19 August 2011

Berlioz: La Patrie Pas Trop Reconnaissante

Berlioz’s tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery. According to an inscription on the side, it was paid for by public subscription and erected in the 1970s.
I’m sure we can find a nice place for it somewhere else.

You can hardly imagine my disappointment, on returning to Paris, to discover that one of my neighbors still hasn’t moved out. Although the French government promised, back in 2000, to get around to transferring his ashes to the Panthéon, Hector Berlioz is still waiting in the Montmartre Cemetery. Everybody supposed that the big day would arrive in time to celebrate Berlioz’s 200th birthday, Berlioz would take up residence among the “Grands Hommes de la Patrie” in 2003, and a number of extra celebrations were planned. Ultimately, however, then-President Jacques Chirac declined (without explanation) to approve the move.

“Pantheonizing” is arguably the greatest honor this country gives to dead people, but thus far it’s been reserved for authors, soldiers, statesmen, and just one woman, Marie Curie. In such august company, musicians may not seem serious enough, and even I don’t claim that French contributions to music are among the country’s most important achievements. On the other hand, how are you going to encourage folks to try harder, if you let them believe they’ll never make it to the top?

This photo by Harry Heleotis illustrated a story
I wrote for Opera News during the Berlioz Bicentennial.
The caption (of which I am exceedingly proud) ran:
“Birthday-boy Berlioz has a good head on his shoulders:
Susan Graham’s.”

The French are funny about most of their native composers, but perhaps especially ambivalent about Berlioz. His work isn’t performed as much here as you’d expect, and his masterpiece, Les Troyens, reportedly had never been performed complete in this country until Susan Graham and John Eliot Gardiner brought it to the Châtelet, in the fall of 2003.

Although Troyens was the second opera I saw at the Metropolitan, back in 1984, I didn’t really respond to this score until I heard the performance at the Châtelet. And to a degree, my slowness to warm to Troyens is characteristic not only of my thickness as a listener but also of the composer’s complexity. You have to work a little harder to listen to his music — and, I gather, to perform it, too.

The French did honor Berlioz by putting his picture on the 10-Franc note, though he’s all but unrecognizable on it. And of course a 10-Franc note won’t buy you a stick of gum anymore.

“You don't get the predicted climax where you think it should be,” Susan told me years ago, “but it might come ten minutes later, in a huge way, in an apocalyptic way. It doesn’t follow formulas. And it’s really quirky … he has these weird, funny, demonic twists and turns. He plays with meter a lot. Basically, Berlioz is messing with our minds. Because just when you think you know where the beat is, you’re tapping your toe, and then all of a sudden — glub — where’s the beat? But the soaring melodies are just incredible.”

Just so: listen to Susan sing Didon, or the Nuits d’été, to understand. Berlioz is more challenging but also more rewarding than most other French composers. His ambitions were outsize, and so were his failures and his achievements. In this, is he not representative of France itself?

And really, if the French government is nervous about letting musicians into the Panthéon, they ought to pick up a copy of Berlioz’s criticism or his memoirs. He was at least as good a writer as some of the other guys who are in there. And the longer Berlioz remains next-door to me, the more foolish the French must look.

Jacques Offenbach, who gave France the can-can, yet has as much chance as I do to be interred in the Panthéon, is also Berlioz’s neighbor in Montmartre. This bust perches atop his tomb.

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