From the archives: monthly feature

Berlioz: a letter from Rome (1831)

From the archives
A recommendation by

Ravel (February 2012)
The Noske family, ca. 1880

(March 2012)
J.S. Bach: receipt, 1731
(April 2012)
J. and F. Giese, cellists
(May 2012)
Berlioz: a letter from
Rome (June 2012)
Alsbach: Album amicorum
(July 2012)
A violinist-aviator (1913)
(August 2012)
Mozart: letter (Milan 1770)
(September 2012)
Whose portrait?
(October 2012)
F. Nieuwenhuysen (1783)
(November 2012)
Wrinkled, with a hole where the sealing wax has fallen out; hastily written, full of deletions, yet clearly legible, and of dashing appearance. Even in this short letter to the publisher Maurice Schlesinger (a good acquaintance professionally) Berlioz gives a many-sided view of his personality: sincere, and theatrical at the same time; fierce and provocative in his judgement, but also amicable and driven by unbridled enthusiasm. Remarkable are especially his remarks on Mendelssohn on the last page (immediately followed by a gibe at the Supreme Being).

Mon cher Schlesinger,

Faites-moi le plaisir de faire parvenir a Hiller la lettre ci-incluse. Je lui ai écrit il y a long temps à son ancienne adresse rue
Robert et je n'en obtiens point de réponse.

Veuillez en outre adresser a Mr Meyer-beer mes vives félicitations sur son éclatant succès; si vous voyez A. Nourrit complimentez-le aussi de ma part. Je ne sais si vous êtes l'editeur de
Robert, mais je pense que si vous ne l'êtes pas c'est qu'il n'a pas dépendu de vous, car la publication doit actuellement être fort avancée. Je
[p. 2]
ne vous dirai rien de la musique de Rome, Naples, Gênes et Florence. Jusqu'à present elle me parait avoir subi le sort de Carthage.
« ... L'étranger, sur le rivage
« la cherche et ne la trouve pas. »

Des enfants, des ânes, des cuisinières, des marchands de bas; ... tenez brisons là.

Quand faisons-nous une autre revolution à Paris? Voyons donc, voilà les Lyonnais qui se divertissent; mais une poignée... l'autre était trop bête. Dans le genre de Bristol; voilà ce qu'il faudrait pour bien s'amuser.

Je prie Desmarest du théâtre italien et son chef Girard, de vouloir bien recevoir ma malédiction, pour
leur froideur et leur paresse inexcusable. Je souhaite le bonjour a l'excellent Pixis en le priant de me rappeler au souvenir de Sina. J'ai vu ici Mendelssohn, ah mon Dieu quel talent! … c’est inouï... superbe, grand, délicat, grâcieux, sensible, intelligent, modéré, violent, rapide, fort, doux, profond.
« C'est un homme et veritablement
« digne de ce nom. » (Hamlet, Shakespeare acte 1er.)

Bonjour, (je ne veux pas vous dire A
dieu car je le déteste et l'abomine de plus en plus).
Qui? Dieu? - Oui.

H. Berlioz
Rome, ce 3 decembre 1831


My dear Schlesinger,

Please do me the favour of forwarding the enclosed letter to Hiller. I wrote to him a long time ago on his old address Rue Sainte-Anne No 1 and got no answer.

Please also congratulate on my behalf M. Meyer-beer on his brilliant success; if you happen to meet A. Nourrit give him my compliments as well. I don’t know whether you’re the publisher of
Robert, but if not I think it cannot have depended upon you, since the publication must be quite advanced by now. I will
[p. 2]
say nothing of music in Rome, Naples, Genoa and Florence. Until now it seems to me that it has shared the fate of Carthage.
“…The stranger, he searches for her
on the shore, and doesn’t find her.”

Infants, asses, cooks, hosiers; … let’s say no more about that.

When are we going to have another revolution in Paris? Just look at those Lyonese amusing themselves; but a handful… the other one was too silly. Like they do it in Bristol; that’s what one needs for amusement.

Desmarest of the Théâtre Italien and his boss Girard are kindly requested to let themselves be cursed for their
unforgivable laziness and chilliness. I salute the excellent Pixis, asking him to pass on my greetings to Sina. Here I have met Mendelssohn, my God what a talent! … it’s incomparable … superb, grand, delicate, graceful, sensitive, intelligent, moderate, violent, quick, strong, tender, profound.
“He is a man and truly
worthy of the name.” (Hamlet, Shakespeare 1st act.)

Greetings, (I do not want to say ‘a
dieu', for I loathe and detest him more and more).
Whom? God? - Indeed.

H. Berlioz
Rome, 3 december 1831
The request in the first line, to forward a letter to his friend Ferdinand Hiller, was probably the main reason for writing to Schlesinger. The letter to Hiller of the same date (published in the Correspondance générale) deals with mainly the same subjects, in different wordings, and somewhat more extensively.

Berlioz’ stay in Rome was the unwelcome effect of his winning the Prix de Rome, at the fifth attempt, in July 1830. By that time he was a controversial celebrity; the Symphonie fantastique was first performed on 5 December of the same year. A period of studies in Italy may have been useful for painters and sculptors, who could study the antique, renaissance and baroque masterpieces; to a musician, and especially to Berlioz, this meant exile from the heart of the musical world, Paris. Musically he found in Italy little of interest, as the short diatribe in this letter shows.

Maurice Schlesinger (1798-1871), the addressee of this letter, was a successful music publisher. In 1829 he had published Berlioz’ opus 1, the Huit scènes de Faust, and later he would be responsible for such works as the Symphonie fantastique (1845). He also published the Gazette musicale de Paris, which contained contributions by Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, Schumann and others.

Schlesinger’s address, which was folded to the outside of this letter, Rue de Richelieu Nr. 97, was familiar ground: from early 1828 till his departure for Rome on 30 December 1830 Berlioz lived at Nr. 96, across the street. Much more important to the composer was the fact that from his place he had a view of the apartment of Harriet Smithson, the Anglo-Irish actress who was the object of his ardent passion (they married in 1833 and divorced in 1840).


Hector Berlioz, ca 1855
(NMI, Richard Hol archive)
Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885), a composer and conductor born in Frankfurt, is chiefly known as a pillar of conservatism in German 19th century music. In his younger years he was receptive to the works of the more radical romantics. During his stay in Paris (1828-1835) he became friends with Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt. He was the predecessor of Schumann as conductor of the Düsseldorf orchestra, and spent most of his career in Cologne (1850-1884). In his memoirs (Künstlerleben, 1880) he sketches a striking and mostly sympathetic portrait of Berlioz, who at the time of this letter was a close friend:

“Berlioz was in the full sense of the word a man of honour. [...] Towards me he was something of a Mephistopheles; not that I see myself in the part of Faust, rather that of the poor student! All traces of his catholic upbringing had vanished – all kinds of doubts had a hold on him, and his contempt for everything he considered prejudice went into extremes. [...] Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach – neither in absolute beauty in art nor in virtue in life. Shakespeare, Goethe and Beethoven were the subject of our shared panegyrics [...] but when he gave his tongue free rein, destroying everything around him like a river in spate, I sometimes felt ill at ease.” (p. 64, 70)

The relations with the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) were mostly tactfully sympathetic. The spectacular premiere of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable on 21 November 1831 was one of the Parisian events Berlioz hated to have missed. The reports in the newspapers caused him a sleepless night, according to his letter of 3 December to Hiller: “My blood is boiling in my veins. 100.000 curses! me being locked up in this mournful and unmusical country [...].” The tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) performed during the years 1826-1836 all the main roles in the Paris Opéra.

… une autre revolution à Paris:
in 1830 the ‘three glorious days’ (27-29 July) had put an end to the reign of the repressive government of Charles X. On the outbreak, Berlioz hastily finished his fourth Prix de Rome cantata (Sardanapale); but when the score was ready, quiet was returning to the streets of Paris. The revolt of the silk labourers in Lyon took place in the last week of November 1831; its immediate cause was the refusal of capitalist employers to ratify wage settlements. Government troupes ended the revolt on 3 December by order of King Louis-Philippe. The violent riots of Bristol took place a few weeks earlier, after the House of Lords had turned down a reform of the electoral system.

… Desmarest du théâtre italien et son chef Girard:
Narcisse Girard (1797-1860) was a conductor with an influential position in Parisian musical life. Little is known about the cellist Desmarest and the violinist Sina. The piano virtuoso and composer Johann Peter Pixis (1788-1874) was educated in Vienna and had settled in Paris in 1824.

The encounter with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) must have made a deep impression upon Berlioz: at the time of writing he has not seen Mendelssohn for more than six months. He met him shortly after his arrival in Rome in March 1831, and saw him frequently during the next few weeks. They made music, went sightseeing and made trips on horseback in the plains around Rome. In April Mendelssohn left for Naples.

Similar enthusiastic outbursts about Mendelssohn may be found in other letters from Berlioz. At the same time, his letters en memoirs show that this was a tense friendship; their personalities and backgrounds were too different. Berlioz noticed a certain chilliness on the part of Mendelssohn, snobbery and strong sensitivities (“a true porcupine, as soon as the subject was music”, Mémoires II, p. 50), and teased him at every opportunity. The fact that in this letter a panegyric on Mendelssohn is immediately followed by a gibe at the divinity can hardly be coincidental.

Mendelssohn, from his part, was shocked by Berlioz’s unbridled emotionality and contempt for established values. Only much later, after the posthumous publication of Mendelssohn’s Reisebriefe to his family in 1861, Berlioz discovered what Mendelssohn had actually thought of him in those days (he refers to this in a footnote to his memoirs, dated 25 May 1864). That the name of Berlioz had in this publication been replaced by *** couldn’t conceal his identity:

“*** [is] distorted, without a spark of talent; groping in the dark, under the illusion that he is the creator of a new world, - yet writing the most abhorrent things, with nothing in his dreams and thoughts but Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe; since his boundless vanity makes him look down in arrogance upon Mozart and Haydn, all his enthusiasm seems to me a dubious affair [...].” (Brief dated 29 March 1831.)

After few lines later he nevertheless calls Berlioz and another French musician “very pleasant, amiable people”.

“He is just a little too fond of the dead” (“Seulement il aime toujours un peu trop les morts”), Berlioz wrote in his Mémoires (II, p. 52). Mendelssohn could sometimes speak with strong contempt of the living. This may have been a chosen attitude, which he thought suitable when writing to his family. When Berlioz came to Leipzig in 1843 to conduct concerts, Mendelssohn, who was in charge of the Gewandhaus orchestra, behaved kindly and was eager to help.


Ferdinand Hiller, ca 1880
photo L. Haasse, Berlin
(NMI, Richard Hol archive)

See also the web presentation about Marie Taglioni.
C'est un homme … (“He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again.”) The original Shakespeare quotation (given above in literal translation from the French), used by Berlioz to characterize Mendelssohn, was used by D.F. Scheurleer as a motto for his 1878 study of Berlioz. Scheurleer may have come into posession of this letter in 1907, when manuscripts from the estate of Schlesinger were offered for sale by the Berlin bookseller Liepmanssohn. The Scheurleer collection contains ten letters from Berlioz, of which this is the most substantial. Web exhibition: The Scheurleer Museum of the History of Music

When he made Berlioz and the Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) the object of a comparative study, Scheurleer was a young man of 23. His book is a somewhat immature mixture of enthusiasm and pedantry. The comparison is on the one hand obvious – Wiertz was a ‘dark romantic’ with a predilection for macabre subjects and large canvasses – but seems in retrospect preposterous, because of evident differences in artistic quality and human values. It is curious how the music of Berlioz has, after a revival halfway the 20th century, assumed ‘classical’ status. Wiertz’s oeuvre is on permanent display thanks to a bargain the painter made with the Belgian government. The state financed his studio, obtaining thereby the privilege to convert it after his death into a national museum, as well as the burden to maintain this in perpetuity.

Lodewijk Muns, 8-6-2012
Works by Wiertz in the catalogue of the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles

The text of this letter has been published in 1972 in the Correspondance générale (vol. 1, nr. 251), and in 1969 in the journal Mens en Melodie (without translation).

Selected references:

Berlioz, Hector. Mémoires de Hector Berlioz, membre de l’Institut de France : comprenant ses voyages en Italie, en Allemagne, en Russie et en Angleterre, 1803-1865. Paris: C. Lévy 1878

Berlioz, Hector. Correspondance générale. Ed. sous la direction de Pierre Citron. T. 1 1803–1832. Paris: Flammarion 1972

Cairns, David. Berlioz. Vol. 1, The making of an artist 1803-1832. Berkeley, California: University of California Press 1999

Hiller, Ferdinand. Künstlerleben. Köln: DuMont-Schauberg 1880

Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix. Reisebriefe von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy aus den Jahren 1830 bis 1832. hrsg. von Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Leipzig: Mendelssohn 1861

Scheurleer, Daniel François. Twee titanen der negentiende eeuw: Hector Berlioz en Antoine Wiertz. Haarlem: W. C. de Graaff 1878.

Weeda, Robert. "Vier brieven van Hector Berlioz". Mens en melodie (Juni 1969): 177–179.