"A Musical Maverick in His World"

Review of The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (translated and edited by David Cairns, 2002 Knopf)


In 2003, the music of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) will ring from the rafters of concert halls everywhere in observance of the bicentennial of his birth. This, 140 years after he wrote, "If I could only live to be a hundred and forty my musical life would end by becoming delightful!" Berlioz is the quintessential Romantic composer, standing alongside Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin as one of the most important European composers active between 1830 and 1850. His unique and far-reaching legacy is an indispensable link in the historical continuum from Beethoven to Wagner, onward to Mahler, Stravinsky and the modern age. His music met with both adoration and contempt because his dramatic personality, maverick attitude and rapier wit (projected in person, in his music and through his prolific writings) always threatened to overshadow his artistic accomplishments. The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz are the most comprehensive insight into the man and his manner and an excellent document of the age in general by one of the finest composer-writers in history.

Written and compiled largely between 1848 and 1858, the Memoirs is full of exuberance, protest, passion and sadness balanced by Berlioz's unfailing humor and irony. They illuminate the vital periods of Berlioz's active life: youth, student years, travels abroad, primary successes and the close of his stormy career. At their core is previously written material that he reshaped and augmented. They were formally concluded on January 1, 1865 and published posthumously in 1870. The book was translated into English twice: 1884 (Holmes) and 1912 (Boult). The 1884 version came out again in 1932 with revisions by Ernest Newman. Mr. Cairns radically overhauled the translation in 1969, creating the definitive modern version. Over the next thirty years, Cairns completed a comprehensive two-volume biography of Berlioz. He has revised the Memoirs for this attractive new Knopf Everyman Edition in light of further research during that time.

Studying at the Paris Conservatory at a time when French musical taste was dominated by the comic opera of Rossini and his imitators, the precocious young Berlioz (who disliked the popular style) prepared for and attended concerts with an unusual fanaticism, a trait that paved the way for his lifelong work as a music critic. To become a composer in France was to go into the theater, as he states in the Memoirs, and "dramatic music was a religion to which I devoted myself body and soul." Though he perhaps set out to become a famous opera composer, his ranging imagination (and contending political forces) widened the scope of his music to develop singularly iconoclastic vehicles for expression: a concerto would morph into a symphony, or an oratorio would take on the dimensions of opera. He traveled widely, first to Italy as a winner of the Prix de Rome and later to Germany, Russia, Bohemia and England to direct concerts of his music. His love life fed into his music in palpable ways: his lifelong obsession with an older woman (Estelle) from his youth provided the perfect irrational object of unattainable love, while marriage to his objectification of Shakespearean beauty (actress Harriet Smithson) became a sad tale of romantic love's decay. The loss of his parents, two sisters, (eventually) two wives and only son before his own death were steady and heavy emotional blows which accelerated the decline of his prodigious energies.

Indeed the book is a watershed of Romantic notions in the first person. Agnostic Berlioz's Gods were Truth and Beauty and best expressed by Shakespeare, to whom he turns after the death of Smithson: "Shakespeare!...It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven. God standing aloof in his infinite unconcern is revolting and absurd. Thou alone for the souls of artists art the living and loving God."The Romantic tendency toward the macabre plays out not only in his youthful musical portraits of a witches' Sabbath and a condemned artist's march to the scaffold, but in real life experiences. In one chapter, he obsesses over the corpse of an anonymous Italian woman at her unconscionably brief funeral, and in another he must watch his own wives be exhumed and transferred to other graves. To this he lends his characteristic irony, "The two dead women lie there now in peace, awaiting the time when I shall bring my own share of corruption to the same charnel-house."

Such morose glimpses into the Memoirs are necessary, though, as David Cairns prefaces, "profoundly sad as it is, (it) is not a gloomy book to read." The sadness spoken of here is Berlioz's lifelong toil toward artistic, personal, professional and spiritual fulfillment, complicated by a painful stomach condition, intense moods, financial burdens and an adversarial relationship with the press. He sought musical perfection from the podium as well as the pen yet was never awarded a conducting post worthy of his lofty talents. He risked his scant personal finances with every performance and tour he undertook. A valued observer of musical life in Paris, he nonetheless held great disdain for his duties as a feuilletonist: "The critic--let us suppose him intelligent and honest--writes only when he has something to say: when he wishes to illuminate some question, challenge some theory, bestow well-merited praise or blame...The wretched feuilletonist, obliged to write on anything and everything within the domain of his feuilleton (gloomy domain, bog-ridden, infested with toads and grasshoppers), wishes for one thing only­to be done with the labour that weighs upon him...for me it is a long and painful struggle to keep up the pretence." He contended with frequently outrageous personal attacks on his art and pointed disinterest from the institutions he most wished to court, such as the Paris Opera. Over time, these rejections took their toll on the sensitive man.

The Memoirs is also an illuminating and often light-hearted chronicle of 19th century Europe. As the son of a doctor who was nearly forced into medicine as a profession, Berlioz writes accounts of people and afflictions, such as an influenza epidemic in Rome, with an especially perceptive eye. From Berlioz the journeyman, we have reports of the era's arduous methods of travel, whether by squalid brig across a stormy Mediterranean or by sledge, climbing and plunging through frozen Russian trenches "with a bump and a crash fit to crack your skull." He was a positive and unerring prophet for reform in both orchestral performance and musical education. He even portrays concertgoers themselves. In a funny musing on an audience in Breslau, where, the day before his own concert a woman claimed that the reason they withheld their applause from a rousing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was out of respect, the composer writes: "This word, which would have a profound significance in Paris and wherever the claque is traditionally active, gave me, I confess, the liveliest anxiety. I was terribly afraid of being respected. Happily nothing of the sort occurred. At my concert the audience (to whose respect I must have lacked sufficient claim) saw fit to treat me according to the vulgar convention in use for favoured artists throughout the rest of Europe, and I was applauded most irreverently."

Cairns's translation is excellent. He renders the delicious wit and masterful storytelling of the composer into English with consummate skill. Berlioz makes many Latin references, quotes people in their native language, apes the occasional non-native speaker's dialect and uses a variety of idioms, and Cairns deftly translates or leaves untouched, always to good effect. Intact and improved from the 1969 edition are five thorough appendices: accounts of Berlioz by other people, a glossary, points of disagreement in the story, sources and a Berlioz bibliography. Revisions to the translation proper are barely perceptible, but ever-present. Cairns has combed the entire book and taken opportunity to improve a phrase here and there. He has re-cataloged some of the editorial annotations, tucking away information in the appropriate appendix or editorial note to keep the reading experience smooth. It appears that the new research is manifested in occasional references to concert dates or letters. A handy chronology has been added. In terms of scholarly usage, there is little to dispute save the decision to streamline the table of contents, confining Berlioz's colorful (sometimes lengthy) chapter headings to the body of the book only. Its popular value is highest of all, because the general reader benefits by its readability, layout, portability and price. The lower cost does sacrifice some thirty illustrations of the previous edition, but no amount of visual aid can supplant the indelible images that Hector Berlioz is able to concoct in both his music and his prose.

©Evan Hause