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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Italian Race as Musicians and Auditors

By Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

From Berlioz’s Autobiography

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 wretched performance 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-five 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 usual insipid cavatinas. Nevertheless, in general it is impossible to disguise the fact that the Italians as a nation really appreciate only 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 nothing more. For this most beautiful form of expression they have scarcely more respect than for the culinary art. In fact, they like music which they can take in at first hearing, without reflection or attention, just as they would do with a plate of macaroni.

Now, we French, mean and contemptible musicians as we are, although we are no better than the Italians when we furiously applaud a trill or a chromatic scale by the last new singer, and miss altogether the beauty of some grand recitative or animated chorus, yet at least we can listen, and if we do not take in a composer’s ideas it is not our fault. Beyond the Alps, on the contrary, people behave in a manner so humiliating both to art and to artists, whenever any representation is going on, that I confess I would as soon sell pepper and spice at a grocer’s in the Rue St. Denis as write an opera for the Italians—nay, I would sooner do it.

Added to this, they are slaves to routine and to fanaticism to a degree one hardly sees nowadays, even at the Academy. The slightest unforeseen innovation, whether in melody, harmony, rhythm, or instrumentation, puts them into a perfect fury; so much so, that the dilettanti of Rome, on the appearance of Rossini’s ‘Barbiere di Seviglia’ (which is Italian enough in all conscience), were ready to kill the young maestro for having the insolence to do anything unlike Paisiello.

But what renders all hope of improvement quite chimerical, and tempts one to believe that the musical feeling of the Italians is a mere necessary result of their organization,—the opinion both of Gall and Spurzheim,—is their love for all that is dancing, brilliant, glittering, and gay, to the utter neglect of the various passions by which the characters are animated, and the confusion of time and place—in a word, of good sense itself. Their music is always laughing: and if by chance the composer in the course of the drama permits himself for one moment not to be absurd, he at once hastens back to his prescribed style, his melodious roulades and grupetti, his trills and contemptible frivolities, either for voice or orchestra; and these, succeeding so abruptly to something true to life, have an unreal effect, and give the opera seria all the appearance of a parody or caricature.

I could quote plenty of examples from famous works; but speaking generally of these artistic questions, is it not from Italy that we get those stereotyped conventional forms adopted by so many French composers, resisted by Cherubim and Spontini alone among the Italians, though rejected entirely by the Germans? What well-organized person with any sense of musical expression could listen to a quartet in which four characters, animated by totally conflicting passions, should successively employ the same melodious phrase to express such different words as these: “O, toi que j’adore!” “Quelle terreur me glace!” “Mon cœur bat de plaisir!” “La fureur me transporte!” To suppose that music is a language so vague that the natural inflections of fury will serve equally well for fear, joy, and love, only proves the absence of that sense which to others makes the varieties of expression in music as incontestable a reality as the existence of the sun…. I regard the course taken by Italian composers as the inevitable result of the instincts of the public, which react more or less on the composers themselves.