Berlioz's armée on the road to victory

July 7, 2000

Tony Tysome applauds a life of a composer whose time has come

Good things come to those who wait: so it would seem in the case of this biography. Those who have expectantly endured the ten-year wait between David Cairns's well-respected first volume on Berlioz's early life, The Making of an Artist , and this second volume, have been well rewarded. Unfortunately, the saying did not hold true for Cairns's subject, who waited a lifetime for due recognition and was constantly frustrated by only fleeting glimpses of acclaim. Aptly titled, Servitude and Greatness brings home to the reader, often in intimate detail, the roots and the impact of that frustration. The breadth and depth of research supporting Cairns's clear, effortless and graceful prose draw the reader into the social and cultural milieu that Berlioz lived and worked in, and often found himself pitted against. Following Jacques Barzun's two-volume biography, which first put the record straight on the true significance of Berlioz's work, and Cairns's own translation of the Memoirs , interest in the composer has brought to light a mountain of documents, letters, feuilletons and scores. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is a feat in itself, but Cairns has done this and so much more: the narrative and descriptive passages frequently attain the allure of a classic novel.

This second volume includes details of the composer's determined courtship of the English actress Harriet Smithson, whose charms inspired the Symphonie Fantastique , and of the breakdown in their subsequent marriage. Cairns's treatment of this is characteristically balanced. Though Harriet was "the helpless object of another's fantasies, dragooned into a marriage she did not really desire", and Berlioz did "leave her for 'another', as his father predicted" (Marie-Genevi ve Martin, by all accounts the archetypal mistress, described flatly by Wagner as "an unpleasant woman"), Cairns acknowledges positive elements of the marriage and the part that financial strain and other pressures played in its destruction. Reading letters from the couple's years together, his conclusion is that the marriage failed "not because of glaring incompatibilities, which any commentator could have told them would be fatal, but that because of pressure external and internal which in the long run they did not know how to deal with".

Other personal relationships receive equally sensitive treatment, and this is an important point. For Berlioz, who might be seen in many ways as living the life of the ultimate Romantic, was both an observer and a player in the unfolding of these relationships and the lives of his loved ones. Cairns observes the composer's "lifelong ability to stand back from his emotions and observe them, objectively, ironically, even as they engulfed him", yet "the detachment coexisted with the passionate involvement. He was at once the curious reader turning the pages of the novel and the hero involuntarily living its agonies and exaltations in his own person." Apart from Harriet and Marie, the "significant others" include Berlioz's father, whose presence is felt throughout not least because he was much loved by the composer yet disapproved of his son's vocation; Berlioz's son, Louis, who, despite his father's long absences, admired his music and shared his literary passions; and his two sisters, Nancy and Ad le, in whom Berlioz regularly confided.

Equally important, from a musical point of view, the author provides full and enlightening analyses of Berlioz's relations with other composers and musicians, including some of the period's most significant figures, including Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, Schumann, Meyerbeer and Paganini. We discover how important a part such musical giants sometimes played in their contemporary artists' professional lives, providing promotional or financial backing, or helping to fill a concert hall by giving a performance or making a personal appearance.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the amount of fascinating detail on the enormous practical and logistical challenges facing composers and conductors of the time, just to survive and get their music heard. Composers needed great organisational skills to put together a profit-making concert, perilously juggling the whims of ad hoc orchestras and unreliable performers, the demands of sponsors, the fads of a fickle concert-going public and the general hostility of musical critics to those, such as Berlioz, who refused to play the system of power lunches,bribes and favours.

Cairns conjures wonderfully the atmosphere "in the hot proximity of the Conservatoire hall", where audiences, despite their capricious nature, "had something of the shared sense of momentousness, of new and great things coming to birth". He shows us how Berlioz also displayed great resourcefulness in undertaking an international tour, requiring organisation on a Napoleonic scale to the extent that the composer described reports of his progress as "dispatches from the Grande Armée". Cairns explains: "It was one thing for a pianist or violinist to travel the length and breadth of Europe: that had become almost commonplace. But no composer had attempted a journey - a campaign - on such a scale before. To have to drag heavy trunkfuls of music about with you, mostly by coach or boat... to be dependent each time on the goodwill and administrative ability of a different director or intendant, to arrive each time in a strange place and face a strange orchestra, to start each time from scratch with a new set of players mostly unfamiliar with your music and bewildered by its style, required feats of organisation, personality and nerve for which... there was really no precedent."

Berlioz was frequently required to draw on his resourcefulness just to make ends meet. Thanks to his constantly precarious financial position, he was forced to rely on journalism to earn a living, leaving him precious little time for composing. A constant theme throughout this volume is the enormous tension between literary and musical demands in Berlioz's life. Despite the insights they provide into Berlioz's musical outlook (Cairns points out that the composer's articles usually contained a pedagogical element, and revealed the roots of his lifelong allegiance to Beethoven) and the articles' generally high standard, Cairns sympathises with Berlioz's own view that journalism was "a millstone, a self-perpetuating servitude, a calamity".

Although Berlioz was rarely a heavy-handed critic, often complaining of constraints under which he operated as if "walking on eggshells", he was frequently the victim of less fair treatment at the hands of boulevard journalism. To have given up journalism might therefore have left him exposed as well as destitute. Cairns concludes: "He is a journalist because he can't afford not to be, and because not to have the power it invests him with would leave him, as a composer, defenceless. The moment these two conditions no longer apply - when he has enough money from other sources and is about to stop composing - he gives it up. We can only regret that he couldn't have given it up sooner."

It has been suggested that Cairns has been at too great pains to quote letters in full, and provide as much documentation as possible. He uses, for instance, 24 consecutive pages of letters on the composition of Les Troyens . However, I am sure that many scholars and general readers would disagree. For while the author's style is accomplished enough to summarise the key points clearly and concisely, there is no substitute for the genuine articles. This passage from a letter from Berlioz on June 26 1857, to his sister Ad le, for instance, might shed new light when listening to the music or analysing the score: "At the moment I'm finishing the music of the second act (Acts I and IV have been complete for a long time now). It is, I think, the hardest part of my task. The scene with Cassandra and the Trojan women presented great difficulties. But I hope I've achieved my object and managed to express the mounting enthusiasm, the passion for death that the inspired virgin communicates to the Trojan women and at the end draws from the Greek soldiers a cry of appalled admiration."

As well as an analysis of Berlioz's life, Cairns brings to this biography a timely and mature appraisal of his music. There are comprehensive accounts of the key compositions, most notably Les Troyens , Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust , so carefully interwoven with the biographical material that the context in which they were written is fully appreciated. The achievement is timely, because, thanks to the work of Cairns and like-minded critics, and the efforts of a generation of conductors, the long wait is over. The time has finally come for a true appreciation of Berlioz and his music.

Tony Tysome is on the staff of The THES .

Berlioz: Volume Two, Servitude and Greatness

Author - David Cairns
ISBN - 0 713 99386 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 700

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