Magazine article Musical Times

Franc Account

Magazine article Musical Times

Franc Account

Article excerpt


The life of Berlioz

Peter Bloom

Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1998);

xi, 211pp; L27.95 /L9.95 pbk.

ISBN 0 521 48091 4 / 0 521 48548 7.

Of all the great composers, Hector Berlioz has perhaps the most compelling life story, meshing with the history and spirit of his dynamic era at the highest levels. It's appropriate, too, that the composer who created an acknowledged literary masterpiece with his Memoires should attract scholars who are themselves writers of flair and imagination - notably David Cairns, the second part of whose magnum opus we eagerly await. And now another authority on Berlioz, Peter Bloom, maintains this standard in his contribution to CUP's series 'Musical lives'. Whereas Cairns is expansive and leisurely in pace, Bloom brings fresh information and perspectives in a triumph of concentration, entirely readable and compelling.

Without in any way deconstructing the romantic artist of genius, he places this doctor's son, a bachelier-es-sciences who dropped out of medical school, firmly in the real world of opportunism, patronage and finance. He emphasises his subject's identity as a citoyen of post-Napoleonic France, respecting constituted authority and its institutions - kings, princes, aristocrats and, of course, the ubiquitous civil service. Indeed, as a younger man, Berlioz worked the system to his advantage, successfully lobbying Charles Xs Director of Fine Arts, the Vicomte de La Rochfoucauld, and gaining the support of the highly cultivated Duc &Orleans in putting on the premiere of Harold en Italie. Alas, his good fortune did not last into the reign of the unmusical Emperor Napoleon 111, whom he greatly admired despite the absence of official backing for mounting Les Troyens.

An important focus is on Berlioz the highly skilled operator, experienced practical musician, concert organiser, and resourceful administrator who went on official missions to gather information about German musical institutions, judged the merits of instruments at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, and nearly took over the management of the Theatre Italien. But although he failed to conquer the operatic world of Paris, he bravely set himself up as the Orleanist Monarchy's official composer with such occasional works as Hymne a la France (1844) and Chant des chemins defer (1846) in the tradition of the massed choral hymns of the 1789 Revolution. Subsequently, his ability to marshal huge forces was evident in the monster cantata L'Imperiale (1855), glorifying the Napoleonic dynasty. Indeed, he supported strong autocratic rulers, distrusting democracy and universal suffrage. …

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