Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Berlioz? Encore!

The University of Rochester Press has published a cluster of books on Berlioz, including the first full English translation of the composer’s Les Grotesques de la musique (The Musical Madhouse) and a study of his “semi-operas”. This month sees the publication of Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work; its editor, Peter Bloom, thinks back over the Berlioz “renaissance,” as he puts it, that has occurred in the last decade.

I will always remember the words “Berlioz? Encore!” (Berlioz? not again!) as articulated by François Lesure, the very distinguished and famously cynical director of the music department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when I told him I was doing another book on the French composer. François headed the music library from 1970 to 1988, the years during which I molted from graduate student to “scholar” and became what the French would call a berliozien pur et dur. He was himself a — I should say the — great Debussy specialist. His various articles, biography, and catalogue remain the standard works in the field. But he did come around to seeing something in Berlioz, he did welcome me and other Berlioz buffs to the library, he did participate in the publication of Berlioz’s Correspondance générale, and he did join the Comité International Hector Berlioz that became the motivating force of the second Berlioz renaissance, which took place during the approach to and aftermath of the celebrations of Berlioz’s bicentenary (2003).

The first Berlioz renaissance is the one sparked by the publication in 1950 of Jacques Barzun’s great cultural history, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, and the brilliant performances in England of Les Troyens, under Rafael Kubelik (1957) and Colin Davis (1969). The second one, which I would assign the dates 1997 to 2007, saw the completion of the New Berlioz Edition and of the Correspondance générale d’Hector Berlioz, another epoch-making performance of Les Troyens (under John Eliot Gardiner, at the Châtelet, in 2003), and the publication of the papers from five conferences — at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts; in Bayreuth; in London; in Grenoble and La Côte-Saint-André; and in Paris. I edited the Smith College conference papers for the volume University of Rochester Press brought out in 2003 under the title Berlioz: Past, Present, Future.

After attending all the other conferences and hearing the results of so much good research, I felt that there was plenty of material for another volume of essays on Berlioz, and set about compiling what has now become Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work. Not wishing to blow my own horn (I gave up my career as an oboist some years ago), I do nonetheless think that some aspects of this new collection are worth touting. The volume opens with an essay by my much-honored friend Jacques Barzun, whose one-hundredth birthday was celebrated world-wide on and around 30 November 2007. It brings into English three essays written for the occasion by French scholars of great renown in their home country. It also includes essays by two German scholars and one Dutchman (who, when not flying around Europe as a professional flutist, may be found digging in the archives of the towns were Berlioz walked the walk). Finally, the volume presents four essays by scholars born and educated in the United Kingdom. Which makes me, the twelfth contributor, the only “true” American — which is no longer completely true, since I added French citizenship to my own more than a dozen years ago, thanks to Berlioz and my French wife!

In the new collection, Hugh Macdonald, who miraculously brought the New Berlioz Edition to completion in 2005, offers a bit of surprising speculation about Berlioz’s initial musical reaction to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Joël-Marie Fauquet paints a troubling portrait of Berlioz’s imaginary musical utopia, Euphonia. Gérard Condé turns on its head our usual image of Berlioz the reluctant journalist. And Jacques Barzun finds a new way to tell us, as he has in countless other ways over countless decades, how we ought to write about music. Other essays, we trust, offer equally appetizing food for thought.

I wrote “Berlioz buffs” in my opening paragraph after rejecting the expression “Berlioz freaks.” In his own day and long afterwards, Berlioz himself was seen as something of a freak. But thanks in part to the performances, books, and scholars I have mentioned, he has resumed his rightful place as one of the B’s — one of the boldest, one of the best.

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