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Berlioz, by David Cairns
Volume 1, The Making of an Artist - 648pp ISBN: 0140287264
Volume 2, Servitude and Greatness - 896pp ISBN: 0520222008
Penguin, £25.00 each
Volume 1  Amazon UK  £20.00   Amazon USA $32.00
Volume 2  Amazon UK    £20.00 Amazon USA  $32.00

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.

Arthur Baker.

This Review first appeared in the Bulletin of the Federation of Recorded Music Societies ©

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