Berlioz, by David Cairns
Volume 1, The Making of an Artist - 648pp
Volume 2, Servitude and Greatness - 896pp ISBN:
Penguin, £25.00 each
The first volume was published originally in 1989, when it won a number of
awards, including that of the Royal Philharmonic Society, it has now been
published in a second edition which has been revised and extended. It describes
his early years, his years as a student and concludes after his return to
France after two years away from Paris, having at last won the Prix de Rome.
The concluding volume has been widely acclaimed and has won the prestigious
Samuel Johnson award. It describes his life in maturity, the composition
of his works, culminating in The Trojans, which the author regards as his
crowning masterpiece (which still has not been performed in full in France!).
Not only was Berlioz probably the finest conductor of his age, but also a
very accomplished author; his music criticism and newspaper articles helped
to subsidise his music. His memoirs (which have been translated by David
Cairns) must surely be the best autobiography written by a composer.
"What an improbable novel my life is!", Berlioz wrote in 1832. And certainly
much of the romantic fervour of his music is a reflection of his life; but
just as much of his music is in fact very classical in style, his personal
life is based upon a foundation of quiet study and support from his family
and friends. Throughout his life he sought endlessly an ideal love which
in the end was never within reach and even his marriage to Harriet Smithson,
whom he had idealised from afar did not bring long term happiness. The
relationship between the composer and his father, who so wanted him to follow
in his footsteps and become a doctor, is described over many chapters. It
is a classical story of dispute between generations, where the protagonists
are still deeply bound by love and respect.
David Cairns has spent about twenty years immersed in Berlioz and one cannot
imagine a better biography. This is no academic treatise lurching from footnote
to bibliography, but on the contrary can be read almost like a novel as the
facts are presented calmly and often in the words of contemporary letters
and writings which are incorporated naturally into the narrative.
The author had access to the papers of the Berlioz family and has been able
to draw a much fuller picture than was previously available. One ends up
by feeling as if you almost knew Berlioz.
Life in France in the beginning of the nineteenth century was enormously
different from the contemporary scene, but the author describes the background
conditions and political and musical events which would have influenced the
composer in a most natural and unobtrusive way.
The biography is also to be praised in not attempting to psychoanalyse the
composer. The attempt by certain musical biographers to draw conclusions
about the sexual nature etc of composers based upon psychobabble with only
the scantiest of evidence is to be deplored.
Although clearly based upon very thorough scholarship, this biography is
designed to be read by the general reader, not just by musicologists. There
is a fascinating story to be told and David Cairns tells it very well.
There are no musical examples but the author knows the music inside out.
If there is any criticism which could be made it is that there is an absence
of detailed analysis of the music - but that would have resulted in a very
different kind of work.
I am very enthusiastic about this biography, which has given me more personal
pleasure than any comparable work I have read for years. Fully recommended.
This Review first appeared in the Bulletin of the Federation of Recorded