Berlioz has not always been badly served by his biographers. True, there have been sensationalised lives, while hacks have trotted out ancient simplifications about his extravagance, his early creative decline, and, above all, about the unreliability of his Memoirs. Such biographers only matched the musical commentators, for many of whom Berlioz was an eccentric with a poor technique; even his best works, dependent on hit-or-miss inspiration, appeared muddled in conception and patchy in execution. But on the whole, the music has taken more undeserved sniping than the man, culminating in the infamous article in the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Readers of the Memoirs, however dependent on pinches of salt, could not fail to be struck by the vitality of the composer who, despite persistent spleen, illness, and indignation at his treatment by the establishment, continued to exhibit a rare and often self-deprecatory wit. Consider his account of the start, in 1827, of his life-long passion for Shakespeare: ‘As I came out of Hamlet, shaken to the core by the experience, I vowed I should not expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius ... Next day the playbills announced Romeo and Juliet. I had my pass to the pit. But to make doubly sure of getting in I rushed to the box office the moment I saw the posters and bought a stall.’ The story, a few years later, of his abortive return from Italy, with the intention of murdering Camille Moke, who had jilted him, her husband and her ‘Hippopotamus’ of a mother, is comedy in a Shakespearian mould.
It is incumbent on biographers to investigate the truth of such stories. The first biography of Berlioz that laid claim to scrupulous documentation was by Adophe Boschot: appearing in definitive form in 1951, it was researched and written much earlier, the first volume being published in 1906. The angle of vision is clear from Boschot’s title, La Vie d’un Romantique. His style is a perpetual irritation, and his interpretation of evidence suggests a strong presumption of Berlioz’s mendacity. Boschot was friendly with Charles Malherbe, chief editor of the (nearly) Complete Edition of Berlioz’s music published by Breitkopf and Härtel (1900-1910), which, revealing a similar distrust of what the composer wrote, standardised instrumentation, dynamics and phrasing according to post-Wagnerian practice as if Berlioz were merely an inspired primitive. At the same time Romain Rolland argued, in defiance of all known portraits (verbal and visual), that Berlioz had a weak, vacillating character by which his music was compromised. Energetic refutation from Anglophone scholars such as W.J. Turner and Tom Wotton had little effect. Two French musicologists, J.G. Prod’homme and Julien Tiersot, wrote shorter biographical studies. Prod’homme completed only two volumes in Le Cycle Berlioz, documentary and critical companions to the works, but Tiersot’s Berlioziana and editions of letters laid the foundation for careful study of primary sources. A watershed was reached in 1950, when Jacques Barzun published his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century, although there is an element in it of special pleading: Berlioz emerges (misleadingly) as the central figure of Parisian musical culture, which would have surprised many of his contemporaries. Barzun’s intelligence and authority as a cultural historian led to many indispensable insights, but as a biographer he reacted too much against the suspicious chronicler in Boschot, and his book is unhelpful for those who want to discover, amid the welter of ideas and critical cross-references, simply what happened and when.
Barzun did, however, provide a stimulus for the modern wave of Berlioz scholarship, and together with the championship of selected works by a few conductors, he paved the way for the reassessment which really got going at the centenary of the composer’s death in 1969. That year came two editions of the Memoirs, one edited by Pierre Citron, the other David Cairns’s translation. Critical editions of Berlioz’s other writings, and his Correspondance Générale, are well advanced; critical and analytical scholarship has moved into top gear in Germany, the United States and Britain; the New Berlioz Edition, launched in 1969 (nearly half the works have appeared), published a definitive catalogue by D. Kern Holoman in 1988. And in the meantime, before this splendid new biography, we have received with gratitude, but without surprise, dispassionate assessments of the composer’s life and works in The New Grove Dictionary and Dent’s Master Musicians by the general editor of the NBE, Hugh Macdonald.
Stimulated by his excellent edition of the Memoirs, David Cairns has been at work on his biography for twenty years. This long gestation, although a source of frustration to his potential readers, has paid dividends in the depth of research, the strength of design and the elegance of writing. Cairns’s book can be consulted: every page is headed with the year, a marked improvement on Barzun. It can also be read with pleasure as a narrative. Cairns’s method of acknowledging his sources is deliberately unobtrusive: no references to the fifty pages of notes appear in the text. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, one can determine the source of facts and contemporary opinions (which is difficult with Boschot, nearly innocent as he was of supporting notes). Cairns has sifted letters, diaries, memoirs of fellow artists, and archives; he is perfectly cognisant of other work in the field; he has walked the countryside in which Berlioz grew up and studied the coach routes of Restoration France and the maps of pre-Haussmann Paris. His love of the music is not uncritical (indeed, to me he seems a little hard on Waverley), but it is deep. And he is no less expert in the cultural milieu than were Tiersot and Barzun. It is interesting that of all his predecessors, Cairns seems to have most respect for, and most need of, Tiersot, Berlioz’s successor as deputy librarian of the Paris Conservatoire, whose primary research was based on documents some of which have since disappeared.
Cairns’s careful analysis of the evidence makes more extraordinary the fact of Berlioz’s emergence from provincial France with a vision of his own destiny as a dramatic composer. Nobody has previously researched with such thoroughness the condition of music at La Côte St André. Such musical institutions as did exist – the National Guard band and the music in church – were bad enough to be a source of hilarity to the Berlioz children, for all their lack of experience of professional music-making. Nor has any previous research treated so comprehensively the life and times of Berlioz’s father, and the family opposition, which appeared purely bourgeois, irrational or tetchy, to Hector’s artistic ambitions. The complete picture of Dr Berlioz’s activities, which included running a large number of properties, shows that his opposition lay in a perfectly normal desire to see what he had built up continued beyond his own time by his son.
Berlioz’s family, once shadowy figures compared to Mozart’s or Beethoven’s, come wonderfully to life. Dr Berlioz’s erratically kept Livre de Raison (the family Bible of an atheist), the diary and letters of Berlioz’s sister Nancy, the unpunctuated correspondence of his mother, the grotesque verses celebrating family events by his maternal grandfather, provide not only information but atmosphere. The resistance of the composer to professional respectability competes with deep love for his family and the region in which he was born; this fruitful conflict illuminates, for instance, his treatment of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Beethovenian, yet utterly original, slow movement of the Symphonie Fantastique. Particularly interesting, is Cairns’s account of the young Berlioz’s powers of self-analysis: he suffered paroxysms of isolation and frustration, while noting his own symptoms in a way which makes it clear that medicine lost a good man when he finally gave it up for music.
A small reservation in the account of the early years is the reference to Wagner as if his upbringing, in a sizeable artistic community, were comparable to Berlioz’s. From one point of view, which Hiller expressed, Berlioz’s youth was wasted as he did not go ‘through the proper channels’. The same sort of thing was said of Wagner. Wagner did feel the lure of literary and theatrical as well as musical creativity, but he went through a sufficient, and sufficiently orthodox, musical training at an age when Berlioz had never used a piano or heard an orchestra. According to John Deathridge, Wagner wanted posterity to view him as an autodidact; but this claim should not be taken, as it apparently is by Cairns, at face value. He is right, of course, that Berlioz’s early years were not wasted for they contributed indispensable experience for the formation of his mature art.
Not every question can be answered. We learn what Berlioz meant by his ‘pass to the pit’ (see above), but the suicide of young Imbert, son of Berlioz’s first teacher, remains mysterious. In common with other recent biographers, however, Cairns is able to testify to the essential truthfulness of the Memoirs by constant cross-reference to contemporary documentation. Berlioz was often vague about dates, but never about feelings; what is perhaps most important is the corroboration of his accounts of himself by the account others give of his moods, at home, in Paris and in Rome. Cairns is inevitably dependent on the Memoirs, and also devotes considerable space to lengthy quotations from letters, most of them unavailable in English. They are well worth reading.
Though he meditates upon the musical implications of his narrative, Cairns wisely resists the temptation to indulge in complete analyses. A musical biography of Berlioz, scrutinising the development of his musical experience and of the compositions themselves in chronological order, has yet to be undertaken, but despite his intention of writing biography rather than criticism, Cairns has laid the foundations for such a study and goes some way towards its realisation. He emphasises the French traditions which lie behind much of Berlioz, and which are the least known sources of his musical ideas, and in Chapter 13, the most discursive section of the book, he emphasises the Classical origins of Berlioz’s musical thought. It is not too much, however, to claim the primary musical influence for Spontini? The still more Classical Gluck (Chapter 13 is intriguingly headed ‘Gluck was a Romantic’), and the instrumental style of Beethoven, even if not experienced until Berlioz was in his mid-twenties, had as profound an effect on his musical language, and more far-reaching effects on his forms. The effect of Beethoven may have declined in the 1850s, the period of The Trojans, but Gluck re-emerges as a first and last love; Berlioz supervised his works in performance and inspired the superb editions of the 1870s.
Still in Chapter 13, I am unconvinced by Cairns’s aesthetic stance. On page 334 he comments on the ‘unreality of the distinction’ between ‘absolute’ compositions and programmatic music (inspired by, and accompanied by, a text which does not form part of the performance). The distinction is certainly not clear-cut. Barzun perversely favoured hearing the Symphonie Fantastique as if it had no programme (he tends to refer to it as the ‘First Symphony’), but the programme, in this instance, is indispensable, an enriching context for the experience of the music. Of course this does not make it superior to music for which there is no such context, and Cairns insists that programmatically-governed response does not make music less ‘pure’. But ‘purity’ is his Aunt Sally, and the answer to his intended rhetorical questions (particularly the last: ‘Is one’s experience of opera or song – music attached to and motivated by a text – different in kind from one’s experience of instrumental music?’) should be a clear, if not a resounding ‘yes’.
For a book of this length there are remarkably few niggles. I assume it is an error of translation which has Fétis refer (page 289) to the ‘second repeat’ in the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh: there is only one. If Fétis wrote reprise he meant merely the second half of the movement. And what (page 248) are the ‘ungrammatical horn dissonances in the funeral march of the Eroica’? Berlioz comments (in A travers Chants) on the unorthodox horn entry in the first movement, but states that the later movements contain no further ‘bizarrerie’. But such matters amount to little in the face of so magnificent an achievement as Berlioz: The Making of an Artist. Never a colourless biographer, Cairns nevertheless refrains (outside his confessional prologue) from intruding himself into the picture, and references to his own experience in tracing Berlioz’s environment, both human and physical, are no more than necessary. Mercifully, too, he is not continually occupied in disputes with previous biographers. Fascinating as it is, the first volume of Alan Walker’s Liszt biography threatened the prime objectives of evocation and chronicle through its insistence on correcting its predecessors. Much of the same might be said of Ernest Newman’s great biography of Wagner. Cairns fulfils his objectives the better for his restraint in this respect.
This first volume takes Berlioz to the threshold of maturity as an artist, and to the point of his definitive involvement with Harriet Smithson. Its scope is nearly identical to the first volume of the Correspondance Générale, due to be completed in six volumes. No doubt the most needful research, whose fruits we can now enjoy, concerned the early years up to 1830, and Berlioz’s youth in particular. Precisely because the documentation becomes richer in later years, we need a lucid account of them, however dense the detail. There will be a wealth of the kind of information Cairns conveys so well, and which one wants to have, concerning travel (Berlioz goes well into the age of the train). Major relationships are to come: two marriages, long friendships with Liszt and Princess Wittgenstein. Berlioz’s contact with the Parisian intelligentsia, and with Napoleon III; his life as a journalist and travelling expert on instruments; his conducting as well as composing; his place in the development of French music (how was he viewed by younger contemporaries such as Gounod, Saint Saëns, Bizet?); his reputation in Germany, Russia and England: all need careful evaluation. Then there is Wagner. Cairns scotches a French canard which classed Berlioz as Wagnerian, but to link them through Liszt was a facet of German critical thought in the 1850s – Pohl referred to L’Enfance du Christ as the Zukunftsoratorium.
Rumour suggests that Cairns plans only one more volume. I hope this is not true. If Wagner, fifty years ago, required four from Newman, surely Berlioz rates at least three?
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