The full treatment
BERLIOZ, IA Voix Du ROMANTISME edited by Catherine Massip and Cecile Reynaud Bibliotheque Nationale de France! Fayard, 45 Euros, pp. 264, ISBN 2213616973
THE PORTRAITS OF HECTOR BERLIOZ by Gunther Braam, translated by John Warrack Biirenreiter, £135, pp.401, ISBN 3761816774
first to France's shame, the tirst ever complete performance in Paris of Berlioz's masterpiece The Trojans was
heard last October, as part of the bi-centenary celebrations of the composer's birth, the conductor was John Eliot Gardiner. I was lucky enough to be at the first night and its reception at the Theatre du Chatelet was ecstatic and the applause much prolonged. A sharp-tongued Frenchman pointed out that the greater part of the unconfined joy came from the large British contingent in the audience, but this was unfair. The French really enjoyed it too, but one can see his point. Berlioz has been regarded as a giant over here for at least half a century and the French are still lagging behind in their appreciation of their only truly original musical genius. His great biographer, David Cairns, is English. The leading exponent of his work is Colin Davis, whose recordings and live performances have, over three decades, enabled Berliozians to go forth and multiply. And, if Davis has any rivals in this field, they are Gardiner and Roger Norrington. All three were present at the Atheneum in November for the celebratory dinner at which David Cairns gave the oration with the expected passion and scholarship, but also with a wit and comic timing that any great actor would have admired. Now that 2003, with all its wonderful concerts and stagings of all the major works, is behind us, we can concentrate on the two permanent legacies of the hi-centenary year.
The Voice of Romanticism is the book/catalogue of the deeply moving and indeed stimulating exhibition mounted in a handful of ground-floor rooms in Francois Mitterrand's much cherished and deeply horrible grand projet, the Bibliotheque Nationale (which makes our unfairly derided British Library appear a thing of beauty). It was the most important celebratory Berlioz exhibition since the Victoria & Albert display of 1969 and the book, like the show, is a cornucopia of Berlioziana by all the usual suspects: Cairns, of course, on The Trojans and Berlioz and Shakespeare; Hugh Macdonald, the general editor of the New Berlioz Edition, on Berlioz as 'the inventor of the modem orchestra', a judgment first coined by Richard Strauss, and on Benvenuto Cellini; D. Kern Holoman on Berlioz the conductor; extracts from the Memoirs; erudite background pieces on the French Academy in Rome and the Paris Conservatory and much, much more to titillate the most fastidious Berliozian palate. There is a touching portrait of the otherwise admirable provincial Dr Berlioz, possibly the most misguided parent in all French civilisation, who constantly opposed Hector's musical ambition. The illustrations, including some of Berlioz's favourite instruments such as the ophicleide and the serpent, are more than the sum of the parts of the exhibition in a beautifully designed and printed volume.
But it is the portraits book which will fasci
nate the true Berliozian most. The principal edition is in English, comes together with a French translation of the text only and constitutes Volume 26 of the definitive Barenreiter edition of all Berlioz's works. It reproduces, where appropriate in colour, every original portrait of Berlioz made or printed in his lifetime, whether he is shown alone or in a group. In addition, every known contemporary copy from an original is also included. All are printed and analysed in chronological order, from the medallion by Dantan aine of 1831 (when Berlioz was 28),
to the plaster bust by Stanislas Lami from the deathmask made between 9 and 11 March 1869. (Lami himself, only 11 when Berlioz died, lived until 1944.) There are also several of what the author calls 'portraits of doubtful authenticity' in an appendix. One could say that this is too much Berlioz; yet to the aficionado such a concept is impossible. As the most cursory acquaintance with the way Berlioz looked makes clear, he had one of the most compelling heads and faces of any artist or musician of the 19th or any other century. A gift to caricaturists like Daumier, he was also a boon to the early photographers such as Nadar and Pierre Petit.
Not all of the caricatures are friendly and several reflect the disapproval, even disdain, with which so much of his music was at first regarded. One of them, an 1838 lithograph by Benjamin, shows him as the composer of `Malvenuto Cellini' and one, a plaster bust by Dantan aine's brother, Dantan jeune, in a piece worthy of Daumier's vicious miniature sculptures of establishment hypocrites, turns Berlioz's great mane of hair into a creation fit for Medusa.
Braam is an exacting scholar. He won't tolerate our wishing to believe that a drawing of 1831 is by Ingres. He is, of course, quite right. In the first place it's simply not good enough to be Ingres and secondly Ingres was not at the Villa Medicis in Rome during Berlioz's sojourn there. In fact a portrait, preferably a full-scale oil painting of Berlioz, by Ingres is perhaps the greatest artistic lacuna in the whole of French culture. Berlioz was painted by Courbet, twice, and Ingres painted a masterpiece of the publisher Bertin, who provided the near-starving Berlioz with modest sustenance by employing him as an overworked music critic but, alas for posterity, Ingres and Berlioz never got together as they should have. Braam's book is quite rich enough within the compass of Berlioz's lifetime and it is pure greed that makes one wish that he had included some of the posthumous portraits. Michael Ayrton, who uttered the words 'beware the Greeks when bringing sets' at the 1969 Covent Garden performance of The Trojans because, like others, he had disapproved of the Greek designer Nicholas Georgiadis's versions of Troy and Carthage, was himself an addicted Berliozian. He produced dozens of striking paintings and drawings and some remarkable bronze sculptures of that demonic, aquiline head.
Still, while the book, despite its various acknowledged subsidies, is not cheap, it is that rare beast, a labour of love which combines many years of punctilious scholarship with a feast of entertaining minutiae and which, with its often wondrous visual documentation, serves as an impressive capstone to the celebration of Berlioz's multifarious genius. Above all it is exhaustive without ever being exhausting, simply because Berlioz's physiognomy like his music is inexhaustible.