Berlioz, Volume One:
The Making of an Artist
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Berlioz, Volume Two:
Servitude and Greatness
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
2000. 896 pp. ISBN 0-520-22200-8
Summary for the Busy Executive: One of the best biographies I've ever
read, and not just of a composer.
David Cairns has written a masterpiece. This should serve as the
standard Berlioz study for the general reader for a long time to come.
He has also translated Berlioz's memoires and written a fine study of
One can write a bio in many ways for many different audiences.
Henri-Louis de la Grange gives you a micro view of Mahler, creating the
illusion of the composer in everyday life, as well as in the exalted
moments. It has its own charm, particularly for scholars and Mahler
fanatics. Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions concentrates
upon Stravinsky's music, heavy on the technical commentary, and upon the
milieu that produced it. John Worthen, on the other hand, concentrates
solely on Robert Schumann's life and career. If you want to know the
music in detail, go elsewhere.
It seems to me that Cairns has done something extremely difficult - a
solid biography, a discussion of major works in a way that the general
reader can follow without needing to read musical type or to know
musicians' jargon, and a history of Berlioz as a musical icon and of
the culture that produced and neglected him. Though one can deplore the
gleeful malice and pettiness of Berlioz's adversaries, one can't quite
blame them for their incomprehension of his music. After all, some of
it still makes for pretty rough going. Cairns himself admits that he
came to Berlioz relatively late and talks about what held him back.
Cairns isn't alone, since his story is also mine. The music of Berlioz
seemed to me mainly corny and old-hat, with here and there a few jolts.
The only movement of the Symphonie fantastique that kept me awake was
"March to the Scaffold." I liked his use of the orchestra, but the musical
effect on me was mediocrity tarted up. The epiphany for Cairns was the
groundbreaking Covent Garden production of Les Troyens. The subsequent
recording made even more converts. While Les Troyens filled in a few
blanks for me, my own conversion had occurred earlier, when I sang (choral
bass) in a Cleveland Orchestra performance of the Requiem. The "Dies
irae" knocked me off my pins, and the "Lachrymosa" sent TWO electric
shocks through me, the first at the initial choral session and the second
at the full-score run-through. The experience of persistent dinning led
to light breaking through during the "dull" parts. Actually, this
experience paralleled the initial reception of Berlioz's music. The
musicians who took part in the performances, after initial resistance,
wound up among its most ardent fans, especially when Berlioz himself,
certainly in the running for the finest conductor of his time, rehearsed
and led them.
The first volume shows how Berlioz became a composer. It wasn't likely.
His father, a doctor, paid for his son's lessons on the guitar and the
flute. Berlioz was a good enough flute player to consider turning
professional, and all accounts attest to near-miraculous ability on the
guitar. When Berlioz announced to his father that he wanted to dedicate
himself to composing, the old man predictably opposed him. However, as
Cairns points out, Father Berlioz had good, sound reasons. Hector lived
in the boonies of southeastern France, near Grenoble. On a clear day,
he could see Mont Blanc. He had never had a composition or even elementary
harmony lesson in his life. He and his father, however, had gone through
volumes of, mainly, 18th-century French operas - the source of his
life-long admiration of Gluck - to the point where he knew entire scores
by heart. The only instrumental ensemble he had ever heard, up to the
age of 17 or 18, was the town band of a dozen and a half instruments,
mostly out of tune. In fact, he was, by necessity, as much influenced
in his choice of career by Romantic and proto-Romantic literature as by
music. By what sane reasoning could he have thought to become a composer?
His father sent him to Paris to study medicine and offered the carrot
of music classes in the Conservatoire for his son's "spare time." Hector
worked diligently at medicine, hating it all the while, and passionately
at music. He announced after a year his refusal to continue his medical
studies, whereupon his father offered the choice of law. When Berlioz
refused that as well, his father made him promise to earn a baccalaureate
as a condition for support. At any rate, by the age of twenty-eight,
Berlioz had written the Symphonie fantastique. It turned out Hector was
a musical genius, with an incredible capacity for hard work. Who knew,
other than him?
Cairns considers in detail the influences on Berlioz - Gluck, Spontini,
Gossec, Le Sueur, Mehul - as well as the epiphany of Beethoven. However,
he also points out Berlioz's significant originality. His professors,
excepting Le Sueur, thought him out of his mind well before he encountered
Beethoven. Nevertheless, we shouldn't get the idea that he learned
nothing from his professors, notably Le Sueur. However, his main teachers
were the scores in the Conservatoire library that he pored through on
his own. He copied out at least one entire Gluck opera. His music
remained throughout his life an idiosyncratic combination of 18th-century
French classical notions of melody and drama and Romantic enthusiasms.
Aside from his substantial harmonic and orchestral innovations, Berlioz,
unlike a lot of Frenchmen, had rhythm. He loosened rhythm from a strong
metrical pulse - in my opinion, even more than Beethoven. Simply recall
the opening blaze of the Roman Carnival. To his French-classical
professors, it must have sounded like an aural lurch. Berlioz devoted
himself primarily to art, rather than to career. He could have made
himself a success, catering to academic and bourgeois popular taste,
as his successful Prix de Rome cantata, Sardanapale, depressingly shows.
Of great personal charm, he nevertheless couldn't play the game when it
counted. He was zealous for his art, rather than his career. Others
knew his integrity and hated him all the more for it.
Volume One leaves us with Berlioz winning the Prix de Rome (after three
tries) and before his marriage to Harriet Smithson. Volume Two shows
us the disastrous marriage and Berlioz's depressing lifelong failure to
establish a career as a composer. The income problems he faced remain
with us. In many ways - and even more than Beethoven - he was the first
avant-garde composer, dependent on institutional support in a commercial
environment. Often, his music still eludes the present-day listener.
Critics charge the larger works with "shapelessness," just as they did
in his own day, and they are still wrong, as Cairns demonstrates. One
can find as much motific connection in Berlioz as in Schumann or Mendelssohn
or in Beethoven's Ninth, for that matter. Admittedly, one senses a
difference in emphasis, a desire in Berlioz to make his orchestra speak
- I think most notably in the tomb scene of Romeo et Juliette - and one
finds critics who, for some reason, think of absolute music as "higher"
than dramatic music. God knows why.
Previous accounts of Berlioz's marriage have concentrated on Harriet as
victim. Cairns takes a more balanced view, noting that the early years
of the marriage were happy. He considers Smithson one of the great,
innovative actresses of her time. However, she couldn't make a living
in England. France gave Smithson her biggest successes. Nevertheless,
she was an English-speaking actress trying to make a living in the French
theaters doing, mainly, Shakespeare. She had limited appeal, especially
when the French Romantic enthusiasm for Shakespeare waned. A serious
artist used to earning her own living, she became depressed and alcoholic.
She became possessive and jealous of Berlioz (at first, without cause).
She would harangue him in the middle of night in a drunken rage, eventually
driving him into the arms of Marie Recio - who became his second wife
at Harriet's death - by all accounts, a controlling shrew, although one
zealous for the composer's interests. Berlioz moved out of Harriet's
house and set up with Marie, although he never lost his affection for
Harriet and continued to support her. When her large consumption of eau
de vie finally caught up with her in the form of a series of strokes,
leaving her paralyzed and crippled in her speech, she became central to
Berlioz's life once more, and he cared for her to the extent his limited
That Berlioz wrote so much is nothing short of amazing. In general, he
lost money on his compositions, despite their success. Furthermore, he
had to contend with hostile bureaucrats and third-rate academics (like
Auber and Adam) to get any sort of hearing in Paris. A favorite gambit
of this crowd was to refuse permission of halls and musicians, sometimes
on the day before the concert. Berlioz made money in Germany, Austria,
Czechoslovakia, Russia, and England and also encountered a more open
musical attitude and often a better class of orchestra. The only way
he could earn a musical living in Paris was if he had a teaching or
conducting appointment. But the greatest composer in France never got
a professorship and the greatest conductor in Europe never led his own
orchestra. Music criticism paid the bills, barely but steadily, as well
as a small stipend as a music librarian, which his enemies always
threatened to take away from him. In the 1840s, Berlioz refused to
put any more of his own money into his own music. Despite the whir of
musical ideas in his head, he ruthlessly refused to think of them, since
he couldn't afford to take the time to work them out. Excepting revising
old scores, he kept silent for eight years. When Berlioz was finally
elected to the Institute of Letters, the remark making the rounds of
Paris was, "They were supposed to elect a composer. Why did they choose
a journalist?" That Berlioz turned out four operas - outside of Carmen,
the only Romantic French operas that one can mention in the same breath
as Wagner and Verdi - and without the support of any major opera house,
however, testifies to his will and his energy. What more could he have
done with minimal support? France, to its shame, treated him shabbily,
and yet he couldn't leave. Paris kept calling him back. He felt in the
center of things there. Germany (Liszt especially) and Russia may have
idolized him, but he always felt like a guest.
Berlioz, a perceptive (even great) critic, was probably a better
composer. While I enjoy the volumes of criticism, I probably would have
enjoyed the music that didn't get written even more. Furthermore, even
as a critic he was out of step with the critics of his day. His chief
opponent, one F.-J. Fetis, for example, published an edition of Beethoven's
symphonies in which he "corrected" the composer's deficiencies, errors,
and lapses from taste. Berlioz actually believed that Beethoven knew
what he was doing and, in general, a judgment should be based on the
composer's score, rather than the improvements of publishers, critics,
and impresarios. Furthermore, he recognized future great lights,
particularly - oddly enough - Brahms, a composer I would have supposed
rather far from his temperament. Even more surprising, Brahms loved
Berlioz's music, especially L' Enfance du Christ. To his great credit,
Berlioz never affiliated himself with any school or musical trend. He
was entirely himself in his criticism as well as in his music. Inevitably,
music passed him by. Wagner made some rather obtuse criticisms in his
Opera and Drama, and Berlioz found the later Wagnerian operas, especially
Tristan, rough going - ironic, since Wagner took so much of Berlioz's
Romeo et Juliette to write his own love story. But Berlioz continued
to go his own way. In the early part of the century, he found himself
allied with Liszt in the Leipzig (Mendelssohn-Schumann) vs. Weimar
split. When this widened to the war between the Brahmins and the
Wagnerites, he found himself closer to the Brahms side of things. But,
for Berlioz, there was more than one music of the future. For him,
loving Liszt's music didn't mean having to give up Mendelssohn's.
Furthermore, he certainly backed the most talented of the younger
French generation: Bizet, Gounod, Saint-Saens, and Massenet.
In the 1850s, Berlioz's career picked up. Triumphant concert tours of
Germany got him enough ahead that he began to think again of composition.
These are the years of L' Enfance du Christ, perhaps his greatest European
(and French) success, and the massive Les Troyens. The opera not only
summed up his entire artistic and intellectual life (he had been reading
Virgil since boyhood), but also constituted his most "advanced" musical
statement. He reduced the books of the Aeneid to a little more than two
and fit them in a five-act opera. He wrote his own libretto. Good thing,
too, since he found out he was also the best of his own librettists.
He wrote a Shakespearean drama on Virgil and took liberally from the
playwright's "classical" works, as well as the Belmont scene from Merchant
of Venice. He undertook the labor under the clouds of pain and illness,
knowing full well that he would never get a decent performance in Paris.
The Opera, lazy and mediocre, was nominally closed to him anyway. The
Conservatoire officials regularly refused him the use of their hall and
musicians. Yet, once he had finished the work, he had to see a performance
and spent many years lobbying in the French bureaucracy for a production.
He finally got his production, with the first two acts cut and the
remaining three divvied up into five, with various other substantial
cuts. In this mutilated form, the opera was a mild success, but it gave
rise to the canard that the composer had written it when his powers had
declined. The only thing that had declined was his will to fight. As
Gounod remarked, "Like his namesake, Hector, he fell beneath the walls
of Troy." It took about a century for the opera, as Berlioz had written
it, to receive a true judgment, but at least he had heard enough to know
how well he had done his work.
After Les Troyens, Berlioz essentially retired from public life. He
completed, mostly to fulfill a previous obligation, the airy Beatrice
et Benedict, based on Much Ado about Nothing, written "with the fine
point of a needle." He toyed with the idea of another grand opera, this
time on Antony and Cleopatra, but lacked the will to carry it through,
especially since he could predict the distorted production it would
receive in Paris. But by this time, he had won over the young, especially
the most talented. It was said of him, "Although he had no pupils, he
had disciples." Yet it would take them twenty years to exert the necessary
influence in French musical life, and even then the tradition came down
to a thin line of conductors, Monteux and Munch among them. To date,
Paris has never staged Les Troyens.
Cairns has produced a scholarly, scrupulous, sympathetic account. He
builds a compelling narrative over two volumes and manages to stuff
it with detail from the composer's professional and everyday life. He
writes with grace and eloquence, and his prose captures the complexity
of Berlioz's work and personality.
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