22 JANUARY 1972, Page 15

Berlioz seen plain

Richard Luckett Berlioz, Romantic and Classic Ernest Newman, selected and edited by Peter Heyworth (Gollancz £3) The Lives of the Great Composers Harold C. Schonberg (Davis-Poynter £5) The Berliozians form a formidable communion, with Mr Davis esconced at Covent Garden, the autobiography available n the Authorised Version by Mr Cairns, the Summum of Professor 13arzun out in paperback (abridged), and approving if veiled references scattered liberally through the apocalypse — or apocalypses — of Mr Steiner. Moreover, as the centenary year so tediously demonstrated, practically every music critic in the country is prepared to contribute his mite of orthodoxy at the slightest provocation. It has always been (particularly in the case of Berlioz himself) a literary cult, and it has thus had a better showing in print than perhaps the facts of the case warrant. Berlioz, Romantic and Classic is a collection of articles culled from Newman's journalism. He had planned a full length study, but never managed to write it. What we have in this book, then, is a series of impressions recorded at various times between 1905, the date of the titlearticle, and Newman's death in 1957. They add nothing to our knowledge of Berlioz, they are often fragmentary and sometimes repetitious, yet they are nevertheless of considerable interest. For Newman, though he was not finally a great music critic (which is what his tactful and unobtrusive editor, Peter Heyworth, claims for him) was quite definitely a great musical journalist. He had three cardinal virtues: the ability to write well, the ability and courage to be specific, and an honesty that is evident both in his frank admissions that he is unsure of a work, or has changed his mind over it, and in the straightforwardness of his approach. He wore his learning, not lightly, but without affectation. Consequently this is a book which is eminently readable and surprisingly persuasive, not least because, when he takes into account the objections to Berlioz, he gives them a real weight and significance. He had read Pietro Scudo's brilliant assault in the Revue des deux mondes and, though he could not agree with this mordant analysis, he perceived that Scudo was no mere provocateur but a critic whose views were rooted in a cogent, reasoned view of the nature of music.

However ardent in his plea for Berlioz, Newman never allowed his enthusiasm to master him. It was his final position that Berlioz did not — and here he echoes Heine — "have sufficient talent to support his genius." It is a pretty damning comment, surely more damning than Newman realised. For whilst the literary attraction of Berlioz was a phenomenon Newman recognised and understood, what he didn't see was that Berlioz had a further attraction for a special type of person, the auto-didact — which was what Newman himself was. Newman's autodidacticism could give rise to the most splendid effects (an off-hand comparison of Berlioz and Sir Thomas Browne is a typical instance) precisely because his learning was come by in an unpredictable, impulsive, yet essentially unselfconscious way. But it equally predisposed him to indulge some of Berlioz's weaknesses — as he would later indulge all of Sibelius's — and is evidently a contributory cause of Newman's tendency to fall back on a disconcertingly homespun metaphysic.

"One is either a Berliozian or an antiBerliozian, and there's an end to it" this assertion, often repeated, is characteristic of the kind of statement that, combined with his auto-didacticism, must finally incline us to call Newman a great journalist rather than a great critic. As an assertion it is fundamentally uncritical, and it is obviously related to his incipient phrenological tendency: with surprising freauency he attempts to interpret Berlioz's musical character in terms of the composer's individual physical appearance.

But his moderation and good sense emerge enhanced if we compare his use of this hoary device with its ridiculous exploitation by Harold C. Schonberg in The Lives of the Great Composers. Schonberg, so the blurb assures us, occupies "the chair of Senior Music Critic" of the New York Times. This claim to quasi-academic status is unlikely to survive a reading of the preface, in which he contends that the lives of composers matter because "we are in contact with a mind, and we must attempt an identification with that mind ... the closer the identification, the closer it is possible to come to understanding the creator's work." Unfortunately, reading Mr Schonberg one is manifestly not in contact with a mind at all. Indeed, in this book intelligence of any kind — to appropriate one of the inimitable Mr Schonberg's phrases — "bulks small." Music began with Bach who, it is well known, "craved large forces " so that it is a mistake to present the Passions, say, with only the small numbers that were used in the original performances. But things were pepped up by Beethoven, "the revolutionary from Bonn ... a high-voltage personality coupled to an equally highvoltage order of genius."

Berlioz, as may be imagined, provides Mr Schonberg with an excuse to push the throttle through the gate: "he was an unusual man . . . everything about him was unusual," he was "the first composer to use sound for its own sake — to make an aesthetic of pure sound:" when we listen to him " Berlioz is seen plain, his eagle beak defiantly thrust at the heavens glorifying in a kind of tonal magnificence and an ideal of self-expression that makes the concept of romanticism very clear." The composition of thi._ book, with the roar of typewriter keys punctuating the thunder of the hi-fl and the smoke of conflict, must have been an awc -inspiring sight, and when it is remaindered it will be well worth buying for the laughs. More immediately it may serve as a macabre memento of just how able Newman indeed was.

Mr Schonberg writes for "the intelligent layman," and insults him on every page. Newman makes no such claim; instead he succeeds in engaging interest simultaneously on a number of levels, conveying simply in the manner in which he says things both his seriousness and his delight. Quite often the reader will disagree, as he may well disagree over Newman's estimate of Berlioz. But he will never do so without having had the matter under discussion illuminated in one way or another. If we considered Berlioz a minor master, just as his elected precursor Gluck was a minor master, then we can expect short shrift from the Berliozian orthodoxy. But Newman, for all that he would have protested, would also have understood; it is for this reason that the new collection, which reopens basic questions in an approachable way, is particulary welcome.