Hector Berlioz – Unloved and beloved
Hector Berlioz – Unloved and beloved © Getty  /  De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti

Hector Berlioz – Down and out in Paris and London

Hector Berlioz may have been born in France, in La Côte Saint-André, but the composer’s legacy has been seemingly celebrated with far greater enthusiasm abroad than in his native land, both during his lifetime and after his death. How exactly did this come about?

The revolutionary and romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) experienced a lifelong love-hate relationship with the city of Paris: “it is an electric city which in turn attracts and repels”, he wrote to his father in 1846. Although Berlioz has come to represent the height of French Romanticism, his music was all but applauded on his native soil during his lifetime. After receiving the Prix de Rome in 1830, Berlioz returned to Paris in 1833 with high hopes of a successful career as a composer - hopes that were repeatedly dashed. 

Across the Channel, however, the name “Berlioz” began to surface in the English musical press, largely due to the publication Musical World and the violinist and journalist John Ella, who praised Berlioz as “one of the most promising, best informed, and skilful musicians in Paris”, and again in 1838: “Berlioz is a profound musician, and utterly incapable of writing bad music.”

After the failure of La damnation de Faust at the Opéra Comique in 1845 (abandoned after only two performances), Berlioz was yet again snubbed in 1847, this time when his La Nonne sanglante was rejected by the Paris Opera in favour of Charles Gounod's. Increasingly disenchanted by the milieu in Paris, and a passionate admirer of English culture, most notably Shakespeare, Berlioz eventually turned to London, one of the major musical centres of Europe, in search of a more gratifying (and lucrative) career.  “Art in France is dead and in a state of putrefaction […]. In England apparently there has been a real revolution in the musical consciousness of the nation in the last ten years. We shall see.” (Letter to Humber Ferrand, 1 November 1847)

Having signed a six-year contract with the impresario Louis-Antoine Jullien to conduct the English Opera at Drury Lane Theatre, Berlioz came to see London as a beacon of opportunity, a city of hope and glory.

1847-1848 – Louis-Antoine Jullien and short-lived hopes

Berlioz first arrived in London on 6 November 1847, days if not hours after the death of Felix Mendelssohn: “Everybody tells me here that there is a good position for me to occupy, a position that has become free and remains vacant through the death of poor Mendelssohn”. Recently engaged by the impresario Jullien to conduct the English Opera at Drury Lane Theatre, Berlioz could only relish the idea of a series of lucrative concerts, though this excitement was to be short-lived as Jullien was eventually declared bankrupt in April 1848, due to financial incompetence and poor management, putting an end to many of Berlioz's plans after only half a dozen concerts.

Though Berlioz was not at his most productive in terms of composition, and many of his projects eventually fell through, his reputation as a conductor was solidified, with no small praise coming from the critic Desmond Ryan in Musical World: “the new conductor, M. Hector Berlioz, established on Monday night his continental fame as one of the greatest living chefs d’orchestre“ (11 December 1847). The praise from critics and audiences, however, was not enough to keep Berlioz in London indefinitely, and with news of growing political turmoil in France and an increasingly ailing father, Berlioz left London in July 1848, much to the regret of musical society: “Hector Berlioz returns to Paris, covered with laurels acquired in 'unmusical England' […]. Berlioz came here unknown and unrecommended […] he leaves behind him many friends”. 

Though Berlioz left behind many friends, he took with him many ideas, including that of founding the Grande Société Philharmonique de Paris, with the intention of developing a large-scale musical society similar to that in London, in an attempt to cement his position within Parisian musical circles. The bad faith, however, of Paris's institutions and critics surrounding Berlioz had not disappeared: in 1850, in an attempt to put an end to this stigma, Berlioz performed the Shepherd’s Farewell, a work composed under the nom de guerre "Pierre Ducré". Critics praised the work, and even encouraged Berlioz to follow Ducré's example: “Berlioz could never do that!”. Paris was clearly still not ready for the firebrand composer...

1851 – The Great Exhibition: a short but promising visit

Despite the setbacks of his first trip to London, Berlioz had not forgotten the promise of the English capital. He returned to London in 1851 on official business, upon the request of the French Minister of Trade, as a juror for musical instruments during the Great Exhibition. A time-consuming task of little stimulation for Berlioz, he nonetheless fulfilled his duty, returning to Paris barely three months later.

This short second visit, though unfruitful in terms of musical accomplishments, was nonetheless productive in other ways. Amongst the jurors alongside Berlioz was the impresario Frederick Beale, upon whom Berlioz had previously made an excellent impression following his first concert in February 1848. Having lobbied the Philharmonic Society to take notice of Hector Berlioz, to no avail, Beale took Berlioz under his wing and projected a "New" Philharmonic Society, for more modern purposes, openly rivalling the “Old” Philharmonic Society.

1852 – The “New” Philharmonic Society

Launched in January 1852, the society planned a total of six concerts throughout the year. Though Berlioz was generally well-received by the press and the public, a courteous (but no less passionate) rivalry blossomed between the French composer and Michael Costa, Italian conductor and director of the (now “Old”) Philharmonic Society: 

The English press and public are very well disposed to me, and the only opposition I expect is from the followers of Costa, the local Habeneck, who looks askance at my arrival in England”, wrote Berlioz in 1852 to his brother-in-law Camille Pal. Berlioz was also openly criticised by Henry Chorley and even Henry Wylde, conductor and committee member of the recently-formed "New" Philharmonic Society.

Perhaps Berlioz’s most successful visit to London, this promise was yet again to be short-lived, victim of personal and institutional rivalries beyond his control...

1853 – Sabotage and silver linings

Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately for Berlioz, Henry Wylde refused to have Berlioz invited for a second season, pushing Berlioz’s main ally and committee member Frederick Beale to resign, a major setback for Berlioz. Though disappointing, this allowed Berlioz to focus upon another project: the staging of his work Benvenuto Cellini at the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden on 25 June 1853. If he was awaiting his lucky break in London, this highly anticipated premiere was sabotaged by a cabal of whistling and heckling Italian spectators: a veiled attempt by Costa to destabilise Berlioz's reputation? Or perhaps retribution on behalf of Her Majesty’s Theatre, rival theatre to Covent Garden and initial choice for the work’s performance? 

With the composer struggling financially after the failed concert and the subsequent cancellations that followed, numerous artists collected funds to organise a 'testimonial concert' in honour of Berlioz, though the project never came to fruition. The money raised was offered to the composer, but he kindly refused, preferring instead that the money be used for the publication of the score of Faust in English: a silver lining to a very dark cloud as Berlioz retreated yet again to Paris.

1855 – Missed opportunities

In a somewhat gratifying turn of events, Berlioz's rival Michael Costa unexpectedly resigned in 1854 as director of the (“Old”) Philharmonic Society, and the newly vacant position was offered to none other than Berlioz. However, having recently joined the “New” Philharmonic, he was unable to accept, despite several propositions to break his contract. More than a simple case of poor timing, it is entirely possible that Henry Wylde, having caught wind of the offer to be made to Berlioz, denied his request in order to ensure that the French conductor did not accept any other, more lucrative, propositions.

As Berlioz left London in July 1855, his fifth and final unsuccessful trip to the capital, Berlioz could only reflect upon what could have been an illustrious career in London, had he not been the target of institutional rivalries and hostile critics.

A series of unfortunate events

By the late 1850s, still very little of Berlioz's music had been performed in London, notably his major works, and requests for performances without the composer present were often denied. In 1858, the Musical Society of London expressed interest in performing his Symphonie fantastique, but Berlioz refused: ”to perform this work after only one rehearsal, according to the London custom, would be to cut its throat. I must ask you, therefore, to dissuade the Committee from carrying out this project, if it exists”. Though Berlioz longed for greater exposure, obtaining it by sacrificing quality was simply unimaginable. 

Out of sight, out of mind. The death of the composer in 1869 was only mildly discussed in the London, whereas in Paris the news sparked a wave of articles and touching obituaries in the musical and daily press. And yet the first true effort towards a Berlioz revival came from London in 1957, with a performance of Les Troyens by Rafael Kubelík at Covent Garden; even the first complete performance of the work in Paris (including the ballets) was as recent as 2003, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

Considering the moderate success of Berlioz in England, and the typically belated emotional outpouring in France following the composer’s death, why was Berlioz so beloved by English audiences yet seemingly unloved by his own countrymen? Various figures of English music have commented upon the phenomenon, attributing a French fear of artistic innovation, a greater appreciation of originality on the other side of the Channel, and even the simple fact that Berlioz was “not chic like Debussy […] A composer of excess”, as explained by John Eliot Gardiner.

Victim of his non-conformity to the French melodic-centred musical style, seemingly sacrificing melody for dramatic verity, Berlioz defied the musical tastes of Parisian society with music that was considered strange and clumsy. The modernity of his style unappreciated by his contemporaries, and the unfortunate events that hindered his career in London, have kept Berlioz out of serious consideration for decades, with the composer only recently achieving the recognition and respect that he deserves.

He is a man too remarkable to be dismissed with a sneer, and at the same time too eccentric to be comprehended at a glance.” (J. W. Davison, Musical World, 1853)