journalists of the best epoch of the Parisian press. He had an abundance of wit and humour; his energy and spirit were inexhaustible; within certain limits he was a master of expression and style; in criticism as in music he was an artist to his finger-ends; and if he found writing hard work what he wrote is still uncommonly easy reading. He is one of the few the very few journalists the worth of whose achievement has been justified by collection and republication. Louis Veuillot has been weighed in this balance, and found wanting; and so has Janin prince of critics. With Berlioz it is otherwise. If you are no musician he appeals to you as a student of life; if you are interested in life and music both he is irresistible. The Mémoires is one of the two or three essays in artistic biography which may claim equal honours with Benvenuto’s story of himself and his own doings; the two volumes of correspondence rank with the most interesting epistolary matter of these times; in the Grotesques, the A Travers Chants, the Soirees de l’Orchestre there is enough of fun and earnest, of fine criticism and diabolical humour, of wit and fancy and invention, to furnish forth a dozen ordinary critics, and leave a rich remainder when all’s done. These books have been popular for years; they are popular still; and the reason is not far to seek. Berlioz was not only a great musician and a brilliant writer; he was also a very interesting and original human being. His writings are one expression of an abnormal yet very natural individuality; and when he speaks you are sure of something worth hearing and remembering.

A Prototype.

Apart from Cellini’s ruffianism there are several points of contact between the two men. Berlioz made the roaring goldsmith the hero of an opera, and it is not doubtful that he was in complete sympathy with his subject. In the Frenchman there is a full measure of the waywardness of temper, the impatience of authority, the resolute and daring humour, the passion of worship for what is great in art and of contempt for what is little and bad, which entered so largely into the composition of the Florentine. There is not much to choose between the Berlioz of the Débats, the author of the Grotesques de la Musique and the A Travers Chants, and the Benvenuto who, as Il Lasca writes of him,

’Senza alcun ritegno o barbazzale
Delle cose malfatte dicea male.’

Benvenuto enlarges upon the joys of drawing from the life and expatiates upon the greatness of Michelangelo in much the same spirit and with much the same fury of admiration with which Berlioz descants upon the rapture of conducting an orchestra and dilates upon the beauty of Divinités du Styx or the adagio of the so-called Moonlight Sonata. It is written of Benvenuto, in connection with Vasari’s attack upon that cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore which himself was wont to call ’the marvel of beautiful things,’ that if he had lived to see the result,

’Certo non capirebbe nelle pelle; E saltando, e correndo, e fulminando, S’ andrebbe querelando, E per tutto gridando ad alta voce Giorgin d’Arezzo meterebbe in croce, Oggi universalmente Odiato della gente Quasi publico ladro e assassino’;

and you are reminded irresistibly of Berlioz betrampling Lachnith and the ingenious Castil-Blaze and defending Beethoven against the destructive pedantry of Fetis. And, just as the Vita is invaluable as a personal record of artist-life in the Italy of the Renaissance, so are the Mémoires invaluable as a personal record of the works and ways of musicians in the Paris of the Romantic revival. Berlioz is revealed in them for one of the race of the giants. He is the musician of 1830, as Delacroix is the painter; and his work is as typical and as significant as the Sardanapale and the Faust lithographs.

His Theory of Autobiography.

To read the Mémoires is to feel that in writing them the great musician deliberately set himself to win the heart of posterity. He believed in himself, and he believed in his music: he divined that one day or another he would be legendary as well as immortal; and he took an infinite deal of pains to make certain that the ideal which was presently to represent him in men’s minds should be an ideal of which he could thoroughly approve. It is fair to note that in this care for the good will and the good word of the future he was not by any means alone. The romantiques, indeed, were keen from Napoleon downwards to make the very best of themselves. The poet of the Légende des Siecles, for example, went early to work to arrange the story of his life and character at least as carefully as he composed the audiences of his premieres; and he did it with so light a hand, and with such a sense of the importance of secrecy, that it is even now by no means so well and widely known as it should be that Victor Hugo raconte par un Témoin de sa Vie is the work of the hero’s wife, and was not only inspired but may also have been revised and prepared for publication by the hero himself. Again, the dramatist of Antony and the novelist of Bragelonne was never so happy as when he was engaged upon the creation of what he hoped would be the historical Dumas; he made volume after volume of delightful reading out of his own impressions and adventures; he turned himself into copy with a frankness, a grace, a gusto, a persistency of egoism, which are merely enchanting. Berlioz, therefore, had good warrant for his work. It is more to the point, perhaps, that he would have taken it if he had not had it. And I hold that he would have done well; for (in any case) a great man’s notion of himself is, ipso facto, better and more agreeable and convincing, especially as he presents it, than the idea of his inferiors and admirers, especially as presented by them. Berlioz, it is true, was prodigal in these Mémoires of his of wit and fun and devilry, of fine humanity and noble art, of good things said and great things dreamed and done and suffered; but he was prodigal of invention and suppression as well, and the result, while considerably less veracious, is all the more fascinating, therefor. One feels that for one thing he was too complete an artist to be merely literal and exact; that for another he saw and felt things for himself, as Milton did before him Milton in the mind’s eye of Milton the noblest of created things and to Mr. Saintsbury almost as unpleasing a spectacle as the gifted but abject Racine; and for a third that from his own point of view he was right, and there is an end of it.