Short Takes: Music with Zola (and Berlioz)

Outside Les Halles Market, Photograph by Henri Lemoine (1848-1924)

Outside Les Halles Market, Photograph by Henri Lemoine (1848-1924)

“Claude had enthusiastically leapt to his feet on the bench and forced his companion to admire daybreak on the vegetables. There was a sea of vegetables between the rows of pavilions from pointe Saint-Eustache to rue des Halles. At the two intersections at either end the seas grew higher, completely flooding the pavement. Dawn rose slowly in soft grays, coloring everything with a light wash of watercolors. The mounting piles, like a swelling sea, the river of greenery rushing through the streets like an autumnal torrent, took on delicate shadows and hues: tender violet, milk-blushed rose, a green steeped in yellows—all the soft, pale hues that change the sky into silk at sunrise. Step by step the fire of dawn rose higher, shooting up bursts of flame at the far end of rue Rambuteau as the vegetables brightened and grew more distinct from the bluish darkness that clung to the ground. Lettuce, escarole, and chicory, with rich earth still stuck to them, opened to expose swelling hearts. Bundles of spinach, bunches of sorrel, packets of artichokes, piles of peas and beans, mountains of romaine tied with straw, sang the full greenery repertoire from the shiny green lacquered pods to the deep green leaves—a continuous range of ascending and descending scales that faded away in the variegated heads of celery and bundles of leeks. But the most piercing note of all came from the flaming carrots and the snowy splotches of turnips, strewn in ample quantities all along the market and lighting it with their colors.”

—Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873) [28]

“Les Halles were the first buildings in France—and among the first in the world—to display their metalwork; all of the struts and arches were clearly visible since the construction was an entirely glass-covered metal frame. Almost no one in Paris, Zola included, had ever seen such buildings . . . . By 1973, the market was completely gone and the emperor Napoleon’s vision of a central Paris devoid of working-class neighborhoods began to be completed. Les Halles and its market people were replaced by a shopping mall and the surrounding neighborhoods were rebuilt to be expensive and fashionable and stripped of their charm.”

—Mark Kurlansky, Introduction, The Belly of Paris [xxii-xxiii]]

Destruction of Les Halles Market, 1971 (photographer unknown)

Destruction of Les Halles Market, 1971 (photographer unknown)

Listening List

Hector Berlioz, scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette

From Zola’s novel, L’Ouevre

“And Gagniere rambled on:

“‘Berlioz has mingled literature with his work. He is the musical illustrator of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Goethe. But what a painter!—the Delacroix of music, who makes sound blaze forth amidst effulgent contrasts of colour. And withal he has romanticism in his brain, a religious mysticism that carries him away, an ecstasy that soars higher than mountain summits. A bad builder of operas, but marvellous in detached pieces, asking too much at times of the orchestra which he tortures, having pushed the personality of instruments to its furthest limits; for each instrument represents a character to him.”

On Spotify: Boulez/Cleveland Orchestra

On YouTube: Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Monteverdi Choir

The YouTube example above does not include the choral section, “the young Capulets leaving the banquet singing snatches of music from the ball.” To hear the scène d’amour, including that section, click here and go to 12:54 (Colin Davis conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with the Bavarian Radio Choir).

Listen to David Nice’s assessment of recordings of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, replete with musical examples, on BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library CD Review here. (Nice discusses the scène d’amour starting at about 21:48.)

Here is an explanation of aspects of Berlioz’s orchestration of the scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette (with thanks to Brian Long at GCAS for identifying this video):

Bonus Track: From Berlioz to Wagner (with thanks to Curt Barnes at GCAS and to David Nice for noting this)

From a program note:

When Wagner first heard Romeo in 1839 he said it made him feel like a schoolboy at Berlioz’s side. And Romeo and Juliet was the one of Berlioz’s works he knew best. Indeed, their second and last meeting was on the occasion of a performance of the work in London in 1855. . . . the close relationship of the first few bars of the Tristan Prelude to the opening of the second movement of Romeo and Juliet [Roméo Seul] cannot be denied. Moreover, in 1860, he sent Berlioz the published full score of Tristan und Isolde inscribed merely:

Au grand et cher auteur de
Roméo et Juliette
L’auteur reconnaissant de
Tristan et Isolde.

To listen to the opening notes of each piece side-by-side:

Here is Roméo Seul:

Here is the Tristan Prelude:

Here are piano scores showing the passages at the beginning of each score linked:

Berlioz and Wagner

David Nice begins his Building A Library broadcast with a reference to the opening notes of Roméo Seul and the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. Leonard Bernstein discusses the Tristan passage, as well as other Wagner borrowings from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, in his Norton Lecture, “The Unanswered Question, The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity, ” below, starting at about 59:50, and by all means don’t miss Bernstein’s demonstration of Wagner’s borrowing from Berlioz’s scène d’amour, starting at 1:03:30 (compare with the Gardiner/Berlioz video at about 3:45 for an example of the theme from which Wagner borrowed). Also, starting at about 35:52 below, Bernstein talks about the harmonic language of the opening passage of Roméo Seul. (With thanks to Alan Andrews at GCAS for noting this video.)


Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the text, with, where available, the page on which the quotation appears in brackets. The photographs may be found here and here.

12 thoughts on “Short Takes: Music with Zola (and Berlioz)

  1. kylegann

    You know, I have long noticed that Wagner/Berlioz near-borrowing, but I had never before seen anyone else write about it. Berlioz is one of my favorite composers, especially for Romeo et Juliette, but my attempts to introduce students to it are always disappointing, because it really takes a lot of time, and possibly a feel for the interaction of poetry and counterpoint. His music is hardly subtle, but the reasons it’s so great are. We Berlioz lovers are like a secret club.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: Interesting that you, who read (not to mention write!) widely and deeply on things musical, have never run across this. (Bernstein’s demonstration in the video is a stitch. Very pleased to have been alerted to that.) In one of the many monstrous gaps in my musical education, I’m only now catching up on getting to know Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet. Oh, what I’ve been missing! But better late than never, and so pleased to have the opportunity to gain admittance to that secret club!

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan,

    Such a pity that the Market Hall is no more. We find that having a market close at hand so that fruit and vegetables fresh and in season are always available is such a wonderful asset to life in the city. The sight of so many colours and the scent of so many aromas would surely inspire any writer or musician?

    Fortunately here in Budapest the city’s market halls are being rejuvenated and are busier than ever. Perhaps this is also because the spread of supermarkets has been controlled and they are mainly to be found in outlying districts.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane and Lance: Yes, there is nothing like a good market. While we don’t have the architectural marvels near us here, we’re in a vibrant center of organic farming and artisanal foods of various types. There are markets scattered all around here with lots of delectables to choose from in the season.

  3. David Damant

    The Covent Garden Market in London , when it was threatened with demolition after the fruit and vegetables moved out, was saved in 1973 ( and around 1980 the present use of the buildings with shops and restaurants opened). This was a very significant turning point. It signaled the end of the brutal replacement of so many treasures with tedious – or worse – architectural ugliness. It is a pity that Les Halles fell, maybe just a few years too early for preservation.

    David Damant

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David D: Interesting to be reminded that at least the Covent Garden buildings were saved–if I remember rightly, I think that’s only 2 years on from the destruction of Les Halles. Not quite what they once were in terms of what’s inside, of course, but still, restoration and repurposing are surely better avenues than destruction. As for Les Halles, we’re left only with photographs, and of course Zola’s incredible descriptions in the book!

  4. David N

    I heard talk of something new and market-like around Les Halles de Paris, where the terrible mistake of the demolition and what it was replaced with have been acknowledged. Looking at the glasshouse of Les Halles de Lyon made me want to weep – again a 1960s/70s piece of vandalism laid waste to it and brutal buildings went up all around. But at least there is now a mouthwatering covered market, albeit in an ugly building, on the site. Quite difficult to get to on foot from the centre of the town.

    Part of the reason why not many folk picked up on the Berlioz-Wagner link was because Wagner himself was so skilful at covering up his tracks. Hoffmann and Heine were especial casualties, though once rediscovered, the sources can never be lost again. Glad you love this most bewitchingly orchestrated of all 19th century masterpieces.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David N: Yes, even for me, who never saw the Les Halles market, it’s hard to look at the photographs of it intact and being demolished. And to think that it was subject to vandalism, too. Such terrible times those were. It’s good, at least, that better plans are now afoot. Paris, though of course not Les Halles, was my very first introduction to mouthwatering markets, though not a covered one. For covered ones, my first exposure was in Cardiff and not so long ago. I found it magical to walk under those glass and wrought-iron roofs–and of course it was quite practical, given the weather–though I was lucky in that in my short time there.

      And of course I have you especially to thank for setting me on the path of making the Wagner/Berlioz connections. I was amused to find, once you’d put me on the trail, that I’d had one under my nose in Bernstein’s lecture all along! And of course you started your Building a Library segment with Romeo Seul/Tristan–though I didn’t really connect the dots until I got to know Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette better. And now here you are noting two more tantalizing avenues to follow: Hoffman and Heine!

      1. David N

        The Hoffmann treasury for Wagner was The Brothers Serapion, an anthology of tales some of which have been excerpted elsewhere – but very surprising to find Tannhauser, or rather the Song Contest on the Wartburg, there, and Hans Sachs. The Dutchman has long been a better known source in Heine. I ordered up a Serapion translation on Amazon, to find it was a special reprint in two flimsy large volumes with tiny print. Still, glad to have it. Rather typical of Wagner’s paranoid nature to deny, or at least keep silent about, his sources.

        I remember the vast market hall in Budapest, and there’s a tiny one in Oxford with some good stands (including one for second-hand LPs which has probably gone now).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: There are so many fascinating by-ways of history once you start on a trail. Interesting that Wagner was so secretive about his sources. As to market halls, the Edu-Mate reminded me there’s a splendid one we visited in Norwich. Very useful to have someone around who actually remembers these things!

  5. shoreacres

    I remember your visit to Cardiff and its markets. A friend from Twywn just was there, and promised to send a full description of her experience by post, as she doesn’t “do computers.”

    The photo here of Les Halles, and some others I found online, truly are sad. On the other hand, I was completely taken by Zola’s line about admiring daybreak on the vegetables, and his mention that “the most piercing note of all came from the flaming carrots and the snowy splotches of turnips…”

    Zola’s musical description of the veggies led me to wonder: has there been a composition for vegetables? As it turns out, the answer is, “Yes.” Here you have it: Zola’s Les Halles meets the world of music. You may have seen this, but I surely hadn’t. I wonder what Berlioz would have thought?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Zola’s descriptions are extraordinary, and must be well-translated, too, as the book reads very well throughout. I did NOT know of the vegetable orchestra. The carrot flute was particularly snazzy.

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