Hector Berlioz was capable of writing a Fantastic Symphony. He could also spot a fantastic talent. “Come, “ he said to a friend, “I am going to show you something you have never seen, and someone you shall never forget.” That someone: a fellow named Fryderyk Chopin.
They say opposites attract. But with these two composers, it was more of a case of opposites respect. Berlioz: outsized personality, controversial public persona, and a pioneering – if erratic – symphonic genius. Chopin was none of these things. But both were stars in the remarkable creative constellation of artists that flourished in Paris at the time.
In the early 1830’s Berlioz authored what biographer Jacques Barzun called “a delicate and penetrating study” of the recent Polish arrival. “Chopin,” Berlioz wrote, “has quite a different talent. To appreciate it thoroughly I believe it necessary…. to set aside every customary idea, because one cannot apply them either to him or his music. Chopin is an artist apart; he has no point of resemblance with any other musician.”
But as is so often the case with Chopin and his contemporaries, it was a one-sided friendship. Chopin was an occasional visitor to the Berlioz home on the outskirts of Paris, and he famously performed – in fact, he stole the show – at a benefit for Berlioz and his actress wife Harriet Smithson. Berlioz boasted in his memoirs of their friendship. Chopin barely mentioned him…though he DID carp about Berlioz’s composing skills, and inability to play the piano.
A decade later, about the time Chopin wrote his little “Album Leaf,” Berlioz unleashed a sheaf of his own: “Chopin always remains on the sidelines; One does not see him at the theatre nor at concerts. One could say that he seems to be afraid of music and musicians. He comes down from the clouds once a year and allows himself to be heard in Pleyel’s salons, and only then the public and the artists can admire his magnificent talent. The rest of the year – unless one is a prince, minister, or ambassador –it is difficult to dream about the joy of hearing him.” Chopin: In the eyes of Hector Berlioz, an artist too much apart? - Joe Brant & Benjamin K. Roe