La Côte St André

Julian Rushton

  • Berlioz 1803-1832: The Making of an Artist by David Cairns
    Deutsch, 586 pp, £25.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 233 97994 8

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.

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