The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz
Berlioz and the Romantic Century
Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination
Pelléas et Mélisande
The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, in a new translation by David Cairns, I had got involved with as a book for possible review. Good reading it was too, all about music in Romantic times, written by a man who could really write and who was also a real composer. Nothing phony there, no self-deception, no bluffing, no self-pity, just the tale of a French musician who was successful in England, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia—everywhere but in France. Invited everywhere to remain, also to visit the United States for a very large fee, he could not keep away from Paris very long, where the cabals, intrigues, and dirty deals (in all of which he knew exactly who his enemy was and why and usually said so) gave to his career the aspect of an intermittent volcano as dangerous to the establishment as only a clear mind with a sharp tongue can be.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the hindrances, his career grew, his works got written, performed (most of them) and even published, he became a member of the Institute, he received important commissions. It may have been the sparks and rosy glow sent up by his local explosions which brought those invitations from afar. But all the same, honors received, return visits ever more profitable, were not merely the benefits of celebrity. There were solid musical satisfactions too, due to the superior musical facilities available in Germany, in Austria, in England, and even in Russia—the competent players, the good halls, the musically educated listeners, the warmth and generosity of foreign colleagues. And all these availabilities seem to have been the direct result (or so Berlioz believed) of, in England, managerial monopoly, elsewhere of absolute monarchy, as a circumstance favorable to art.
His inability to speak well or to write a letter in any language other than his own may also have been a help on tour since nowhere could he provoke the quarrels, take the liberties, indulge the ironies that his fatal facility with French and his experience as a journalist rendered so tempting to him on home ground.
The picture of Paris between 1821, when young Hector (from near Grenoble) arrived at eighteen to study medicine, and 1869, when he died there, is highly detailed in Jacques Barzun’s two-volume biography Berlioz and the Romantic Century, originally published in 1950, now out in a new edition. And a quarterly “international review” called Adam (anagram for Arts, Drama, Architecture, Music) published simultaneously in London and at the University of Rochester, New York, devotes a sizable issue (Nos. 331-333) to making a duet out of Berlioz and Baudelaire, stormy petrels both.
Particularly charming among the publications celebrating the centenary of Berlioz’s death is the catalog of a show entitled Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination, which took place from October 17 to December 14 in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here some…
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