Hector Berlioz: Bearer of Romanticism’s Torch: Part II

Hector Berlioz as child

We discussed Berlioz’ operas in the last entry. One obvious point about opera as an art form is that the music must integrate with a story. Berlioz’ career, though, makes us look at that obvious point in a not-so-obvious context.

Can music tell a story without lyrics or performers? How much narration can instrumental music alone accomplish? Can or should music tell a story sketched out in an extra0-musical way, as through a program of notes provided concert goers?

To begin with:  yes, an orchestra can suggest to our ear a babbling brook or twittering birds. Beethoven’s Pastoral does this.

But if composers want to go much further than that, they often have to give us some written direction, or hope that we’ve read some of the same literary works they have.

The Impurity of Program Music

Program music can and does deal with a wide range of subjects. An audience at a concert can be provided with notes telling them about the ebbs and flows of a particular historic battle, the adventures of Don Quixote, a trip down the Grand Canyon on a donkey, a dialog between God and a sinner, or just about anything else.


A single-movement example may also be called a “symphonic poem,” but in Berlioz’ day multi-movement concerts to a single programmatic theme were quite customary, a custom that was “undoubtedly educational” as Jacques Barzun has written, since the first half of the 19th century was a time when “instrumental music was expanding its forms and purpose,” so it was only sporting to clue in the audience. Berlioz followed this custom.

This in turn would cause something of an anti-Berlioz backlash among critics in the early 20th century, when there was a great deal of talk about “pure music” or “absolute music” that would not need any external support.

Anyway, one locus of such debates is Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (1830). Here’s a bit of that! Please listen to that before reading the next paragraph!

What you are listening to there is from the first movement. What did the program notes that Berlioz wrote say about that movement? That “a young vibrant musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer[ has called the wave of passions, sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.”

Is that what you thought when listening?

Listening to Byron and Shakespeare

Berlioz did less writing for his next program symphony, Harold en Italie (1834), because a greater writer had come before him. This music was inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

We should probably mention that in Byron’s use the word “childe” doesn’t mean “child” exactly. A “childe” in medieval times was a candidate for knighthood, generally a young man.

Byron’s use of “childe,” even so, was not literal. His “Childe Harold” was a brooding young man from a distinguished family, “his name and lineage long.” But he wanted to escape this lineage, and to do that he had to travel, to escape his homeland. As Byron puts it “Then loathed he in his native land to dwell, which seemed to him sadder that Eremite’s sad cell.”

Berlioz’s program had to do little more than let his listeners know that “Harold in Italy” was seeking the traveler’s cure for a young man’s blues, in Byronic style.

Courtesy of YouTube again, here is a bit of it.

The work was composed at the request of a famous viola virtuoso, and throughout the various movements the viola serves as the voice of the protagonist.

Berlioz moved on from Byron to Shakespeare, composing the choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette (1839), which was performed late in 1939. Here, even more so than in the case of the Byronic poem, the audience could be counted upon to know the story. This was not “program music” in that no written notes were necessary for audience comprehension. Further, there are singers, so there are musical words that might be used to do some explaining.


On the other hand, there are long passages in which the instrumentalists hold our ear alone, and they have their own narrative momentum. And f you are a purist about music, if you really want it to be free of extraneous matter, you might well complain of this too, since there is that obvious external support.

Critics and Admirers

Much of the criticism that Berlioz received at the time, though, was not against his use of a familiar story in this way. It was from critics who thought they understood Shakespeare better than Berlioz did. One complained that his Queen Mab scherzo sounded like “badly lubricated syringes.” Another thought that the love scene in the adagio showed that Berlioz was careless in his reading of Shakespeare.

Berlioz himself wrote happily of that adagio that “three quarters of the musicians in Europe who know it put it above everything else I have written.” In the play at this point, Romeo is hiding in an orchard while Juliet soliloquizes at her window. In the symphony, Berlioz uses a disorienting harmony to correspond to the garden. He is letting us know that we, with Romeo, are on hostile terrain.

Romeo is represented by cellos and horns in this scene, Juliet by a high woodwind. A jolting violin represents the intrusion of the outside world, in the person of Juliet’s nurse.

Here it is.

The climax to this piece has seemed to many observers a lot like the climax of Wagner’s liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.

Yet if we have to choose between Wagner and Berlioz it is pretty clear, I think, on which side we ought to come down. Jacques Barzun tells a wonderful story about a conversation between Wagner and Berlioz. Wagner had developed an elaborate theory about music and its place in the universe. He tried to explain this to Berlioz – there exists an inner capacity of the artist, which receives objective impressions from without and which transforms these according to metaphysical principles and so forth.

Berlioz listened patiently and then replied with a wonderful bit of deflation.  “I understand. We call it digesting.”


But our conclusion is even simpler. High-falutin’ talk of “pure music” is goofy. All music ever composed has extra-musical inspirations, and every generation of musical audiences must be taught a new set of references and significances, by program notes or in some other way. Let us let that be the critical point Hector Berlioz teaches us.

Maybe music critics should take to heart the English language idiom; “Get with the program!”


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