Ford Maddox Ford's finest novel is called The Good Soldier but when, a year before its publication in 1915, Ford published an earlier version of its first part in Wyndham Lewis's Blast , he called it "The saddest story". I've always thought that would have been the perfect title for the life of Hector Berlioz. The story told in David Cairns's magisterial two-volume life, surely the finest musical biography of its generation, is, while by no means of unrelieved gloom, nonetheless the most painful portrait of the undeserved sufferings of a genius one could bear to imagine. If one wanted a paradigm of what Mario Praz famously described as the "romantic agony", then one need only seek out Berlioz.
While for many otherwise perceptive music lovers Berlioz is still an acquired taste, thanks to Cairns and the championing of Colin Davis, he is now seen as a titan in this country. Yet even today he is not nearly as widely worshipped in his native France as he should be. In a country that has produced Racine, Balzac, Proust, Zola, Delacroix, Ingres, Géricault, Cézanne and the impressionists, he is still regarded in many quarters as a flamboyant eccentric. While van Gogh had an even more tormented life, at least the Dutchman is a cultural icon on a universal scale, while Berlioz's French posterity is still, for many, an open question. Yet he is unequivocally France's greatest composer. One can hardly weigh in the same scale Lully, Rameau, Charpentier, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, Debussy, Ravel and his great admirer and death-bed visitor Camille Saint-Saëns.
Michael Rose's Berlioz Remembered takes this reviewer back to his youth when he was at least partially educated by the BBC's Third Programme. The musical highlight of those years, apart from the concerts themselves, was the series of urbane and witty illustrated documentaries called "Birth of an Opera" in which Rose and his colleague Hans Hammelman made the complex simple and the obscure familiar. I can remember becoming, largely through their interpretative enthusiasms, an opera fanatic myself. I cannot at this distance recall whether Berlioz's The Trojans was the subject of one of their programmes, but it certainly figures largely in this book and it is a measure of the comprehensive neglect of Berlioz's music during his lifetime - and later - that he never lived to see that masterpiece performed in its entirety. All he ever got to hear was an abbreviated version of three of its five acts and there was no complete performance until it was put on first in Germany, in Karlsruhe, in 1890; by which time the composer had been dead for two decades. Its full revival and reappraisal date only from its Covent Garden production in 1957. Perhaps it was a twinge of French guilty conscience that got it selected as the opening work at the new Opera Bastille in Paris in 1990, although even then it was not quite complete as the ballets were omitted. Plus ça change ...
If Cairns brought Berlioz to life via the classical biographical life and works method, so Rose vivifies him with an ingenious, meticulously constructed series of quotations, letters, extracts from diaries and journals and memoirs, whether published in the writer's lifetime or posthumously. There is an elegant, commendably brief, introductory essay and then a series of chapters, in proper chronological sequence, each devoted to one specific passage in Berlioz's life or to one aspect of his work as composer, conductor, critic and memoirist.
While it is doubtful whether the Berlioz revival would have taken place without the enthusiasm of the British, he was not always so admired in this country: "There was not a particle of melody, merely disjointed and most confused sounds, producing a fearful noise. It could only be compared to the noise of dogs and cats! The two first acts kept us in fits of laughter owing to their extreme foolishness," Queen Victoria wrote in her diary on June 25 1853 following her visit to the, admittedly catastrophic, first performance of Benvenuto Cellini in London. Ralph Vaughan Williams told Rose that "Holst and I always thought he was a dull fellow." And the dominant musicologist of his day, Sir Donald Tovey (1873-1940), wrote:
"Boiling oil awaits me for my irreverent treatment of Berlioz in the fourth volume of these essays."
Admirers of Peter Shaffer's treatment of monarchs and their attitudes to great composers, as set out in his Amadeus , will be reassured by the Goncourt Brothers's reminiscence of November 15 1862, when various arty types were paraded at Compiègne before the emperor: "The Emperor was complaining that his sight was getting weaker. 'It's odd, that I can no longer tell the difference between blue and black. Who is that over there?' 'Sire, it's M. Berlioz.' He raises his voice: 'M. Berlioz, is your tail-coat blue or black?' 'Sire,' Berlioz hastens to reply, 'I would never permit myself the liberty of appearing before Your Majesty in a blue tail-coat. It is black.' 'Good,' said the Emperor. And that is all the Emperor said to him in four days."
Even the one Frenchman whom we would today consider Berlioz's contemporary equal, Eugene Delacroix, as great and as turbulent a painter as Berlioz was a composer, did not get things quite right either. In his own journals he scorned Berlioz and Beethoven with even-handed contempt: "To the Berlioz concert afterwards. The (Beethoven) Leonora overture made the same confused impression on me; I concluded that it's a bad piece - full, if you like, of sparkling passages, but without unity. It's the same with Berlioz's own works: the noise is overwhelming - it's a heroic muddle."
Wagner, with whom Berlioz had an understandably tense up-and-down relationship, told Liszt in an 1860 letter that "with Berlioz, I have once again been able to observe, with a positively anatomical precision, how an ill-natured wife can wantonly ruin an altogether exceptional man and even reduce him to appearing ridiculous... But... I have come to realise that conspicuously talented men can only find truly understanding friends among those who are equally talented, and this leads me to the belief that, today, only we three really belong together, because only we three are of the same species - you, him, and me!" Wagner's acid comment about Berlioz's wife highlights Berlioz's appalling misfortunes at the hands of the various women he worshipped and/or married, although, in fairness, he cannot, like other great men before and after him, have been easy to live with. How interesting it would be to speculate on a closer encounter between Berlioz and Mary Ann Evans who, not yet known as George Eliot, glimpsed him in Brussels when on her way home from Weimar:
"At Brussels, as we took our supper, we had the pleasure of looking at Berlioz's fine head and face, he being employed in the same way on the other side of the table. The next morning to Calais..."
Rose's Berlioz Remembered is a cornucopia of such entertaining vignettes. It is scrupulously sourced and edited and his linking passages, in which he lightly parades his own redoubtable scholarship in correcting the frequent factual inaccuracies of contemporary memoirists, are both elegant and tersely witty.
One's only regret is that the publishers have given him a fairly dull and parsimonious ration of illustrations of the most physically striking and charismatic of all 19th-century geniuses. But it is the words that matter and this is an invaluable book for all Berliozians, to be kept on the same shelf as Cairns's translation of Berlioz's own Memoirs and his incomparable biography of the great Hector.
Tom Rosenthal is former chairman, Institute of Contemporary Art, and art critic, New Statesman .
Author - Michael Rose
ISBN - 0 571 17863 4
Publisher - Faber
Price - £16.99
Pages - 310