The Other Worlds of Hector Berlioz: Travels with the Orchestra

By Bloom, Peter | Notes, September 2016 | Go to article overview

The Other Worlds of Hector Berlioz: Travels with the Orchestra


Bloom, Peter, Notes


LOCALES The Other Worlds of Hector Berlioz: Travels with the Orchestra. By Inge Van Rij. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 [xii, 357 p. ISBN 9780521896467 (hardcover), $118; ISBN 9781316235850 (e-book), $94.] Illustrations, bibliographic references, indexes.

For some years, as she notes with a smile in her acknowledgments, Inge Van Rij has been "just completing" her book on Berlioz (p. xii). That it has now appeared is cause for congratulations, for she gives us a refreshing new look at the preeminent French composer from one of those places "on the other side of the world" (p. 1), as she puts it (referring to her position in New Zealand, where she is Senior Lecturer in musicology at the New Zealand School of Music), and one of those places that Berlioz, utterly Eurocentric though he was, loved-in his imagination-to visit.

Van Rij's primary purpose is "to interrogate Berlioz's conception of 'Other worlds' through a series of historically informed critical readings that uncover the tensions between the material and metaphysical realms in Berlioz's writings about and for the orchestra" (p. 6). I am not certain I fully comprehend that statement, but I do suppose that Berlioz himself felt no such tensions, just as I suppose that he did not feel the guilt of "the guilty pleasures of exoticism" evoked near the end of the book (p. 321). This is a study, built on theoretical underpinnings, of a composer who tended to renounce theory: "I no longer believe in the various theories in which some would like to imprison the art of sound. Music is free; it does what it wants, and without permission," he wrote, in 1865, in a report to the Académie des Sciences (Peter Bloom, "Berlioz à l'institut revisited," Acta Musicologica 53, fasc. 2 [ July- December 1981]: 197). Earlier, in the Journal des débats of 16 February 1840, he howled: "Aesthetics! I'd like to shoot the pedant who invented that word!" This cri de coeur (in my translation, as are others here) is surely what Jacques Barzun remembered when he wrote, in "Berlioz as Man and Thinker," that the composer spoke out against the philosophy of criticism:

Coined in the mid-eighteenth century, the word [aesthetics] soon appeared in essays and books and has come to denote a discipline by itself. It ranks as a part of philosophy and professes, often with comic gravity, to clear up the confused debate about the form and contents of the several arts. The result has not come about. The main effect of aesthetic doctrines has been to pressure artists into explaining and justifying their work by means of theory, current or of their own making." (The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, ed. Peter Bloom [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 14)

The greatest Berlioz scholar of the twentieth century, who set down a credo in the title of his rhetoric for writers (Simple and Direct [New York: Harper and Row, 1975]), thus shared with his great subject a healthy skepticism of schematized cogitation.

To Berlioz, as to others of his generation, the worrisome notion of "Otherness" that marks much modern discourse on the arts and humanities, and that serves productively to promote awareness of the insidiousness of linking alterity and subservience, was no worry at all. This in no way means that we should not search for the historical origins of the disequilibrium that puts the contemporary world at the precipice of what sometimes seems like social, economic, ethical, and environmental collapse. It means only that Van Rij's book is as much about her, and her take on readings in critical theory, as it is about Berlioz. Her epilogue, on musical life in New Zealand, seems in particular to have been provoked by Berlioz's characteristically sarcastic remark about her motherland: on the inadequacies of the women singing at the newly opened Opéra-National, he quipped (in the Débats of 30 September 1851) that apart from one singer trained at the Conservatoire, "all the others were educated at the Conservatoire de la NouvelleZélande. …

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