Abstract

This article analyzes the writings of Berlioz on Wagner and, to a lesser extent, of Wagner on Berlioz, emphasizing the covert innuendoes of their verbal sparring during the period surrounding the Tannhääuser debacle at the Paris Opééra (1860) and Berlioz's tribulations with Les Troyens (ca. 1853––63). Because Berlioz's style and subtlety have worked against him in this famous rivalry, the priority goes to him, and especially to his magnum opus as critic, the volume A travers chants (1862). A selection from thirty years of music criticism both serious and light ("flying leaves"), A travers chants reveals itself as an unconventional counterpart to Wagner's treatises; as a tactical response to Wagner, both in the reprinted review of his 1860 concerts and in the structure, themes, and allusions of the text as a whole; as an object lesson in reading Berlioz, whose engaging clarity and humor can be more deceptive, in their ironic undertones, than the thickets of Wagner's famously tangled prose. This article interrogates some of that prose, revealing Wagner's deep ambivalence toward a predecessor of intimidating prestige to whom his music is frequently indebted——as Berlioz occasionally finds coded ways of reminding him. It shows Berlioz, for his part, continually sympathetic to the younger man's practical difficulties and high artistic ideals. And it shows him eventually coming to acknowledge the power and legitimacy of his music, despite strong aversion to Wagner's harmonic idiom and to the two cardinal points of his aesthetic: an "impious" insistence on the primacy of the word; belief in a musical progress culminating in his own Gesamtkunstwerk. In a late letter wrongly omitted from the Correspondance géénéérale (its authenticity and correct date are here established), Berlioz movingly implies the injustice of his earlier prejudice toward a practice sanctioned by his own unshakeable creed of artistic freedom.

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