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 Mozart's operas.
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, Méhul – 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 Roméo 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 resources allowed.
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. Fétis, 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 Roméo 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-Saëns, 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 Béatrice et Bénédict, 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.
Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz