December 11, 2019

Celebrating the Musical Extremes of Berlioz on His Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Making room for Monday’s New York Times in the chaos of my work space are Berlioz the Bear, a slender storybook for children written and illustrated by Jan Brett, alongside a copy of The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, who was born on December 11, in 1803 and died on March 8, 1869, making this his sesquicentenary year.

Late the night before, I’d left the Memoirs open to a paragraph in which the famously tempestuous French composer is expounding on a caricature of himself as “a colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle.” Thus the presence of the Times on my desk, folded open to a photograph of Sesame Street’s Big Bird reading a storybook resembling Berlioz the Bear to a couple of kids. While it’s unfortunate that the cheery image accompanies an obituary for the “whole-body puppeteer” Caroll Spinney, it’s not often lately that page one of the Times has roused something sunnier than a grimace or a groan.

Besides the fun of imagining Berlioz embodied in a double-bass-playing bear who would be at home on Sesame Street, the coincidence encourages a closer look at the passage where even as he seems to be taking issue with Heinrich Heine’s hyperbolic portrayal of his music, Berlioz obviously enjoys repeating the poet’s vision of its “fabulous empires of preternatural depravity, and many a cloud-capped impossible wonder,” and the way “its magical strains conjure up Babylon, the hanging gardens of Semiramis,” and “the marvels of Nineveh.”

But what actually bothers Berlioz is Heine’s claim that his music has “little melody” and “no real simplicity whatever.” After receiving a profoundy apologetic letter from the poet praising his oratorio L’Enfance du Christ as “a masterpiece of simplicity” with “the most exquisite blooms of melody,” Berlioz scolds Heine for behaving “like a critic” and making “a categorical statement about an artist when you only know part of his work.”

Westminster Sings Berlioz

Several weeks ago when I was recalling the year we lived near the Westminster Choir College campus, I made a point of listening to the Choir’s Christmas at Carnegie Hall performance of “The Shepherd’s Farewell to the Holy Family” from The Childhood of Christ, as L’Enfance du Christ is referred to throughout David Cairn’s translation of the Memoirs. Besides the obvious association with the Christmas story, the English version of the title reinforces the season’s central emotional relationship to childhood. Berlioz prefaces his response to the “Colossal Nightingale” stereotype by pointing out that the “passionate expression” associated with his music is in effect even when the subject is “the opposite of passion, and gentle, tender feelings are being expressed, or a profound calm — the sort of expression that people have claimed to find in The Childhood of Christ.”

If you grew up singing “Silent Night” and “Little Town of Bethlehem,” you may have experienced what the composer means by “gentle, tender feelings” and “profound calm.” It’s possible that children are first made aware of, if not moved by, the fusion of poetry and music in phrases like “All is calm, all is bright,” “tender and mild,” and “How still we see thee lie,” “thy deep and dreamless sleep,” the “silent stars,” and “in thy dark streets shineth.” Simply writing those words makes me think I’m surely not the only reader that the latter carol helped make susceptible to lines like “And little town, thy streets for evermore/Will silent be” in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

The same emotional mixture graces “The Shepherd’s Farewell.” Looking at the faces of the Westminster singers in the YouTube clip, you have to wonder how, even after hours of tireless rehearsal, they could manage to sing such music without choking up.

A Hoax

It’s typical that Berlioz, the creator of “fabulous empires of preternatural depravity,” presented that peerless choral music on 12 November 1850, not as a carol but “as a hoax” he passed off, according to his biographer/translator Cairns, “as the work of an imaginary 17th-century composer” he dubbed “Ducré.” No surprise, he was delighted to discover that “many people who hated his music were taken in and praised it, one lady even going so far as to say, ‘Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece by old Ducré.’ 

Passionate Extremes

Reading the Memoirs, you never doubt the depth of “passionate expression” in the man, the writer, and the composer, nor do you doubt why his personality and the extremes in his music alienated critics of the day in both France and England. No less can you doubt his fondness for the role of the embattled warrior, as in the preface written in London, March 21, 1848. After referring to “the juggernaut of Republicanism” rolling across Europe, he proclaims: “Let us therefore make use of the time that is left, even though I may soon have to emulate the stoicism of those Indians of the Niagara who, after striving valiantly againt the stream, recognize that their efforts are useless and, abandoning themselves finally to the current, contemplate with steadfast eye the short distance between them and the abyss, and sing, till the very moment that the cataract seizes them and whirls them to infinity.”

And this is before you even get to the opening paragraph of the Memoirs describing the author’s coming into the world “unheralded by any of the portents in use in poetic times to announce the arrival of those destined for glory. Can it be that our age is lacking in poetry?”

Remembered Feeling

In his introduction to the Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra recording of “The Childhood of Christ,” David Cairns explains why the music “never takes the short step into sentimentality, and in the most perilous places, like the scene in the stable, never seems in any danger of doing so.” The naiveté of the piece is “a natural naiveté” found in the character and make-up of Berioz’s musical style and perhaps too in his own personality.” More important, “beyond the possession of a musical style which could adapt itself to such simple sublimities, there must be something else — the memory of childhood beliefs” that “had once been central to his life. As a boy, his first musical experiences had come to him in the context of the church. By the time he wrote ‘The Childhood of Christ,’ he had long ceased to be a Christian in any conventional or even unconventional sense. But the past increasingly dominated him,” and “the intensity of remembered feeling was such that, in composing the work, he could momentarily re-enter a world in which the personages and events of the Christmas story … were once again vibrantly alive.”

Bird and Bear

In the context of childhood and Berlioz, probably the most resonant line in the Times’ lengthy obit devoted to Big Bird is Caroll Spinney’s observation, “I think most people completely forget what it was like being a kid by the time they grow up.” Something of the same idea is in Picasso’s much-quoted, “It takes a very long time to become young.” You can get to that place in no time when you sing “Silent Night” or listen to “The Shepherd’s Farewell.” Nor does it take a suspension of disbelief for any grown-up kid to find pleasure in Berlioz the Bear, which is beautiful to look at and simple to follow without ever being patronizing or taking “the short step into sentimentality.” The bear playing double bass has a stature and dignity and determination his human namesake would approve of. Leading his small band through adversity as the mule-borne cart carrying the musicians becomes mired in a hole, and with the hour of performance in a nearby town looming, Berlioz never loses his cool, or plays the “embattled hero” for that matter. Jan Brett’s story is a model of simplicity, nicely balanced with her skillfully elaborate and evocative artwork. If you wonder about the provenance of her tale and its title character, look no farther than the dedication “To Joe.” A little searching online and you discover that  the author’s husband, Joseph Hearne, is a bassist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and that chances are he has a fondness for the music of Berlioz.

Berlioz 150 

According to the website Berlioz 150, the UK is marking the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death with a number of initiatives intended to “raise awareness of and enthusiasm for classical music, especially among children – including those who lack access to music education. The culmination of the programme will be Fantastique! the largest-ever children’s choral event in the UK, with a target of 10,000 singing children, aimed at recreating something of the impact of the Charity Children’s Concert which Berlioz attended in St Paul’s Cathedral in June 1851 and is said to have described as “the most extraordinary thing I have seen and heard in the whole of my existence.”