D. Kern Holoman
Beethoven was the most substantial presence in Berlioz's artistic world. Beethoven fever was radiating outward from the Paris Conservatoire just as Berlioz first made his way there in late 1822 or early 1823. It was transmitted in large measure by Luigi Cherubini, who had met Beethoven in Vienna (and described him as "an unlicked bear"), and by any number of other enthusiasts who had come to be familiar with the music. Already in 1807 the student orchestra had essayed a symphony of the intriguing "Betowen," and it is hard to imagine Berlioz not having heard the name and sensed an explosion in the making during his earliest visits to the campus in the rue Poissonnière. In late 1827 and early 1828, Cherubini and the violinist/conductor François-Antoine Habeneck organized a new faculty-student philharmonic society with the express purpose of presenting the Beethoven symphonies. The first concert of this Société des Concerts du Conservatoire featured the "Eroica" Symphony, and by the end of the first season it had presented the Third and Fifth Symphonies, the Third Piano Concerto, and the Violin Concerto, with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies programmed for early in the second season. Flush with agitation over what we had heard in the Salle des Concerts, Berlioz would hurry next door to the Conservatoire library for page-by-page study of the available published scores.
Discovering Beethoven showed Berlioz a compositional path to the Fantastique, largely by suggesting ways--unknown so far in the French repertoire--that the materials of symphonic discourse could be harnessed to narrative or descriptive effect. Beethovenian tactics emerge in Berlioz's music almost at once: surely that is the explanation for the astonishing leap in style that separates the Huit Scènes de Faust and Cléopâtre of 1829 from the labored, formulaic rhetoric of, for instance, the Francs-Juges overture of 1826. With the fourth-movement reminiscences in Harold en Italie (1834) and the great choral finale of Roméo et Juliette (1839), both modelled on Beethoven's Ninth, Berlioz shows how fully he has personalized the Beethoven rhetoric.
Berlioz's seminal treatment
of the nine symphonies and Fidelio, along with some remarks on the
chamber music, anchors his fifth book, A Travers Chants, published
in 1862 by the Paris firm of Michel Lévy frères in a print
run of some 1,500 copies. Most of the texts come from newspaper criticism
Berlioz had written in 1837-38 for Maurice Scheslinger's Revue et Gazette
musicale--the period and venue in which he emerged as a major journalist.
et Gazette musicale,
10 September 1837
|Symphonies No. 1-2, 4-5||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
28 January 1838
|Symphony No. 3||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
9 April 1837
|Symphony No. 6||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
4 February 1838
|Symphony No. 7||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
11 February 1838
|Symphony No. 8||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
18 February 1838
|Symphony No. 9||Revue
et Gazette musicale,
4 March 1838
|Trios and Sonatas||Journal
12 March 1837
19 and 22 May 1860
Ring of Saturn"
24 November 1860
Holoman, Catalogue of the Musical and Literary Works of Hector Berlioz,
section C: "Feuilletons" (New Berlioz Edition, vol. 25; 1987), pp. 435ff.
They had been anthologized once before, in Berlioz's first book: Voyage musical ... Études sur Beethoven, Gluck et Weber (Paris: Jules Labitte, 1744).
A Travers Chants goes on to treat the work of the other composers in Berlioz's musical Olympus, including Gluck (Orphée, Alceste), Weber (Der Freischütz,Oberon), and Mozart (The Abduction from the Seraglio). And, dramatically, the book includes Berlioz's sullen article on Wagner's 1860 Paris appearances, "Concerts de Richard Wagner: La Musique de l'avenir" ("The Richard Wagner Concerts: Music of the Future")--with its famous summary:
this is the religion, a new one at that, then I am far from confessing
it. I never have, am not about to, and never will. I raise my hand and
The title of the book is something of a pun, indistinguishable in sound from à travers champs: "across the fields." The traditional English rendering is "Mid Realms of Song"; a more spirited equivalent might be "Through Fields of Song."
The present translation is the work of the British writer Edwin Evans, senior (1844-1923), who published the Beethoven portion in 1913 and offered the rest in subsequent installments.
Evans's English translations have previously been reprinted from time to time into the early 1970s.A Travers Chants, transl. Edwin Evans, senior1
A Critical Study of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies: with a few words on his trios and sonatas, a criticism of Fidelio, and an introductory essay on music, by Hector Berlioz. London: W. Reeves, ; co-published New York: Scribner, .
Gluck & His Operas, with an account of their relation to musical art, by Hector Berlioz. London: W. Reeves, .
Mozart, Weber and Wagner, with various essays on musical subjects, by Hector Berlioz. London, W. Reeves, .
Evans was a well informed, tireless writer of popular music history and criticism, including two epochal works: Beethoven's 9 Symphonies, Fully Described and Analyzed (1924) and the four-volume Historical, Descriptive and Analytical Account of the Entire Works of Johannes Brahms (1912-36). He was, too, the author of didactic treatises on plainchant and its accompaniment, composition, orchestration, piano accompaniment, and organ building; translator of Wagner; and a capable organist. His son Edwin Evans, junior (1974-1945) was also a significant music critic: a champion of contemporary music and author of an early English-language life-and-works of Tchaikovsky, in the Master Musicians series (1906).
In his "Translator's Introductory Note," Evans offers the customary appreciation of his era for Berlioz the writer: financially dependent on his criticism, enjoying the power of his pulpit, and profiting from his observations when it came time to compose. His essays are to be compared with Schumann and Wagner, but are "characterised by a more pungent wit; and the happiness of his mode of expression very often goes far to atone for the severity of his views." Evans professes "the utmost fidelity" to Berlioz's thought and spirit, though admits to having used "occasional collocations more suited to the English idiom than might have resulted from too close an adherence to original constructions."
But Berlioz on music he knew note-for-note is not always easy going. For one thing, the technical terminology at his disposal was barely sufficient to account for Beethovenian advances. The French is difficult, even with a score at hand, and Englishing of "utmost fidelity" occasionally results in "collocations" that are not, in fact, especially well suited to the modern English idiom. You have to recast some of the jargon into your own musical vocabulary.
Take, as an example, Berlioz's remarks about the close of the exposition in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. At mm. 158-64, Beethoven passes through an eyebrow-raising F-major triad on his way to cadence in E major, "wrongly" taking the 7th of a subdominant F seventh chord (F-A-C-E) upward to join unison Fs in m. 162. Today we hear, and see, it as a simple Neapolitan, and the "loss" of the E seems relatively inconsequential..
Berlioz devotes nearly three pages to this moment, writing in part:
L'effet harmonique le plus hatement blâmeé par les partisans de la discipline scolastique, et le plus heureux en même temps, est celui de la résolution de la dissonance dans l'accorde de sixte et quinte sur la sous-dominante du ton de mi naturel. Cette dissonance de second placée dans l'aigu sur un trémolo très fort, entre les premiers et les second violons, se résout d'une manière tout à fait nouvelle: on pouvait faire rester le mi et monter le fa dièse sur le sol, ou bien garder le fa en faisant descendre lemi sur le ré; Beethoven ne fait ni l'un ni l'autre; sans changer de basse, il réunit les deux parties dissonantes dans une octave sur le fa naturel, en faisant descendre le fa dièse d'un demi-ton, et le mi d'une septième majeure; l'accord, de quinte et sixte majeure qu'il était, devenant ainsi sixte mineur, sans la quinte qui s'est perdue sur le fa naturel. Le brusque passage du forte au piano, au moment précis de cette singulière tranformation de l'harmonie, lui donne encore une physionomie plus tranchée et en double la grâce.Evans's translation reads:
The harmonic effect most seriously blamed by the partisans of scholastic discipline, and at the same time the most successful one, is that of the resolution of the discord in the chord of six, five, on the subdominant in the key of E natural. This discord of the second, placed in an upper part against a loud melody between the first and second violins, is revolved in a way altogether new. One resolution might have allowed the E to remain, and have caused the F-sharp to rise to G; whilst another might have kept the F whilst causing the E to fall to D. Beethoven uses neither one nor the other of these. Without changing his bass he brings the E two parts of the discord together, in an octave on F natural, by making the F sharp descend a semitone and the E a major seventh. The E chord, therefore, which was previously one of six, five, now becomes a minor sixth; its fifth having disappeared upon F natural. The E suddenly changes from forte to piano at the precise moment of this singular harmonic transformation both gives it a more decided aspect and renders its grace twofold.In a translation of 1994, Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay renders the passage as follows:
The harmonic effect most criticized by the guardians of the scholastic doctrine, and at the same time the most felicitous, is the resolution of the dissonance in the six-five chord above the subdominant note [A] in the key of E-natural. The dissonant second--a very loud tremolo in the first and second violins--is solved in a completely new way: the E could have been sustained and the F-sharp raised to G, or else the F-sharp continued and the E lowered to D. Beethoven does neither. Without changing the bass, he joins the two dissonant notes in an octave on F-natural, lowering the F-sharp a semitone and the E a major seventh. The chord of the fifth and major sixth has thus become a minor sixth without the fifth, which has vanished into the F-natural. The abrupt shift fromforte to piano, at the precise moment of this remarkable harmonic transformation, heightens its distinct character and redoubles its charm.Not much better. What Berlioz means here is something like:
The harmonic effect most criticized by old-fashioned thinkers, and yet the most felicitous, is how Beethoven resolves the F seventh chord (ii[callout] in E major) in mm. 160-61. The E-Fdissonance--a very loud tremolo in the first and second violins [mirrored in the flute and oboe]--is resolved in novel fashion. Instead of having the F rise to G or the E resolve downward to D, Beethoven reverses things: the E rises and the F falls, both to F; and the seventh is lost. The abrupt shift from fortissimo to pianissimo at this very moment emphasizes it and redoubles its charm.In short, such observations need some working out on the reader's part, and it helps to have the music close by.
Whatever its passing anachronisms, Berlioz's 1838 cycle of articles on Beethoven's symphonic œuvre is arguably the first great critical treatment of that corpus in any language. To read it at a stretch is to be reminded again how thoroughly Berlioz's conceptual world was shaped by Beethoven: it is often as though each new sentence speaks at once of the Beethovenian subject matter at hand and its eventual reflection in his own music.
Before the concerts at the Conservatoire, amateurs and savants alike had faltered over Beethoven, and now Berlioz had a hand in winning them over. The Ninth Symphony was found by one critic, Berlioz tells us, to be "not altogether devoid of ideas, but they are so badly organized that the general effect is incoherent and lacking in charm." And if Berlioz himself was sometimes perplexed by what he heard, the puzzlement would merely send him back to the scores to seek his own explanations. There was little precedent analysis for him to read, and in Paris no Beethoven authorities any better informed than he.
Berlioz explains Beethoven in a combination of technical analysis and emotional response--a little Eusebius, a little Florestan. Attempting to account for the wonder of the famous transition from scherzo to finale in the Fifth, he writes:
The strings gently bow the chord of A and seem to fall into slumber while holding it. The timpani alone keep the rhythm alive by light strokes from sponge-covered sticks, a faint pulse beating against the immobility of the rest of the orchestra. The notes the timpani play are all Cs, and the key of the movement is C minor; but the A chord, held for a long time by the other instruments, seems to introduce another key, while at the same time the lone throbbing of the timpani on C tends to maintain the feeling of the original key. The ear hesitates, it cannot tell where this harmonic mystery is going to end.True enough, and probably accessible to a certain number of his readers. But it was the overt Romanticism of Beethoven that summoned his best writing: "the shreds of the lugubrious melody, alone, naked, broken, crushed" at the end of the "Eroica" funeral march, the wind instruments "shouting a cry, a last farewell of the warriors to their companion at arms"; the "magnificent horror" of the storm in the Sixth; the "rainbow of melody" and "profound sigh" in the celebrated Allegretto of the Seventh. The Allegretto scherzando of the Eighth Symphony he describes as "gentle, innocent, and gracefully indolent, like a tune two children sing while gathering flowers in a meadow on a fine spring morning," and it is no coincidence that he models the Villanelle from Les Nuits d'été, where the image is of young lovers gathering wild strawberries in spring, on this very idea.
Altogether perhaps 20% of Berlioz's prose writing was collected in A Travers Chants and its sister volumes: Les Soirées de l'orchestre (1853), Les Grotesques de la musique (1859), and of course the Mémoires (1870, post.) Until the turn of the twenty-first century, it was one of the greatest of the Berliozian tragedies that the remainder of the feuilletons had been forgotten. A small anthology was published in 1903 as Les Musiciens et la musique; in 1981 the excellent French music journalist Condé presented a new selection from the criticism under the title Hector Berlioz: Cauchemars et passions. The ambitious project of collecting all the feuilletons for publication as a complete set of at least a dozen volumes was announced in conjunction with the 1969 centenary of Berlioz's death, the work of the musicologists H. Robert Cohen and Yves Gérard. Volumes 1 (1823-34) and 2 (1835-36) had appeared by 1998. The commission overseeing the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth, Berlioz 2003, has established finishing the Critique musicale as its highest scholarly priority .
Beethoven essays from A Travers Chants were translated again by
Ralph de Sola in the short volume Beethoven: A Critical Appreciation
of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies and His Only Opera, Fidelio, with
its Four Overtures (Boston: Crescendo, ). The entire volume was
subsequently translated into English and edited by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay
as The Art of Music and Other Essays (A Travers Chants) (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1994).
D. Kern Holoman is author of the Catalogue of the Musical and Literary Works of Hector Berlioz (Kassel, etc.: Bärenreiter, 1987; New Berlioz Edition, vol. 25) and Berlioz (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1989); additionally he edited Roméo et Juliette for the New Berlioz Edition (vol. 18, 1990). Holoman is professor of music at the University of California, Davis, where he conducts the UCD Symphony Orchestra. He is a member of the international bicentennial commission Berlioz 2003.