Berlioz gets snuffed?

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

“Snuff” is a finely pulverized tobacco that can be, well, “snuffed” through the nose (and Kids—don’t try this at home!)

In the 19th century, taking snuff was a common practice, and on today’s date in 1837, the most notorious example of snuff-taking in musical history occurred—or didn’t occur, depending on who you believe—during the premiere in Paris of the massive “Requiem Mass” of the French composer Hector Berlioz.

As Berlioz tells it in his Memoirs, the conductor of the performance, Francois-Antoine Habeneck, decided to take a pinch of snuff during an especially tricky passage of the score, just when a cue from the conductor was of particular importance. To avert disaster, Berlioz stepped in front of Habeneck, gave the cue, and afterwards all but accused the conductor of deliberately trying to sabotage his music. Some eye-witnesses are on record saying, “Yes, that’s just how it happened,” while others, equally emphatic, state, “Preposterous! Nothing of the sort occurred.”

Who to believe?

Well, it IS known that once the basic tempo was set, M. Habeneck was in the habit of putting down his baton to let the orchestra play on by themselves. He would then calmly take a pinch of snuff. Sometimes, it’s said, he even offered snuff to his neighbors, so perhaps those performances, at least, if not the premiere of Berlioz’s Requiem, were indeed sabotaged—by an especially loud sneeze!