I was listening to the beginning of Hector Berlioz’s supernally beautiful song “Le spectre de la rose” when a mad thought occurred to me: Berlioz was the Veltman of music, and Veltman was the Berlioz of literature. (See this old post for a similarly crazed insight about Emily Dickinson and George Herriman.) Start with their dates: Berlioz 1803–1869, Veltman 1800–1870. Meaningless coincidence in and of itself, of course, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Berlioz’s work and its reception: “Between 1830 and 1840, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works…. After the 1830s, Berlioz found it increasingly difficult to achieve recognition for his music in France.” The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Veltman, and the dates of his most successful novels, Strannik (1831–32) and Koshchei the immortal (1833), correspond quite closely to those of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830) and Harold en Italie (1834), still the most often played of his works (and there was a time when I wished never to hear Symphonie fantastique again).

But all of that is trivia. Here’s the reason the comparison occurred to me: as W. J. Turner wrote in his pioneering Berlioz: The Man and His Work, “Berlioz never studied and could not play the pianoforte, so that from the beginning he thought in vocal and orchestral tone.” (Berlioz himself, in his wonderful memoirs, explained: “My father did not wish me to study the piano. Otherwise it is probable I should have become a redoubtable pianist like forty thousand others.”) This is why his orchestration is so brilliant and unique, and why it was so hard for critics of the day to understand his music. He simply was unlike everyone else. The same is true of Veltman—again, mutatis mutandis; he had no interest in Social Questions (the pianoforte of Russian literature), and a deep and abiding interest in all manner of ancient tribes, chronicles, and traditions and the obscure names and words that went along with them, which he scattered liberally throughout his works to the irritation and confusion of many readers and critics. And his manner of telling a story was sui generis: he would plunge into the middle of some odd situation, then jump to something else before you quite had your bearings, and you just had to try to hang on and trust that it would all come together eventually. If you gave him that trust, you were rewarded with the unique pleasures of works that weren’t nearly as difficult as they were cracked up to be, and the same is true of Berlioz. When I think of how long the great Les Troyens had to wait for a full performance, and of how its composer never got to hear it…

Of course, Berlioz’s reputation has recovered much better than Veltman’s, and there are two basic reasons: Berlioz was the greater artist, but more importantly, music, while not as universal a language as used to be claimed, is a hell of a lot more universal than Russian.


  1. Bill Walderman says

    This reminds me of my friend’s efforts to explicate Light in August in terms of Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn when we were in college. It was absolutely brilliant, and I’m still convinced there was a lot to it. He’s a composer and lecturer on music, and his formal analyses of Beethoven symphonies for his students are equally brilliant.

  2. To my ears Beethoven’s Fifth starts Yes, Yes, Yes, No. Whether it works as Ja Ja Ja Nein I couldn’t say.

  3. To me it’s the letter V (di-di-di-dah), and I believe it was used during World War II by the Allies as a cryptonym for “victory”.

  4. It was Leonard Bernstein, however, who said that the “Freude” theme from the Ninth was a beer-hall tune.

  5. A note about Krazy and Ignatz. The Fantagraphics series of Sunday strips is complete now (or, I should say, Komplete). It runs from 1916 to 1944. See:
    For bibliophiles: The Fantagraphics series was published in a peculiar sequence; first from the mid-20’s to 1944, then back to 1916 and then in sequence to the middle 20’s. It was done this way because an earlier attempt to publish the Sunday Kat strips petered out after republishing 1916 to 1924– So, Fantagraphics first published the strips that hadn’t been published before, then republished the ones in the earlier series.

  6. You’ve sold me on Veltman, Hat. I’m a massive fan of Berlioz. I love the unpredictability. Plus, as you say, that wonderfully transparent and inventive orchestration (take the “Queen Mab Scherzo”, for instance) is a refreshing change from some of the muddier, blended stuff you get from certain late 19th-century composers who’ve been writing at the piano. Berlioz also shows you how you can reverence the past without being overwhelmed by it. He was a major Beethoven “fanboy”, but that wasn’t going to intimidate him when he came to writing symphonies of his own (compare and contrast with Brahms). No “anxiety of influence” for Hector.
    Russia crops up in Berlioz’s “wonderful memoirs”. Here he is, describing a performance of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar which he saw on a visit to Moscow (he admired the music): “… the stage represented an almost uninterrupted series of pine forests deep in snow, or snow-covered steppes with snow-white men moving over them; I still shiver at the thought of it.”

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