Hector Berlioz; French Composer Stretched the Truth of His Life, splendidly.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Hector Berlioz; French Composer Stretched the Truth of His Life, splendidly.(BOOKS)


Byline: Stephen Goode, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The great French composer Hector Berlioz has had great biographers who have told his story well. Over half a century ago, the historian Jacques Barzun published his two volume "Hector Berlioz and the Romantic Century" (1950), a pioneering work of cultural history that did much to revive interest in the man who wrote "Symphonie fantastique," "Les Troyans," and "Romeo and Juliet."

Then in 1989, British music critic David Cairns came out with "Berlioz: The Making of an Artist," followed a decade later by his "Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness," a biography for which the word monumental is too slight. Together, Mr. Cairns' two volumes take up 1,544 pages of very readable text, accompanied by a handsome array of illustrations.

Yet as splendid as these works are, they play second fiddle to the best work anyone's ever done on Berlioz, the composer's own "Memoirs," begun in March, 1848, when the composer was 44, and added to until 1865. Berlioz died in 1869.

From beginning to end, "The Memoirs" make superb reading, and it's a pleasure that is only increased by the excellent Everyman's Library edition, translated and edited by David Cairns. First published in 1969, "The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz" has been reissued this year.

Pedants and other tiresome sorts will point out (and have from the moment the "Memoirs" were first published) that the author sometimes stretches the truth, that his memory isn't always accurate, and that on occasion he will spin an anecdote so that he's the hero of the story, when, in truth, he wasn't.

Berlioz does all these things, but for most readers it doesn't matter and never has. And it doesn't matter because the tour that Berlioz offers of his life's ups and downs isn't just entertaining and well written. It's a deeply touching, very human portrait of a man who wrote great music and for whom any degree of moderation in the pursuit of the two things he loved beyond all measure - his art and love itself - was no virtue.

The "Memoirs" are not the story of one man, however. Berlioz was one of the great Romantics - Lord Byron, Friedrich Holderlin, Alexander Pushkin, and Victor Hugo are close kin - and on its every page his book breathes the spirit of his age. From the first, Romantic melancholy and restlessness defined him. "I suffered agonies," wrote Berlioz, describing himself as a lad of 15, stuck in Isere, his native province.

"I suffered agonies and lay on the ground . . . stretching out abandoned arms, convulsively tearing up handfuls of grass and wide-eyed innocent daisies . . . struggling against mortal isolation." He longs for "wings, devouring distance: I want to see, to admire, I want to know love, rapture . . . I want life in all its grandeur and richness. But my earth-bound body drags me down."

Heady stuff, though not unusual in an ambitious, dreamy boy. But Berlioz never ceased expressing similar sentiments with equal high passion. Here he is at 61, after recalling the image of a woman whose beauty had moved him deeply decades earlier: "Now an overwhelming oppression floods me, I sink to the ground and remain a long time stretched out in an agony of spirit, while with each pulse-beat the hideous words hammer my brain: 'The past! Time! The past! Never! never! never!"

With the Romantics - and particularly the continental Romantics - Berlioz shared a passion for WIlliam Shakespeare. The love of Shakespeare came early. As a young man he concluded: "It is much harder for a Frenchman to sound the depths of Shakespeare's style than it is for an Englishman to catch the individual flavour and subtlety of La Fontaine or Moliere." Why? Because "They are continents, Shakespeare is a world."

"Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt," he recalled in middle age, thinking back on his first seeing "Hamlet. …

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