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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin
The Limits of Music

fig. 6-11 Execution of Louis XVI by guillotine, 1793 (anonymous engraving, late eighteenth century).

The Limits of Music

ex. 6-9 Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, IV, mm. 174-end

The comic literalism of the ending to the March to the Scaffold gives us our opportunity, before turning to the symphony's wholly fantastic concluding movement, briefly to compare romantic theory and practice. When wearing his critic's rather than his composer's hat, Berlioz was known to rail at literal depiction as a lapse of style or taste, and a transgression against the true spirit of romanticism. In a fascinating essay of 1837, “De l'Imitation musicale” (“On imitation in music,” or as aptly paraphrased by its translator, Jacques Barzun, “The limits of music”), he tried to formulate a romantic theory of musical depiction, supporting it with examples, both positive and negative, from the literature. It is easy to see that the article was motivated not only by the failure of previous writers (such as Giuseppe Carpani, whose biography of Haydn furnished the immediate pretext) to come up with an adequate theory, but also by the criticism that the Symphonie fantastique had been receiving from conservative musicians, in particular from François-Joseph Fétis (1784–1871), the influential editor of the Revue musicale, the leading Paris music magazine.

Berlioz begins by admitting that misconceived or inappropriate imitations of nature can produce unintentional comedy, and not only in music. Writing of the great tragedian François-Joseph Talma (1763–1826), whose portrayal of Orestes in Racine's Andromaque was considered by many the most glorious achievement of the French dramatic stage, Berlioz had the effrontery to remark of the recently deceased tragedian that when he

used to hiss the s’s as he exclaimed, “Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes? [For whom are those snakes that hiss around your heads?],” far from being terrifying he always made me want to laugh. For it seemed to me clear, then as now, that this solicitude of Orestes to imitate the hissing of serpents when his soul is filled with terror, his heart with despair, and his head with ghostly visions, was directly opposed to any idea we may form of what is dramatically natural and likely. Obviously Orestes is not describing the Furies; he imagines that he is actually seeing them. He hails them, pleads with them, defies them; and one must be a very docile spectator not to find comic a piece of imitation ascribed to such a sufferer at such a juncture.27

Berlioz hazards four rules to govern the use of descriptive or illustrative devices in music: If we are to accept imitation among musical devices without detracting from music's independent power or nobleness, the first condition is that imitation shall virtually never be an end but only a means; that it shall never be considered (except very rarely) the main musical idea, but only the complement of that idea, joined to the main idea in a logical and natural manner.

The second condition to making imitation acceptable is that it shall concern something worthy of holding the listener's attention, and that it shall not (at least in serious works) be used to render sounds, motions, or objects that belong outside the sphere which art cannot desert without self-degradation.

The third condition is that the imitation, without aping reality as by an exact substitution of nature for art, shall nonetheless be close enough for the composer's intent to avoid misconception in the minds of an attentive audience.

The fourth and last condition is that this physical imitation shall never occur in the very spot where emotional imitation (expressiveness) is called for, and thus encroach with descriptive futilities when the drama is proceeding apace and passion alone deserves a voice.28

When it comes to the examples, we are not surprised to find Beethoven cited at first as a model of correct procedure.

But then Berlioz turns around and audaciously cites him as a transgressor—a move calculated, at the very least, to attract attention. Nor is the citation of Handel's Israel in Egypt a surprise. But note that Berlioz cites it from hearsay, and inaccurately. Handel's oratorios, continually in active repertory in England and lately revived in Germany, were still terra incognita in France.

It might seem as if the “Storm” in the Pastoral Symphony were a magnificent exception to our first rule which allows imitation only as a means and not as an end. For this symphonic movement is wholly given over to the reproduction of the divers noises heard during a violent storm which breaks suddenly over some village festivities. First a few drops of rain, then the rising wind, the thunder grumbling dully in the distance, the birds seeking shelter; finally the approaching gale, the boughs that split, men and animals scattering with cries of dismay, the shattering bolts of lightning, the floodgates of heaven opening, the elements let loose—chaos.

And yet this sublime depiction, which outstrips anything that had ever been attempted in the genre, actually falls within the category of contrasts and dramatic effects, which are required by the scope of the work. For it is preceded and followed by gentle and smiling scenes to which it acts as a foil. That this is so may be tested by imagining this storm transplanted into another composition in which its presence would not be motivated: it would unquestionably lose a great deal of its effectiveness. Hence this piece of imitation is strictly speaking a means of achieving contrast, devised and managed with the incalculable power of genius.

The Limits of Music

ex. 6-10 Ludwig van Beethoven, Fidelio, Act II, no. 12 (“Es ist nicht leicht!” “Nur etwas noch!”), mm. 1-4

In Fidelio, on the other hand, a work by the same composer, we find another piece of musical imitation of very different purport from the one just reviewed. It occurs in the famous duet at the grave: the jailer and Fidelio dig the place where Florestan is to be buried. Halfway through their toil the pair unearth a large rock and roll it with difficulty to one side. At that point the double basses of the orchestra play a strange and very brief figure—not to be confused with the ostinato phrase of the basses which runs through the whole piece—by which it is said Beethoven wished to imitate the dull sound of the rolling stone [Ex. 6-10].

Now this imitation, being in no way necessary either to the drama or to the effectiveness of the music, is really an end in itself for the composer: he imitates in order to imitate—and at once he falls into error, for there is in such imitation no poetry, no drama, no truth. It is a sad piece of childishness, which one is equally grieved and surprised to have to complain of in a great master. The same could be said of Handel, if it be true—as is commonly said—that in his oratorio Israel in Egypt he tried to reproduce the flight of locusts, and this to the point of shaping accordingly the rhythmic figure of the vocal parts. Surely that is a regrettable imitation of a subject even more regrettable—unworthy of music in general and of the noble and elevated style of the oratorio.29

There is no need for us to render a judgment of the end of the fourth movement of the Symphonie fantastique according to these criteria. (Our judgments should, and inevitably will, reflect our criteria, not Berlioz's.) What is most pertinent is Berlioz's insistence that what is at stake are the proper limits of musical representation—ultimately the proper limits of artistic representation in general, and even more broadly, the limits of properly artistic subject matter. That is indeed a perpetually contested boundary, and will remain one as long as anyone feels a personal stake in art.


(27) Berlioz, “De l'imitation musicale,” in Fantastic Symphony, ed. Edward T. Cone, p. 41.

(28) Ibid., p. 38.

(29) Ibid., pp. 38–39.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006007.xml