Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hector Berlioz is Hard on the Italians

From his memoirs, p. 183 in the Dover edition of the Newman translations:
   When I reached Milan, Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore was being played at the Cannobiana, and to satisfy my conscience I went to see it. I found the theatre full of people talking at the top of their voices, with their backs to the stage; the singers all the time gesticulating and shouting in eager rivalry. So at least I judged by seeing their huge open mouths, for the people made so much noise that it was impossible to hear a sound beyond the big drum. In the boxes some were gambling, and others were having supper. I therefore retired, since it was no use hoping to hear the smallest fractiom of the music, which was then quite new to me. It appears, however -- so at least I am assured -- that the Italians do occasionally listen. But, at any rate, music to the Milanese, no less than to the Neapolitans, Romans, Florentines, and Genoese, means nothing but an air, a duet, or a trio, well sung. For anything beyond this they feel simply aversion or indifference. Perhaps these antipathies are mainly due to the incompetence of their choruses and orchestras, which effectually prevents their knowing anything good outside the beaten track they have so long followed. Possibly, too, they may to a certain extent understand the flights of men of genius, if these latter are careful not to give too rude a shock to their rooted predilections. The great success of Guillaume Tell at Florence supports this opinion, and even Spontini's sublime Vestale obtained a series of brilliant representations at Naples some twenty-give years ago. Moreover, in those towns which are under the Austrian rule, you will see the people rush after a military band and listen with avidity to the beautiful German melodies, so unlike their own insipid cavatinas. Nevertheless, in general it is impossible to disguise the fact that the Italians as a nation really appreciate on the material effects of music, and distinguish nothing but its exterior forms.

   Indeed, I am much inclined to regard them as more inaccessible to the poetical side of art, and to any conceptions at all above the common, than any other European nation. To the Italians music is a sensual pleasure and noting more. For this most beautiful form of expression they have scarcely any more respect than for the culinary art. They like music which they can assimilate at a first hearing, without reflection or attention, just as they would do with a plate of macaroni.


Henry Holland said...

Wow. Just.....wow. I think things might be a little better than in Mr. Berlioz' days, Death in Venice was apparently a success recently at La Scala.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ahahaha, but, yeah, he's kind of down on the Italians!

I wonder what he would have thought of Falstaff.