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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 11:59 GMT
Row mars Berlioz anniversary
Berlioz
Berlioz was not a prolific composoer

The 200th anniversary of the birth of arguably France's greatest composer Hector Berlioz has sparked a row over his final resting place.

His devotees are divided over whether his remains should be moved to the Pantheon in Paris.

The committee organising a year of celebrations and concerts to mark the bicentenary wants the highpoint to be the transfer of his body in a state ceremony on 21 June - France's annual Fete de la Musique, or Music Day.

Berlioz spent his whole life in search of honours. Of course he would approve

Georges Hirsch, director Orchestre de Paris

But it is met with unexpectedly harsh opposition from many of the composer's own fans, as well as from critics who say Berlioz was a right-winger with no place in France's Republican Valhalla.

Born the son of a doctor in 1803 near Lyon, Berlioz at first studied medicine, but the nausea he felt at the first sight of blood meant he swiftly changed to music.

He was one of the few great composers never to have mastered a musical instrument, but he is seen now as the man who picked up the baton of romanticism from Beethoven and later handed it on to Wagner.

Recognition

Lovers of his music say that though his output was hardly prolific, four symphonies, three operas, a Requiem and about 20 other pieces, each was a highly original work of genius.

And yet during his lifetime, and since, he received barely any recognition in France, being much more popular in the countries where he travelled, including Italy, Britain and Germany.

Berlioz's grave
Berlioz is buried in Montmartre
"It has always seemed to me quite staggering that in Paris there is not a single street named after the man who is in my view France's greatest ever composer," said Michel Austin, who runs a Hector Berlioz Internet site from St Andrews in Scotland.

It was to redress this oversight that the committee led by Georges Hirsch, director of the Orchestre de Paris, launched the initiative to have Berlioz's body removed from Montmartre cemetery where he was buried in 1869 and brought across the river Seine to the Pantheon.

There he would be the first ever musician to be afforded the supreme national accolade, to lie beside such luminaries as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and resistance leader Jean Moulin.

'Long overdue'

"The tribute is long overdue," said Hirsch. "Berlioz was not only a composer of genius. He was also a great writer and a great innovator.

Berlioz was a real rebel, not like today, when everyone is one

Christian Wasselin, Berlioz biographer
"Many of our modern theories of orchestration we owe to him."

But Hirsch did not count on the fury his proposals aroused in many of Berlioz's most fervent fans.

They point out that it was the composer's dying wish to lie in Montmartre beside his two wives, the Irish born actress Harriet Smithson, to whom he devoted his most famous work the Fantastic Symphony, and Marie Recio.

Some are also angry because they say Berlioz never saw himself as an establishment figure.

"Berlioz was a real rebel, not like today, when everyone is one, but a real rebel in his time. I think it would be extremely cynical to make him a kind of 'official' composer 200 years on," said Christian Wasselin, author of a biography of the composer.

Attack

Hirsch says this is rubbish: "Berlioz spent his whole life in search of honours. Of course he would approve."

A third line of attack comes from those who say Berlioz supported Emperor Napoleon III's coup d'etat against the Republic in 1851 and thus disqualified himself from any state tribute of this kind.

"The fact is inescapable: the Berlioz who invented the modern orchestra also showed himself in his life to be an ardent reactionary," wrote commentator Joel-Marie Fauquet in Le Monde newspaper.

Ultimately the decision whether to move Berlioz to the Pantheon belongs to President Jacques Chirac.

And the signs are that he may make a judgment of Solomon: yes to the transfer but not just yet.

That way both sides in this musical dispute can claim victory or indeed defeat.

See also:

27 Sep 02 | England
30 Nov 02 | Europe
20 Mar 02 | Entertainment
28 Nov 02 | Entertainment
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