Cairns, David: Berlioz – Volume One: The Making of an Artist, 1803-1832

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had re-read it with some trepidation about its appropriateness, given the length of the book and the fact that his passion was as much for the music as for the book. Would the book appeal to someone not interested in the music? He had first read it at a time when he had been very enthused about Berlioz by some outstanding performances of his music, and had gone on to read the second volume of the biography and the Memoirs.

 Berlioz was a very interesting man, both obsessed and self-obsessed. His music was grandiose rather than subtle. Much of the attraction of the book lay in its account of the creative process, and his struggles throughout his life to get his music performed and to finance himself. The book was very well written, and gave an engaging account of the times as much as of the man. The picture of the rigidities of French bureaucracy –by reputation still formidable – was extraordinary. It was ironic that his parents never heard his music played, and that as his career developed he became better appreciated in Germany and Russia than in France, despite being one of France’s greatest composers.

 The reaction to the book of those who were not devotees of classical music was in fact very positive.

 Much of the book had the quality of an early nineteenth century French novel, although from time to time it broke off from novel mode and went into musicology. It was also a portrait of a creative person. The roominess of the book was enjoyable, as one relived in detail a bygone era. It shed interesting light on Romanticism, and also had considerable historical interest, in its portrayal of revolutions (and the disillusion that followed them) and the post-Napoleonic era. All felt it was, in the main, very well written. For example, it brought alive rural life in La Cote St Andre and in Italy, student life in Paris, his relations with friends, family and lovers, and the incredibly negative and conservative French establishment.

 It was a formidable work of scholarship to produce such an exhaustive study, nearly forty years after the only other major biography, and the author had left no stone unturned in examining sources and contemporary writings. He displayed a deep knowledge of literature as well as music. Even to the non-musical expert, it was intriguing to read of how musical form had changed with Romanticism, and how it had been commonplace in France to adapt foreign works to local taste. He was also very perceptive in how he deduced people’s psychology from his source material – for example in working out the reasons for Berlioz’ father’s opposition to his musical career.

 The biography was very stimulating and whetted the appetite for the non-expert reader, and a number planned purchases of Berlioz’ work (the proposer had kindly already compiled a CD of highlights for members).

 But did the book need to be so long? Although in some places he belaboured points unnecessarily, we concluded that the author had given priority to writing a major academic study rather than a novel, and therefore had been right to go into exhaustive detail. Similarly he would sometimes for analytical purposes reveal what happened later in the drama of Berlioz’ love life, rather than maintain suspense.

 Some also had a few quibbles with his style. He assumed the reader already had a comprehensive knowledge of Romantic composers and writers, as well as of several languages, and could have usefully provided more context. Perhaps this was because, as a newspaper music critic by background, he felt he should adopt a high academic tone. On the other hand, the book was much better written than most academic theses. He was also prone, particularly early on, to sentences of excessive length. It was rather irritating that references were relegated to an appendix, although admittedly they would have made the text even longer. And there was the odd infelicity – “anomalousness” instead of “anomaly”, and “desolateness” instead of “desolation”.

 Cairns’ use of sources was interesting. He did rely heavily on Berlioz’ Memoirs (although they were not totally reliable) but he also used a mass of other material, including letters, his father’s accounts book, and the Institute’s competition records. The many letters were striking in their elegance and intimacy – for example the letters of his sister Nancy were very open and candid – and it was remarkable that so many had been kept. Cairns’ detective work on his sources such as the accounts book was fascinating.

 We noted gloomily that the biographer in the age of the E-mail, telephone, memory stick and internet will have much less in the way of evidence. Electronic data is perishable, with the memory in a hard disc decaying within twenty years. We were not going to leave much of a footprint on the world.

 We were not sure we would have liked to meet Berlioz (although despite the mass of evidence in the book, it was difficult to be quite certain what he was really like). He clearly was very moody and self-absorbed, but obviously also had charm when he wished to use it, and was a natural leader. The moods must have been very difficult to live with.

 The quotations from Berlioz’ writing, however, showed him to be a remarkably engaging, incisive and witty writer. It was intriguing that he was quite an Anglophile (and indeed Scottophile) in his liking for Scott, Ossian, Shakespeare, and Moore, and in his idealisation of Harriet Smithson. Scott’s popularity on the continent at this time was well-known, but less well-known was the immense impact of Shakespeare on French Romanticism which Cairns brought out.

 His love-life was fascinating, with his obsessive idealization of successive women. Indeed his behaviour in trying to catch glimpses of Harriet would nowadays be classed as stalking. In the second volume there was a remarkable moment when Estelle sent him a picture of herself to show that she was no longer the beauty he had idealized in his youth. And his reaction to being jilted by Camille Moke – a planned triple murder and suicide – was extreme and obsessive.

 We wondered if Berlioz were depressive or bipolar, but concluded we could not tell, and Cairns deliberately does not pursue psychoanalytical speculation. Perhaps most composers – or at least most great composers – were very highly strung? On the other hand, such traits were particularly common amongst the Romantics. We wondered if they were a product of Romantic ideas of individual expression and the cult of the suffering artist – and therefore perhaps largely a form of self-indulgence.

 This led us to debate the nature of Romanticism in music and more generally. We noted that earlier composers had sought to please their audience directly, whereas the Romantics had sought to express themselves and then persuade an audience it was worth listening to their music. There was a similar movement in the change from Neo-classical to Romantic poetry, with formal, balanced verse of decorum giving way to the much more expressive, emotional and individualistic. Although Romanticism was a clearly identifiable zeitgeist across the arts, it was unwise to attempt to define it in the sense of identifying a common set of elements – rather, there was a set of family resemblances.

 Nevertheless we relished Cairns’ quote from Scott’s introduction to “Waverley”, saying that, if his title page had said it was “ a Romance from the German”:

 “what head so obtuse as not to image forth a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trapdoors, and dark lanterns?”

 The book brought out well how Berlioz’ early experiences had affected his music; this contrasted with Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol. 1”, which we read in 2006, where the formative influences seemed to be other music rather than experiences. Berlioz had done well from an unpromising start, with little musical background or encouragement. It was surprising that the level of musical achievement in France seemed so low, with Beethoven not being known for a long time and Romanticism in music coming much later to France than to Germany or Russia. The technical level of instrument playing in France emerged as fairly poor (though even worse in Italy). It was also surprising that the French musical establishment was so reactionary and obstructive to new work, given that the Revolution might have been expected to make them more progressive. Why had composers in Germany or Russia – or indeed painters in France – not faced similar barriers?

 We speculated that the culture of the French establishment was unusually controlling, noting similar traits to this day in its resistance to foreign takeovers of businesses and foreign words being imported to the language. It must have been much easier for the innovatory painter or writer of the day to make their work known than the innovatory composer, who needed to finance an orchestra and an auditorium, or indeed a whole opera, which was considered the pinnacle of music in Berlioz’ youth.

Berlioz’ music even now had a cutting edge quality to it – he was never one for compromises. Even so, it was difficult to grasp how many in his contemporary audience could not understand his music. One had to make an effort of imagination to realise how they were not used to music of this kind. It had been the orchestra players who had been the first enthusiasts for Berlioz’ work, perhaps because they would have gained most familiarity through rehearsals.

 It also required an effort of imagination to realise how little orchestral music people of the day would have heard, in the complete absence of radio, television, records, tapes, CDs and iPods. Perhaps nowadays we suffered from the opposite problem, with over-familiarity with music, and a surfeit of opportunities to hear it, breeding contempt.