Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz versus Hector Berlioz
It is striking that there are several important characters in the Master and Margarita who share their names with famous composers of classical music: Dr. Stravinsky, a psychiatrist, and Igor Stravinsky; a theater director Rimsky and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov; and, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz and French composer Hector Berlioz. This is almost impossible to be a coincidence, and there seems to be a message behind this. Bulgakov’s intent for using these names, however, is not obvious. While there are similarities between these fictional characters and real life composers, the link in the context of the novel is not apparent. I will focus on the Berlioz duo.
Both Bulgakov and Hector Berlioz seem to be drawing inspiration from Goethe since Hector Berlioz wrote an opera titled The Damnation of Faust which was based on Goethe’s Faust. Bulgakov has his own Berlioz (Mikhail “Misha” Aleksandrovich) square off with his version of Faust, Professor Woland.  While Bulgakov and Hector Berlioz both seem to be fascinated with the mysticism in general and the character of Faust in particular, Misha Berlioz is an antithesis to this curiosity. He is editor of "a fat literary journal", and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, called MASSOLIT (probably the abbreviation for the Masters of Soviet Literature). He is a typical representative of the intellectual elite, a good follower of the official policy who cannot follow the dissenting opinions expressed by Woland as well as his supernatural gifts. Unlike real Berlioz, Misha Berlioz is both unable and unwilling to wrestle with unknown and unexplained (or unexplainable).
Hector Berlioz also wrote the well-known Symphonie Fantastique.  In the fourth movement of this symphony, March to the Scaffold, the main character is seeing his own decapitation in his dream. Misha Berlioz also dies by being decapitated, but by a tram. Again, Bulgakov uses Hector Berlioz as an inspiration for his own literary creation.
While Hector Berlioz was often, as a composer, ahead of his contemporaries in his understanding of music and its complexity, Bulgakov’s Berlioz is a synonym for mediocrity. Hence it is unclear why Bulgakov chose the name Berlioz for his ordinary and conforming character. Or, did I misinterpret Bulgakov’s Misha Berlioz?


  1. This is a really interesting post, especially the Faust part, as I had been feeling like there is some overlap, even if it isn't super obvious. Maybe the use of names is merely a "tip of the hat" (so to say) to Berlioz the composer, and less of a commentary on character. Or maybe it's just a coincidence, as we've sort of seen how last names can be a bit similar in Russian (then again, maybe this just seems so to me, as this is my only experience with Russian anything).

    1. It is possible that the use of names is a "tip of the hat," as you say, Andrew. I was unable to find almost any connection between the other two characters, i.e., Dr. Stravinsky and Rimsky, and their composer namesakes. For instance, Igor Stravinsky has been known to having broad interests in learning about life in general, and especially about human nature via art and literature. It is possible that due to his nature and reputation as a vanguard composer and complex personality, Bulgakov thought of him being the proper namesake for sophisticated Dr. Stravinsky. However, this is also only my interpretation.

    2. Symphonie fantastique also has 5th movement, The dream of Witches sabbath: ``
      He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath...The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.''

      This is very similar to the scene described in Berlioz apartment in "Master and Margarita"