6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 53


Take him for all in all

Norman Lebrecht

BERLIOZ, VOLUME II by David Cairns Allen Lane, £25, pp, 895

Bit of a misfit, Berlioz. Not so much in character, which was a good deal less crab- by than Wagner's, as in his place in the canon. History cannot, for some reason, make up her mind about Hector, and the masses have never come storming the Bastille or the Barbican demanding more Berlioz.

That he is among the most important and influential composers of Western civili- sation is undisputed even by the French, who cherish him least. His vision was as boundless as the greatest of Romantics and his development of orchestral language was epochs ahead of his time. Many of Wag- ner's trademark tricks were learned at Berlioz concerts; much of Mahler's mastery derives from Berlioz's treatise on orches- tration.

Two of the most exciting concerts I have heard all year have been works by Berlioz — Benvenuto Cellini by Kirov soloists con- ducted by Valery Gergiev, and the hack- neyed Symphonie Fantastique created as if anew by Mariss Janson and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In the heat of a Proms concert one could easily be con- vinced that no finer music was ever written by human hand. But in the grey light of a newspaper deadline, when the ear struggles to reconcile the glories it has heard with the squiggles on the page (his and mine), the eternal Berlioz conundrum overcomes any impulsive rush to restitution.

Put plainly, Berlioz does not fit into the lines of posterity laid down by generations of composers, critics and pub quizmasters — an apostolic succession that, as Pierre Boulez said, runs from Bach through Beethoven to Wagner, Mahler to Schoen- berg and Webem for inevitably, himself. There is no niche in this orthodoxy for a heretic like Berlioz whose symphonies are not symphonies, his operas not opera.

The works sprawl in too many directions, defy too many conventions, resist the scan- ning eye of a busy conductor with a plane to catch. They exist, perhaps, for those musicians who are prepared to devote time (in some cases, their whole lives) to crack- ing the Berlioz conundrum and reinventing the daring novelty of his imagination. Gergiev's Russian singers, investing Cellini with post-isolationist naivety, were visibly smitten by the boldness of the score. Jan- sons, adopting Mahlerian licence and despatching some of his players to offstage elevations, evoked a dramatic terror in the Fantastique that made it more than mere symphony, made it a living experience. If that's what Berlioz can do, give me more

(the LSO, with Sir Colin Davis, are about to do just that).

David Cairns, a whole-lifer if ever there was one, confesses in the prologue to his first half of the life — published in 1989 and now sumptuously reissued as a com- panion volume — that he was not to be counted among the many Englishmen who

mass-converted to Berlioz during Rafael Kubelik's revelatory Trojans at Covent Garden in 1957, its first complete perfor- mance. Cairns's eureka moment came a few months later while playing percussion for the Chelsea Opera Group in The Damnation of Faust when, in the course of rehearsals, 'the barriers fell away and enlightenment dawned'.

He has been spreading that enlighten- ment for the better part of three decades, toiling as arts editor on The Spectator and music critic of the Sunday Times while pur- suing his Berlioz researches as a matter of mission. He has produced here a magnifi- cent biography, a truly great life. But whether he has succeeded in establishing the greatness of Berlioz's personality and hence his place in the pantheon — is a matter for calmer contemplation.

Caims's second volume picks up Berlioz at the turning point of his life. His career had just been launched, on 9 December 1932, at a concert attended by Liszt, Paganini, Chopin, Heine, Dumas, Victor Hugo, George Sand and — surprise, sur- prise — the Irish actress Harriet Smithson with whom Berlioz had been smitten un- requitedly for five long years. Smithson's Ophelia had brought Shakespeare into his life, overcoming the prettiness and provin- ciality that governed French musical style. The actress represented in his mind a force of destiny, and he was intent on possessing her. It was, he felt, 'his sole and unique chance of happiness'.

But her career was on the slide while his was just beginning; their common destiny could be nothing but tragic. Nine days after his concert she declared, 'Eh bien, Berlioz . . . je vous aime.' He proposed marriage and was accepted. His father, appalled at her profession and Protes- tantism, refused to recognise the union. Harriet resisted premarital caresses and proved to be a virgin, possibly deficient in sexual ardour. She gave birth to a son, Louis, and their first five years together were contented and productive.

Then Hector's attentions began to stray. Harriet, frustrated at failure and rejection, turned into a shrew. Berlioz took a mis- tress, an inept singer called Marie Recio, who was twice as shrewish. Happiness was not to be found in either menage, and Hec- tor was not the man for casual satisfactions. His life's loves were few, intense and invariably self-destructive. At the end, after both wives had miserably died, he laid siege to the love-object of his adolescence.

Cairns fastidiously eschews psycho- biography, but the human matter he pre- sents cries out for interpretation. Berlioz is a suitable case for treatment, a man so flawed in self-esteem or so retarded emo- tionally that he could not form or sustain non-abusive sexual relationships. It is a deep puzzlement, but it is an essential part of the Berlioz enigma and it requires reasoned investigation.

There was no such inhibition in his artis- tic life. Berlioz formed friendships lastingly with many of his peers, most importantly with the selfless Franz Liszt who propagat- ed the Fantastique across Europe in his own piano reduction and produced Berlioz festivals in Germany when every door in France was slammed in his face.

The cross that Berlioz bore was being French. Musical life in France was, then as now, conducted on a basis of state patron- age and personal connections. Where Boulez triumphs, Berlioz was repeatedly frustrated. He was never much good at the political game, and any solidarity he might have earned from fellow-composers was dashed by a flow of caustic reviews.

Denied a sinecure — the best job he could land was librarian at the Conserva- toire — he made his living as a critic, and did so with such wit, discrimination and obvious zest that France and her• petty functionaries could never forgive him.

Paganini, dying, gave him enough francs to live on for a year. For the rest, he was reliant on his own ingenuity, the faith of Liszt and the booming music scene in Lon- don, which he visited five times, missing the revolutions of 1848 and earning much acclaim. He conducted a rival concert series to Wagner's and shared a wry amity with his antipode, only to blow it, along with Liszt's support, in a blistering review of the 1861 Paris Tannhauser. Whatever his true feelings — and Wagner, who is not always to be believed, claimed that Berlioz congratulated him on the work — he could not abide the sight of a foreigner producing his opera on a stage that refused, time and again, to receive his own Trojans. Racked by stomach pains and devastated by the colonial death of his feckless son, Louis, Berlioz passed his final years in Parisian gloom. He died, aged 65, in 1869, spared by divine mercy the ensuing national humilia- tions. His art was kept alive by German and British conductors; his neglect is a last- ing stain on French cultural pride.

Cairns is full of admiration for his sub- ject's character and quotes a testimonial by Jonathan Keates to his 'noble, unselfish egoism'. I am not convinced. There are too many weaknesses revealed in Cairns's absorbing and painstaking biography to emerge with anything higher than a quali- fied sympathy for Berlioz the man.

Ob er gut war? — was he a good man? That question, put to Gustav Mahler by his first biographer, Richard Specht, demands some equivocation in Berlioz's case. He was not a would-be saint like Liszt, nor a wanton sinner like Wagner, but a man who

struggled, rather like the rest of us, to make sense of the world and both ends meet. That the music so mightily tran- scends his circumstances and personality is one of the wonders of the human condi- tion. But if Berlioz deserves a place in the pantheon it is among the mortals, not the immortals. He was, as Cairns testifies, human, all too human.