[This is the text of my review of The Selected Letters of Berlioz, edited Hugh MacDonald, which appeared in the Independent on Sunday on 30 July 1995.]

Niccolò Paganini was a notorious tightwad, but he was so stunned on first hearing the premier performance of Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie that he immediately wrote a cheque for 20,000 francs and sent it to the impecunious composer, with a note acclaiming him as the reincarnation of Beethoven. In response to this extraordinary gift (£25,000 in today’s terms) the composer began work on his grand dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette – and was ever a magnificent gesture more magnificently answered? The symphony is both quintessential Berlioz and the epitome of French romanticism. It is emotional, exotic, densely textured, lyrical and gorgeous, yet hugely dignified, and without a treacly moment.


In the Berlioz centenary year of 1969 I lavished a practically unaffordable £4 19s 6d on this work, in the boxed set of Colin Davis’s brilliant Philips recording. On that day I became a lifelong Berliozian. Listening in my cold and pokey undergraduate digs, I felt hit by a lightning flash of fearful pleasure – a flash from the same bolt that whopped Berlioz himself when he first saw Shakespeare's play at the Théatre de l’Odéon in September 1827. In his Mémoires – themselves a primary text of European romanticism – he tells how, epiphany-like, the drama showed him “the whole paradise of art, lighting its remotest depths in a single flash”.


Roméo et Juliette packs a remarkably total experience. It takes you straight, as Berlioz fully intended, to “the hot sunshine and balmy nights of Italy – to love quick as thought, burning as lava, imperious, irresistible”. It is music for youth and for reliving youth – idealistic (of course), and quick-tempered; sorry, doomy and drunk; laughing, sexual, reckless, defiant.


The reader can see how contagious this stuff is: a few hours with Berlioz’s writing and I’m piling up the adjectives. The Mémoires – like Roméo et Juliette – are certainly a heady experience, and reminiscent of the author’s musical style too. Just as he often assembled fragments and oddments of music to create new unities, his autobiography is predominantly a recycling of letters and essays written at the times described and still warm from the enthusiasm and (frequently) the indignation of the moment. But to call the process a mere cut-and-paste of ephemeral material would be to traduce Berlioz.  The letters he used in the memoirs – most of them addressed to Humbert Ferrand and other friends  whilst Berlioz toured abroad – were always intended, if not for publication, then for fairly wide informal circulation and are carefully, even self-consciously written. The book that drew on them established its author as, in Hugh MacDonald’s words, “a master of readable prose”.


In his selection and translation of Berlioz’s letters Hugh MacDonald* has omitted all those from which the memoirs were sourced. It is striking how few of the  500 he does print – about an eighth of the surviving correspondence – look as if they come from the same pen as the Mémoires. Berlioz’s tone tends here towards the transactional and prosaic. To his mother he sends news about shirts and the weather; to his sisters lists of works played at concerts; to dignitaries respectful greetings; to his father wary details of his musical career mixed with complaints about his poverty; to his friends health bulletins and titbits of (frankly often dull) episodes from his daily life: “…an agonising time because of [his small son] Louis. A wretched servant took him to Paris and … going into a café (God knows why) she pinched his finger in a door.” Do we really need to know this?


Any reader familiar with Berlioz will disagree here and there with MacDonald’s choices, but I feel bound to object to the exclusion of Berlioz’s response to the 1848 Paris staging of Hamlet. It is particularly incomprehensible because the first part of the letter is included, but is cut off after the words “I saw Hamlet a few days ago; Marie and I came out of it shattered, trembling and drunk with relief and admiration”. In the original letter Berlioz went on to amplify his ideas. “Shakespeare set out to show the nothingness of life, the vanity of human devices, the tyranny of chance, the utter indifference of God, or fate, to what we call virtue and wickedness, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, genius and absurdity. How cruelly he succeeded!” Not only is this passage superb, it is highly significant for the understanding of Berlioz’s ideas on Shalespeare, the model at the heart of the composer’s entire body of work. It is absolutely crucial to his bleak and tragic Marche funébre pour la derniére scene d’Hamlet – ten minutes of dramatic nihilism that would have gone down well with Samuel Beckett, if he ever happened to hear it. Such an editorial lapse sets up worries about the entire selection process, in spite of Professor MacDonald’s undoubted eminence as a Berlioz man.


There seems also to be a problem with the translation. A number of phrases look suspiciously like 4th-form literalisms (“this species of malady”; “believe me, dear Papa, I am desolate that…”) but the real issue is the dullness and occasional ugliness of the phrasing. To Robert Griepenkerl, who wrote a book on him, Berlioz seems to tie himself up in a terrible knot: “Nothing in the world is better able to give me patience, strength and courage  than this parallelism between my thoughts and those of a mind as distinguished as your own”. To his sister he complains of his need to write his newspaper column “for which I have to busy myself with so many small, mean-minded actions and often to speak of them with a kind of deference!” To the Minister of the Interior: “I do not think it a gross conceit on my part to consider myself capable of teaching harmony, instrumentation and composition in general, far more than certain unknown professors at the Conservatoire”. The man responsible for this phrasing is a master only of lumpy prose. He is unrecognisable as the author of the Memoirs of Berlioz.


For his revealing letters to his father, for the description of the alcoholism of Harriet his Irish actress-wife, for a most touching letter to George Sand requesting a play for “an Englishwoman (sic) who speaks French with difficulty” and for many other inclusions that illuminate the man, Berliozians will require this book. And yet, overall, it does scant justice to the composer of Roméo et Juliette, whose friend and benefactor Ernest Legouvé wrote “everything about Berlioz is original. An extraordinary mixture of enthusiasm and mockery; a mind that you could never predict”.

Posted on March 12th, 2019


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