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Theme - Les Troyens

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A History of the Trojans

Episode 1 — By Charles Alexandre Creton

The history of The Trojans cannot be reduced to the duration of its composition and the ordeal of its first performance in 1863. The history of the work coincided with Berlioz’s most feverish inspirations and also with his most acute bouts of anxiety with regard to the musical institution of Paris. Cross-referencing Berlioz’s Mémoires with the score of The Trojans reveals a singular voice, that of an author who now wished for only one thing: to live his art.

Sophocles Silenced

One is insufficiently aware, in general, of the cost of the labour by which the score of an opera is produced, and by what repeated efforts, far more arduous and more agonising still, is its public performance obtained.”

The composition of only three operas have been attributed to Berlioz of which but one “Grand Opera” in the generic sense of the term: The Trojans. The above statement taken from the closing pages of Berlioz’s critical work À travers chants sounds like an appeal to the reader to reconsider his work with indulgence. If one reads his Mémoires, the “thousand torments”, characteristic of the composition of an opera, assailed him constantly, whatever the work in hand. These torments and agonies, Berlioz considered to be characteristic of a period that had lost its faith in art, of a society which, at the opera, was more interested in discussing the stock market than in watching the performance in progress. Those spectators, despite reducing the opera house to the scene of their worldly preoccupations, imposed upon the artist, a “modern Sophocles”, endlessly to recommence without ever assuring his success.

Berlioz imagined himself in the skin of a “happy, powerful, radiant, almost god-like” author, the embodiment, in his view, of a tragic poet of Antiquity like Sophocles. In the composition and the performance of his works, he sought self-fulfilment and aimed to reveal, in the moment of realisation, the instant of inspirational truth. What was at stake in the composition of a grand opera like The Trojans, was a piece of mosaic from a musical portrait that was to bring resonance and logic to an entire tableau rendering him the ultimate dramatic composer of the 19th century.

What the author of Soirées d’orchestre lacked in order to establish himself as an opera composer in the French musical landscape was above all a voice. As a child, Berlioz had had a “pretty soprano voice” (chapter 2 of his Mémoires) and, after abandoning his studies in medicine, auditioned to become a chorister. The young prodigy joined the chorus with the voice of a “mediocre baritone.” In narrating this episode, Berlioz has little compassion for his rivals and even gives the impression of unlimited arrogance when he claims that they sang “not like cowherds but like calves.” Although one can imagine the author’s pleasure in remembering this audition, one should first of all see here a rhetorical procedure permitting him to sketch out his destiny in terms of grand opera. “There was I then, until such time as I could become a damned opera composer, in the chorus of a second rate theatre, passed over and excommunicated right to the very marrow of my bones! I admire the way my parents’ efforts to snatch me back from the abyss were successful!” Berlioz never ceases to dramatise his approach to the voice and then to opera and, in the reader of the Mémoires, seeks to arouse understanding rather than compassion – even when he depicts himself as a composer cursed less by the muses of operatic inspiration as by opera directors and the mediocrity of the artists who peopled Paris at that time. The irony and sarcasm in his writing about himself underpins the sensitivity and genuine pain that he felt throughout his life, a life dedicated to the quest for the “master piece dreamed of in childhood”.

La vie parisienne : dessin humoristique de Firmin Gillot lors de la création des Troyens à Carthage au Théâtre Lyrique, 1863
La vie parisienne : dessin humoristique de Firmin Gillot lors de la création des Troyens à Carthage au Théâtre Lyrique, 1863 © BnF / BmO

The Temptation of Opera and symphonic creation

Known to music lovers for the revolution he instigated in the genre of the symphony, owing particularly to his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz was obsessed by opera in every one of his compositions. This five-act symphonic poem is itself a grand opera whose dramatic action is expressed by the orchestra. However, each time he tackles the operatic genre, Berlioz makes a well-argued denial of the fact, as in the preface to Romeo and Juliet (1839): “There will doubtless be no mistake as to the genre of this work. Although voices are used, this is neither a concert opera nor a cantata, but a symphony with chorus.” He is, however, not the first composer to use a chorus in a symphony, and this prefatory precaution reads, then, like a desire to counter those who might have taxed his use of voices with being dramatic.

Already in 1823, the young Berlioz had plunged into the composition of a first opera, a “score as ridiculous, to say the least, as the play and the verse of Gérono” (whom he had asked to write a libretto based on Florian’s Estelle). Ten years later, when Berlioz composed the music for his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, which was adapted from the life story of the Italian sculptor (La Vita), it was once again the libretto that jeopardised the success of the work. “I had been vividly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini, I had the misfortune to believe that they might offer subject matter for an interesting and dramatic opera, I begged Léon de Waily and Auguste Barbier, that dreadful poet of iambs to write me a libretto based on them. Their work, if I am to believe our mutual friends, does not include the elements necessary to what is called a “well-made” drama.” These mutual friends also, under the author’s pen, become but the wranglings of inner voices tending to raise him to the rank of opera composer. Was there room for anyone else in Berlioz’s creative process?
    

The Trojans: the artist liberated at a cost: the voices of others

For Berlioz to produce an opera and fulfil himself as a “happy, powerful, radiant” artist one voice was missing: his own. In The Trojans, it is not his “pretty soprano voice” that the author wishes to find again, still less his “mediocre baritone”, but that which from childhood onwards “wavered and cracked” on reading the fourth book of the Aenead. As a “masterpiece dreamed of in childhood and accomplished through experience” (Rémy Sticker), The Trojans leaves no room for any other voice but his own: “As I have already said, if I am to organise the performance of a great work such as this one in a suitable manner, I must have total mastery of the theatre as I have of the orchestra when I rehearse a symphony; I must have the willing cooperation of all and everyone must obey me without the slightest comment.” Berlioz dreamed of the absolute. A “total work of art” (sacrilege – he would never have used this expression) requires a total artist - unfettered genius. Music, libretto, staging, lights, everything is the composer’s business.

However, Berlioz very nearly failed ever to produce the piece of mosaic that would give meaning to his musical life as a whole. Once again, this reticence is the expression of his fear of the opera genre, and more particularly of the way he perceived the institutional maltreatment of operatic works in his 19th century. Thus, one reads in the dedication addressed to the Princess of Wayn-Wittgenstein with which the score of The Trojans begins: “I had just spoken of my desire to write a vast operatic composition based on the fourth book of the Aenead. I added that I would studiously avoid undertaking it, knowing all too well the grief that such a work would necessarily occasion me in France, in our day, with our strange literary and musical habits, and the puerile instincts of the mob.” The composer was, in that moment of reflection, in full possession of his work, it was his own in the sense that he recognised himself in it, was fulfilled by it but he agonised – less over the manner with which the public might receive it as over how the theatres were going to treat it.    

Esquisse de décor de l’acte III pour Les Troyens à Carthage par Charles-Antoine Cambon, 1863
Esquisse de décor de l’acte III pour Les Troyens à Carthage par Charles-Antoine Cambon, 1863 © BnF / BmO

Berlioz never was the absolute master in the theatre as he wished to be. His voice was altered not by the inspiration and the emotion that accompanied it but by the choices made by the theatre director, Léon Carvalho, to whom Berlioz entrusted the staging. During his lifetime, Berlioz never heard the Capture of Troy; having found the work too long and ill-adapted for the stage, Carvalho amputated the first part and offered the public only one episode from Antiquity, a passage more common in opera since Purcell, the meeting between Dido and Aeneas. Berlioz recounts with humour all the modifications that were demanded of him and to which he finally consented:

Carvalho persisted with incredible determination, in spite of my resistance, in cutting the scene between Narbal and Anna, the dance aria and the sentinels’ duet, the familiarity of which seemed to him incompatible with the epic style. Iopas’s verses disappeared with my consent, because the singer cast in the role was incapable of singing them well. It was the same with the duet between Aeneas and Dido: I had acknowledged the inadequacy of Madame Charton’s voice in this violent scene which tired the artist to the point at which she no longer had the strength, in the fifth act, to sing the formidable recitative: “Dieux immortels! il part!” and her last aria and the sacrificial pyre scene. Finally, Hylas’s song which had been found highly pleasing during the initial performances and which the young Cabel sang well, disappeared whilst I was laid up in bed afflicted with bronchitis. Cabel was required in the piece that was to be played the night following the performances of The Trojans and as his contract only obliged him to sing fifteen times a month, he would have had to have been paid two hundred francs for each additional evening.”

In these lines, the operatic institution seems to be solely responsible for the tribulations of the composer, who claims to have undergone an ordeal and speaks of his work as a “score carved up, in the music merchant’s shop window, like a calf on a butcher’s block, of which small bits are cut off as one might sell little scraps of meat to regale the porters’ cats!” It is true that the critics were scarcely merciful towards the work’s premiere performance. However, what Berlioz depicted as a failure was far from being any such thing. “Les Troyens à Carthage had only twenty-one performances”. For the period, this number is far from derisory and did not by any means represent a failure for the Théâtre Lyrique. Indeed, Berlioz himself received considerable honours as a result of these performances. He evoked particularly a series of concerts in which extracts from The Trojans were performed – concerts which he attended incognito but at which he was quickly recognised and acclaimed. But the greatest honour that the composer drew from The Trojans at the Théâtre Lyrique was, ironically, institutional and social. Being both the work’s composer and its librettist, Berlioz received royalties permitting him to end his collaboration with the Journal des débats and thus divest himself of the mask of critic so as finally to live by his art.

At last, at last, after thirty years of slavery, here I am free! I have no more articles to write, no more platitudes to justify, no more mediocre people to praise, no more indignation to suppress, no more lies, no more play-acting, no more cowardly compliance, I am free! I need never set foot in an opera house again, never speak of them, never hear about them, never even laugh over what they’re cooking up in those musical chop houses! Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!! It is to The Trojans, at least, that this unhappy scribbler owes his deliverance.”

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