THE LIGHT REFLECTING OFF OF MY HERO'S GRAVE: BERLIOZ'S SYMPHONY FANTASTIQUE
Depending upon where you are in life, or the kind of day you are having, heat can mean different things, this ambient emotional temperament effecting what it does to you. A hothouse jazz club, carried along with the rest of the crowd, sticky with desire and the effort of the hunt. The possibility of something happening is usually enough to sustain me for the duration of two sets at Prospero's. The manifestation of arousal, a viscous fluidity which has been flung, blessing like upon us all. Or another variation, good night to bad, the muse not visiting, she beckons another with hooked finger, pulling an unworthy from amongst the crowd. In disappointment, it is every man for himself. The humidity further added to by those of us left on the floor.
Collar chafing at my neck starts the list of annoyances. The trumpet player is blowing raspberries as the waitress has forgotten about his drink, now his anger has affected his performance and despite being one of last night's heroes, here and now the audience hates him. The pianist too, unintentionally disappoints for he wants to stay out of it, spending most of the set comping, avoiding soloing as much as possible for no matter what he managed to serve up, it is too late, it will not be good enough now. Besides, he has a date with that Argentinean dancer whom he suspects also has a bit of Russian in her too, and as it is feels that he will show up already partially tainted.
The wiser amongst the night's orphans know that they must just make it to morning, the start of a clean slate and another chance for a fleeting distraction or the big kill, a perfect sentence nailed down, the envisioning of a canvas's future composition, the purest notes possible emerging from the bell of a horn.
I make it home debating whether to shower or just go to bed. Once my shoes are off I realize that I had been more fatigued than I thought. I get into bed not bothering to put music on; for to stall the sandman is to risk him passing me by and I had no immediate vision of which would be the perfect record as soundtrack. I toss and turn for twenty minutes. Although I was dry by the time I got home, the night still clung to my skin until I stopped being stubborn and acknowledged to myself that I needed to shower.
I felt better and surprisingly it did not wake me up too much.
The next day I am up early enough to see the starling picking at the dirt in the geranium window box, cocking his head sideways as I shuffle past him to make coffee. The silence itself was a tune. I was out of coffee, one of the errands I had meant to do yesterday laying among the others I had put off. I would go to Olivier's and from there could easily knock the necessities of food, booze and stamps off of my list. I am glad it is warm out as that always helps keep my stomach muscles and leg loose.
There is a face of the city which is fleeting but easy to find if one is out and about early enough. As few see her like this, there is an inherent honesty in this early morning visage. This woman stands upon an almost a bare stage, free of set before the play or the arrival of the audience. Stalls with ice being poured into what will be a last bed for some fish. Fruit stands where piece by piece, pyramids of oranges and pears are being built. Wicker baskets of wine just being put out as two day-glo jump suited men push their big brooms down the end of the street, slowly forming a sort of refuse golem. The side streets take a little longer to change. Still strewn with garbage, the bones of all of yesterday's parties, a misstep and my shoe finds a disregarded citrus rind which I must scrape off as if using all of Mouffetard to mottle an orange for an old fashion.
Olivier is skimming a paper, all the other regulars are in the process of coming or going. We shake hands and I get the stool right next to my usual one. He brings me a coffee, imparting his wisdom in the usual low key way with the nod of his chin. He also gives me a calvados. I tell myself it is not drinking in the morning or at least does not count if someone gives me a drink without my asking. We talk a little but I do not want to make a nuisance of myself and also want to hit the market and post office before the crowds.
I get all the "can no longer ignore" things on my list done. The same routine with its familiar rhythms. It is a comfort but I worry that I have sunk too deep into it, allowing myself to be stymied. I throw my sketchpad into my book bag and my lucky pen in my pocket. I decided to head to Montmartre, strolling around a different neighborhood with new stores to window shop and bars with regulars that are unknown to me.
The weather is perfect and I decide that since I am here, to go once again and check out Berlioz's grave in Montmartre and perhaps sketch it. The viewing of graves not belonging to friends or family is thought odd stateside but rather common in Europe. There are books devoted to telling who is buried where in each great old European city. Paris probably has the highest percentage of artists now in permanent residence and not just from one era nor type of achievement. Like the rest of Europe there are kings and statesmen but it is the artists who interest me. Like the city itself, layers of generations, none trying to overlay itself upon the previous, you can find Moliere to Truffaut to a graffitied JimMorrison.
Anytime I have gone to a cemetery, I encounter at least a few tourists with cameras excitedly paying their respects while photographing the monuments. In many ways it is not too different than the Hollywood walk of stars or buying a map of stars homes at a stop light to do a drive by. The graves are however more of a direct communion, with a meditative component deeper than the fleeting and superficial introspection one may achieve with a drive by.
Paris has three main cemeteries whose occupants are not restricted to the famous but where many of the famous repose. The biggest and oldest, Pere Lachaise, Montparnasse whose grounds could be seen from the windows of one of Picassos apartments, odd for a man who so feared death and Montmartre.
Montmartre is the "nicest" in that it could almost be a park where it not for the ordered rows and sections of monuments and mausoleums. In his published journals, Berlioz now interred there said:
"My favorite walk, especially when it is raining, when it is pouring with rain, is through Montmartre cemetery, which is near where I live. I often go there and I have many friends there."
I still do not feel the muse stirring but as I sit and begin to sketch I realize that even in waiting, I am oddly lucky, to have a life where all struggles aside my "job" is to stay stimulated and create. I begin to hum not even realizing at first that it is Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique".
The Romantic Era in music is sometimes considered to have started with Ludwig Von Beethoven's (1770-1827) "Eroica" symphony (op 55 1804) as this symphony presented a programmatic piece of music, inspired by a Napoleonic figure, to whom Beethoven had actually dedicated the piece and then retracted after feeling that the emperor had betrayed his republican roots.
It was not just what he was doing with his scores that made Beethoven the forerunner of an artistic revolution. He was to be an important touchstone for romantic artists beyond just music and compositional mediums in his attitude. His was the polarizing figure that began to pave the way for the artist's power to be counted not merely as how they were tied to a powerful house/patron but of worth in their own right.
Some of his concepts would be further evolved by those who came after him, others freed up by his art and stance would also go forward, confident in their own pursuit of the muse.
There were several strata of romantics (early/late et al) and many sub genres. When casting a casual glance at the roster of romantics, one realizes that very rarely in history did any one place or era have such a wealth of talent.
In its most simple explanation the romantics sought to portray a way of living and creating, using emotion over logic with a strong leaning towards the sensations induced by nature. As industrialization took hold of more and more of Europe the nature aspect became a component which often rose to the forefront.
The urge for new means of expression had inherently been in the thoughts of artists; many had already taken tentative steps in bringing forth new conceptualizations for their mediums. For each artist, there were variables in their "eureka" moment but part of the overall equation which brought a cohesion to the movement had to do with Charles X (1757-1836) and the July Revolution (1830) when in a gross misstep he dissolved parliament and suspended the freedom of speech for journals and the press which directly effected the populace/artists' freedom of expression. People took to the streets, barricades went up and eventually Charles would be deposed and Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) whose father had signed the death warrant for King Louis XVI (1754-1793) would be crowned King.
Often considered "the last king" as his ineptness at rule made way for a republic revolution and one Emperor (Napoleon iii 1808-1873) . Two monarchs that sought to serve one level of society at the expense of the rest and the mood of the people boiled over. Although always possessing a certain freeing aspect, any revolution also has elements of fear, sorrow and anger. This feeling of walls both social and political, being torn down, no matter how illusionary some of the progress, would serve as a sort of call to arms for a generation of artists.
Not all of the oeuvre produced by the better known of the romantics has aged well. Having unbridled emotions as a catalyst for both their art and lives sometimes had the side effect of an over earnestness, the pains and passions being "absolute" which could have done with a dose of humor or a few light stokes here and there. At its worst the effect is akin to reading a teenager's diary the only difference being many of these self serious youths were breaking new ground right across the board in European culture.
As time went on, some such as painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) who was largely considered the embodiment of the romantic painter, would come to hate and disavow the "romantic" label.
Many artists, even those whose main mode of expression was not the written word, practiced journalism too. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the direct counterpart to Delacroix in that he is often considered the epitome of the romantic composer also disliked the term but in some of the articles that he wrote he acquiesced for the sake of a common reference point, using the term himself.
Berlioz, like many great artists did not start off with ambitions towards anything but taking the path laid out for him by his parents. Perhaps an important "X" factor which is part of the make up of many (artistic) revolutionaries is a rebellion at least on a subconscious level against the social mores of their times and the accompanying expected career paths. A cursory look at the artistic vangarde in all the centuries following the renaissance would show many former doctors, clerks of various kinds, lawyers, students and lay workers.
Berlioz's father had been a physician in Isere who helped pioneer the use of hydrotherapy. It was naturally expected that Berlioz would follow in his medical footsteps. It was to study (1821) that Berlioz first found himself in Paris. A year into his medical studies he also began to take compositional lessons. To his parents this did not seem a sign of things to come as he had already studied flute, flageolet and guitar in his youth. It was after a bad episode with a medical cadaver that Berlioz finally admitted to himself he did not feel the calling to be a doctor (1824).
He remained in Paris and his father agreed to give him an allowance so that he could continue his musical studies. The allowance only went on for a year, being cut off at the insistence of his mother who wholly disapproved of her son's new vocation. Not discouraged, he went forward, being accepted to the Paris Conservatoire (1826) where he studied under Jean-Francois le Sueur (1760-1837).
Lack of proper funds did not seem to daunt Berlioz, He made some money as a chorus singer and would later supplement his income with journalism too. To a certain extent, during the early years of "Berlioz becoming Berlioz" the hardship was made bearable by the excitement most artists feel when finally freeing themselves up to pursue an artistic destiny. The first steps on a self chosen course make the privations seem a noble accoutrement to courting the muse.
Having a few compositions under his belt as his studies progressed, Berlioz would try with a fugue, to win the Prix de Rome. It is interesting that as revolutionary as his art was to become, Berlioz did not seek to ignore or change the Parisian music scene's system of advancement and recognition. The Prix de Rome was an award for which he would try for five years to win. The award part of the prize did not have as much meaning to him as the appeal of the three to five year stipend that went with it, which would allow him to concentrate more fully on composing. The prize has a double rich history of ignoring some of each era's brightest lights ( Degas, Manet, Ravel, Chausson) And some of those who actually won the award, hating life at The Villa Medici, where the winners were expected to live and work. Berlioz, like many before him and after, greatly disliked life at the villa and traveled around the country as much as possible, banking ideas for future compositions.
Symphonie Fantastique is Berlioz's most famous composition and there are many misconceptions in regards to his life and this work.
Shakespeare was going through one of its revivals in Paris. An English troupe performed a run of some of the bard's better know tragedies (1827). Some of the overall excitement came from the more naturalized stage movements and style of declamations also more organic than what the theater going public had grown accustomed to. At a performance of Hamlet Berlioz saw Harriet Smithson play Ophelia and fell passionately and recklessly for her. He sent her letters which were offputting to her in their intensity. She rejected his courtship outright although he would spend years pursuing her via letters. The shorthand of his life would have it that in her serial rejection of him, he was a man alone and desperate with only her on his mind. In truth he interacted with many of his peers and he dated a young pianist named Camille Moke (1803-1869) to whom he would become engaged.
While serving his time in Rome Berlioz would receive a telegram from Camille's mother telling him of Camille's engagement to another. This news sent Berlioz into frenzy. He formed a complicated plan which could have come from a Dumas novel, involving disguising himself as a woman with wig and veil, making his way back to Paris where he would shoot his former intended and her new man after which he would take his own life. Always being meticulous in his planning he bought two kinds of poison in case the guns he had stolen from the villa misfired. By coach he made it all the way to Nice before realizing the absurdity of the whole thing. He sent the director of the academy a telegram asking to be released from his further obligations, which he was.
In the symphony the main protagonist, a love struck artist, takes opium which in conjunction with his own temperament, elicits some of the symphonies episodic visions. In real life, Berlioz would years later finally get Harriet by threatening to kill himself by swallowing opium, which he does, quickly taking a cure as she finally agrees to his hand in marriage (1833). The poison/cure pantomime had not really fooled her. The truth was her fortunes and powers as an actress had been on the wane and Berlioz represented an influx in money and prestige. All of this has been misconstrued as the tale of Berlioz penning the symphony while under the influence of opium which was far from the truth.
Nor was the symphony inspired by the need for catharsis from the initial multiple rejections by Harriet. Some of the pain and frustrations were birthed from failed amours but it was an amalgam of Harriet and Camille and even then by his own admission, the symphony was written long after the biographical emotional connections had cooled. As many composers would do too, Berlioz borrowed motifs for passages from some of his older compositions further proof that the symphony was more thoroughly planned than a sudden cry "why" up to the sky after heartbreak.
There had been music which incorporated it before his but Symphony was the first most sharply focused piece of programmatic music. Berlioz would even take the unheard of step of utilizing his writing powers to print up a descriptive program for audience and critics to have beforehand.
Structured into five parts, the symphony tells the story of an artist and the elusive object of his passion and was subtitled "Episodes in the Life of an Artist". The sections are all given individual titles;
Reveries-Passions, Un Bal, Scene aux Champs, Marche au Supplice, Songe d'une Nuit de Sabbat. The premier would split artists and critics right down the middle in opinion. German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) famously quipped that bad titles can not effect good music.
The first section starts off introducing the artist with fluttering strings that manage to be both lush and delicate. The romantic object of the artist's affection is represented throughout the symphony with a motif, the idee fixe. Very early on in the first section something bubbles just under the surface of the beauty, dark celloed discordance alternating with the strings whose fluctuation in tempo increases the tension. The dichotomy of deeper toned part of the string section slowly merges with the rest, becoming a rich, unified day dream.
"Un Bal" is the artist at a ball trying to be noticed by his obsession. The section starts off with a waltz lead by two harps. Even were one not to know the symphonies program, the music is so descriptive that from behind closed eyes appear the images of woman in white lace gloved hands being spun into the orbit of other dancers on the floor. Like the image of the women herself glimpsed occasionally in the throng of revelers, the idee fixe melody appears several times in this episode. Flutes flutter, slippered feet in motion but also at times threaten to verge on shrill, our artist wanting to be noticed.
"Scene aux Champ" has a pastoral aspect which can be seen to be directly descend from Beethoven. In his own program notes Berlioz described two shepherds talking to their cows, describing the surrounding nature too. The conversational duet at the start is between oboe and cor anglais, spaced out as if the two Shepards are separated by some hills. It is the artist's attempt to find some peace from his fevered dream of want in a walk but the idee fixee melody reappears once again to trouble him. This section has ideas first used by Berlioz for his Messe Solennelle (1824).
"Marche au supplice" is the artist at his wit's end. He attempts suicide with opium but gets the dose wrong inducing not death but visions. The artist dreams of having murdered his obsession then sees, third person, his own execution starting with the long march to the scaffold. This sections has an overall dark drama about it. A man taking that final walk as crowds jeer and push at him, everyone wanting to touch the dead man for fun. There is a horn fanfare which could be the law answered by the various parts of the string section which soar and are plucked, the guards and executioners who perhaps enjoy their work a little too much. Not as a last moment of peace or grace but one final torture, the idee fixe melody is heard again. The artist's head is bounced down the scaffold's steps as the drummers so busy watching the spectacle continue their beat for a moment after the deed is done, the swell of noise standing in for the roar of the crowd.
"Songe d'une Nuit de Sabbat" is the artist's funeral attended by witches and other creatures. The main voices of those in attendance is portrayed by the strings which manage to moan, and laugh as if knowing the absurdity of the pedestal the artist had put his heart's desire on. To further emphasize this, the idee fixe melody appears again this time in the style of a sort of low tavern (dance) tune as voiced by clarinet. As a private joke Berlioz included a fugue in this last section, the style of composition he had labored over so hard for years to win the Prix de Rome now becoming an aural short hand for hell. Bells are heard tolling along with the Dies Irae melody. The artist is carried down to hell, no change of fate, lesson learned or noble sacrifice accompanying his descent which furthered the piece's uniqueness.
I finish several sketches including some of the plants growing in the planters around his grave. "Thanks Pal" I say as I put my pad and pen away. I am thirsty and decide to go to a cafe I had passed along the way whose sign I liked as it looked like it has been there forever.
I order a Ricard and let my mind wander as I doodle on the placemat. The cafe is empty it being the odd hour of the day, too late for lunch too early for l'heure d'aperitif there is only me and at the opposite end of the patio, a girl whose age I can not figure out as she has the sun to her back. Someone stands over my table and assuming it is the waitress, I automatically say "thanks" before realizing it is the girl.
Her eyes are large and I think I may enjoy drawing them, I motion for her to sit down. We start to talk two rounds at a leisurely pace, I sketch looking her over. I notice that she has a butterfly tattooed on her foot. Her lips are a swollen cupid's bow made for someone with shorter arms.She is enjoying herself and lets me know.
"I think I can learn things from you, if you don't mind, where should we start?"
For now, I like her. To mention anything to do with art and modeling is what is expected of me, almost a prerequisite for anything else to come. I hate absolutes even those of expectation. I decide to teach her how to drink chrysanthemum tea. I pay the bill and we set off to buy some Wolfberries and rock sugar.
Image: Berlio'z Grave, photgraph by Wayne Wolfson