Our book today is really two books, David Cairns’ massive two-volume biography of the problematic Romantic-era composer Hector Berlioz. Cairns published the first volume, The Making of an Artist, in 1999 and the second volume, Servitude and Greatness, in 2000, both having been written after many years of intensive labor. The first volume covers the first twenty-five years of Berlioz’s life, from his backwater boyhood in and around Le Cote St Andre (at the foot of the Alps), through his torturous crawl toward classical instruction and greatness, to the triumphant concert he gave on 9 December 1832, with Liszt, Paganini, Chopin, and even Victor Hugo in the audience. The second volume covers the remaining thirty-seven years of the composer’s life, through fame and spotty fortune as a composer and especially as a conductor, through his friendships with some of the greatest musical figures of his day (including that with Richard Wagner, which was predictably problematic), and his initially happy but ultimately tragic marriage to actress Harriet Smithson.
For 1200 pages, Cairns follows every tiny contour of his subject’s tumultuous life, and in all that verbiage, he’s never once less than intensely interesting. It’s a feat of almost unbelievable writing concentration.
I purchased the first of these volumes in 1999 intent on giving it as gift to a friend; I had no interest in Berlioz at the time and nothing but a kind of vague hostility to most of his music. And even though I thought the ‘formation of an artist’ motif in the first volume was rather drastically overdone (Cairns’ best use of the unfettered access he was given to vast hordes of the family papers would have been to ignore 99 percent of them), I was completely drawn in by the biographer’s prose style, relaxed yet scholarly, informed but almost informal:
Even when one takes him for himself and not as a symbol, there remain barriers. His is not consoling music. Its nerves are exposed. With all its ardours and exhaltations it is disturbingly alive to the torments of human existence, outside and within. Its passionate sense of beauty carries an acute awareness of how frail and ephemeral beauty is. It understands the tragic limitations of life, the discrepancy between imagination and fact, the chaos that waits beyond the edge of civilization, the terror of isolation in an empty universe. There is a core of reserve at the heart of its most fiery intensities. You cannot wallow in it. It can be intoxicating, but to the spirit more than to the senses.
(And yes, of course I read most of my book-gifts to people before I give them – doesn’t everybody?)
Berlioz’s odd status in relation to his more stereotypically Romantic peers becomes more and more evident as the books gather momentum. In her diary, Cosima Wagner relates an anecdote about how Wagner once went for a long walk in the country and kept uttering a single word: “Berlioz!” And Paganini, overcome with emotion upon first hearing Berlioz’s Harold, kissed the composer, fell on his knees before him, and sent him a check for the staggering amount of twenty thousand francs (Berlioz immediately paid off all the friends and acquaintances to whom he owed money and cancelled plans for further loans). Wagner and Paganini (and many less obviously insane figures) were both motivated in part by the mania gripping the Romantic movement to find and hail ‘Beethoven’s successor,’ the great one having died only about thirty years ago and no Star of Bethlehem having made the choice of successor obvious to all (the lachrymose Berlioz more than once nominated Liszt, who’d been heard to nominate Mendelssohn).
Cairns is very perceptive on the subject of Berlioz’s music, but he keeps the bulk of his attention on the composer’s personal life, including an unprecedented and charming amount of attention given to Berlioz’s relationship with his son Louis. Given how problematic Berlioz’s dealings with his own father were, it was inevitable that he himself would make a problematic father, and things between him and Louis are initially tense and fraught with misunderstandings. But as Cairns patiently shows, by the mid-1860s father and son were extremely close (as Berlioz himself put it, more like brothers than father and son – with Louis being the elder brother). And Louis himself comes across as an extremely likable person, somebody who can utter without pretension the wonderful line, “I defy any intelligent man, even if he knew the complete works of Shakespeare by heart in English and French, not to feel a strange thrill on starting to read one of them.” (An apt sentiment from the son of the composer of such works as Otello, Beatrice and Benedick, and Romeo and Juliet).
Necessarily, the second volume here, though absorbingly written, ends up being a chronicle of triumphs won in the face of decline. The rapturous reception given to the composer’s series of St. Petersburg concerts in 1867 is dramatically retold (thunderous ovations, repeated curtain calls, etc), and there’s a haunting moment where Cairns muses on the last picture ever taken of his subject:
Perhaps it was in this last week [February], just before the final concert, that he posed for the full-length studio photograph which shows him standing in evening dress, baton raised, left hand on hip, decoration in lapel, eyes staring from dark sockets beneath a mane of snow-white hair; a ghost, yet awesome, still a force.
“No doubt,” one critic wrote, “they [the French] are waiting until he is dead to discover that quite possibly he was something of a genius.” You feel that Cairns is in more or less complete sympathy with such a sentiment, but he doesn’t allow the triumphs to outshine the decline, or to spot that decline when it starts. Berlioz was the music critic for the Journal des Debats, and in 1860 he wrote a long piece on Wagner’s music that ends with a windy peroration on “The Music of the Future.” Cairns is clear-eyed in his assessment:
Perhaps inevitably, he loaded the dice. Worse, he did it in a way that made him appear both disingenuous and fuddy-duddy. His positive catechism was a very mild affair. It presented modern music as an emancipated art, free to do as it wished in response to the new needs of the spirit even if it meant breaking old rules; but his specific propositions offered nothing that an enlightened musician could disagree with and little that was interesting, apart from “sound ranks below idea, idea ranks below feeling and passion.” For the rest, he rode his ancient hobby-horses, like a nodding, rambling Don Quixote, across ground long fought over and peripheral to the debate: vocal decorations as the enemy of dramatic expression, singers’ licence, the absurdity of Kyrie eleison bawled out as by a chorus of drunkards in a tavern, Gluck’s bold use of upper pedal-notes and the sublime effects he produced with them. For the first time Berlioz begins to sound like an old man.
In his life, Berlioz had little use for most idle flattery, and he prized hard appraisals as long as they were fair. He once wrote “If I could only live till I am a hundred and forty, my musical life would become decidedly interesting.” Perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid to David Cairns’ work is that Berlioz would have considered it worth the wait.