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One of France's leading composers, and a principal representative of the Romantic movement in European music.

Berlioz and Schenker

In his writings as a newpaper music critic between 1891 and 1901 Schenker showed himself well acquainted with Berlioz's writings on music by quoting from them. His library at the time of his death included Les grotesques de la musique (1859) and Les soirées de l'orchestre (1852) in German translations by Richard Pohl (1864). In his important article "Impersonal Music" (Neue Revue, April 9, 1897), Schenker launched an early attack on Berlioz and Liszt as founders of the genre of program music, alleging that they and their "school" had artistic personalities that were too small (hence "impersonal"), consequently were unable to express themselves musically and had to resort to words and images. Two weeks later he wrote of the "little" Berlioz, who "through his sheer ambitiousness rendered music sick" and "in endless orchestral miscalculations exhausted his personal insignificance."

In the same article, he said that music must "explain itself by its own means"; and in his Harmonielehre of 1906 he illustrated this analytically, discussing a passage from the "March du supplice" of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in which the triads of Dflat and G are directly juxtaposed. While the juxtaposition resembles a Phrygian progression in C minor, Schenker says, Berlioz forces it into the key of G minor, producing a deficiency in which he has "neglected to compose out the harmonies Dflat‒F‒Aflat and G‒Bflat‒D in any way, motivically or thematically, as a result of which, as unverified sonorities, as it were hanging in the air, they are bound to give rise to doubts in our minds" (pp. 147‒48, Eng. transl., pp. 112‒14).

In his Instrumentation Table , Schenker included works by Berlioz among the citations, mostly for non-standard orchestral instruments such as Eflat clarinet, cornet, ophicleide, and bass tuba. Evidently in preparation for the Table Schenker drew on Berlioz's Grand traité d'instrumentation (1843, though he may have used the 1904‒05 enlargement by Richard Strauss as Instrumentationslehre von Hector Berlioz), but he rather audaciously regarded his three-page introduction as superior to Berlioz's massive work.

But it was in his unpublished "Decline of the Art of Composition" (c.1906‒09) that Schenker launched a full-scale attack on Berlioz (who "possessed from the outset very few musical red blood cells"). The requirement for music to "explain itself" was now replaced by the criterion of "synthesis" as exhibited by Beethoven. Literature has its own laws, which are different from those of music. When admitted into music, literature disables the "autochthnous rule of music laws," and so makes synthesis of music's elements impossible to achieve: "The briefest of Haydn keyboard sonatas has more musically synthesis-bearing esprit than the entire life's work of Berlioz." (Use of the French word esprit here was ironic.) Moreover, Berlioz believed that he was achieving musical "progress" ‒ a notion that Schenker regarded as delusional.

In 1914, in an unpublished article "German Genius," Schenker remarked: "Never did Berlioz have it in his power to write a distinctive, let alone symphonic, bass line!"

By 1922, doubtless in the aftermath of World War I and the Versailles Treaty, Schenker's language had become sharper. "The artistic director has no idea that Berlioz, purely on his own terms, let alone measured beside a Beethoven, is not even a rank beginner when it comes to musical composition. What is so laughable, so derisory, about his conduct is that sheer downright ignorance leads him to the extremity of cavassing for French art, or for the cosmopolitan mentality, or both, in a form that casts a false light not only on a respected institution but on the nation, or at least on the premier musical city" ( Tonwille 3, deleted at proof stage; restored in the Eng. transl., vol. I, p. 137). In his essay on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 1923, he invoked Mendelssohn's disparaging remarks about Berlioz's orchestral writing ( Tonwille 5, p. 19, fn.; Eng. transl., vol. I, pp. 189‒90, fn. 21).

It is not surprising that, when he came to compile his music examples for Free Composition (1935), he ignored Berlioz's music completely.


  • Ian Bent

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