Berlioz. Past, Present, Future. Bicentenary Essays

By Heidlberger, Frank | Notes, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Berlioz. Past, Present, Future. Bicentenary Essays


Heidlberger, Frank, Notes


Berlioz. Past, Present, Future. Bicentenary Essays. Edited by Peter Bloom. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003. [xviii, 212 p. ISBN 158046-047-X. $70.]. Music examples, illustrations, index.

Hector Berliox's bicentennial in 2003 witnessed a large number of celebrations. Besides exhibitions, festivals, concert series, and opera productions around the world, official conferences-including those initiated by the Comité International Hector Herlioz-had already started by 2001, considering and reconsidering every topic imaginable, referring to the composer and his context, his music, his personality, his reception in different countries, his relationships to other composers, artists, and writers. At the beginning of this series of conferences was the one at Smith College; its papers are presented in this volume, edited with the highest scholarly accuracy by Peter Bloom. Among the myriad of publications emanating from this jubilee, the present tome is worth considering for some new and uncommon perspectives on Berlioz's research. It focuses foremost on historical context, starting with Berlioz and his times, then looking at Berlioz's understanding of history and earlier music, as well as Berlioz's presence in the musical world around 1900 and even today.

The twelve authors that Bloom presents in this volume generally avoid the popular type of "Berlioz and . . ." papers which discuss who influenced Berlioz and who was influenced by him. Only one article refers to this type of topic, but it does so in a very individual way. The title is "Berlioz's Berlioz," and with his autobiographical writings in mind, one cannot negate the impression that this reflection upon "Berlioz and Berlioz" may be the only appropriate approach to the composer. This article comes from the Sigmund Freud biographer and Yale historian Peter Gay. His article undertakes an investigation of Berlioz's personality as the composer himself defined it, focusing on his attitude towards women, politics, and art. Gay's most striking thesis is Berlioz's obsessive pursuit of his chosen artistic path. Berlioz's belief was fueled by an amazingly strong selfconsciousness and a love of music that can only be understood as a reflection of his love for himself. Moreover, this love of music was "erotic": Gay discovers that, according to descriptions in the memoirs, "his appetite for composing came along with physical passion when he was twelve" (p. 8). The fight for art, as Berlioz wanted to have this term understood, was a fight for his own existence. In a letter, Berlioz confessed that he would fight for success "with teeth and nails through gates that refuse to open." And he concluded, with bitter awareness of his possibly useless undertaking, that "it is possible that the day [of success] will come when I have no longer teeth and nails" (p. 5). Gay points out that Berlioz's obsessive approach to the arts was nourished by opposition that came not only from the public, but also from his family. Opposing his father's insistence on becoming a physician was a critical challenge that seemed to leave no choice between abandoning his ideals or dying of hunger.

Berlioz's political consciousness and contemporary awareness of his political altitudes interest a number of contributors. This topic is extremely complex and requires further basic research as Bloom appropriately states in his foreword. It has even become a matter of current politics. When the French government declared in 2000 its intention to translate Berlioz's remains to the Panthéon, many expressed concern about Berlioz's seeming appreciation for Napoleonic imperialism. As a result, the year 2003 passed without accomplishing this overdue gesture of honor. This incident-as a matter of "collective consciousness" of historical and current political values and strategies-forms the background of Katherine Kolb's article. She extracts Berlioz's political views by analyzing some of his major fictional stories and their autobiographical references. …

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