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Synopses & Reviews
In 1827 Harriet Smithson, a beautiful and talented young Irish actress, makes an unusual decision. Determined to avoid the traditional route to stardom via the managers bed, she joins an English company in the bold experiment of taking Shakespeare to Paris.
With the ferment of revolution in the air, the new generation is longing for a novel kind of passionate, spontaneous art. And to Harriets astonishment, it is embodied in her---La Belle Irlandaise. In the midst of this frenzy she finds herself pursued by a strange, intense young composer named Hector Berlioz. So begins a painful and profound love affair. She is his muse, his idée fixe, his obsession; and Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique, directly inspired by Harriet, will change music forever.
Symphony is an audacious, brilliant, and haunting novel, set against a background of nineteenth-century theatre, Romantic art, music, and revolutionary Europe. But at its heart lies the story of two lives transfigured and destroyed by genius, inspiration, and madness.
"The real-life marriage of Irish actress Harriet Smithson (1800 — 1854) to composer Hector Berlioz (1803 — 1869) is the ostensible subject of Morgan's latest (following Indiscretion), but the two don't meet until two thirds of the way into this thickly embellished historical romance. After initial reluctance, the young Harriet, her passion for theatre inflamed by Shakespeare, joins her family's traveling theater company. As drink dissipates her father, weight softens her mother and minimal talent limits her brother Joseph, Harriet takes charge of the family business and appears with theatrical stars of the time. But it's her magnificent interpretation of Ophelia in Paris that brings her a public, including Hector, the son of a successful doctor and a pious mother. Young Hector's path to a musical education is told in parallel to Harriet's youth. After her Ophelia, Harriet turns away Hector's ardent pursuit, but as her theater begins to fail and his musical star begins to rise, she attends a performance of his Symphonie Fantastique, inspired by her. Morgan's modernist style, with frequent shifts in tense and POV, won't be for everyone, but it lets Morgan nicely capture the multiple levels of consciousness a performer juggles on stage ('the three minds') and gives the novel real texture." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"True story: In 1827 a young French composer went to see two Shakespeare plays at the Odeon in Paris: 'Hamlet' and 'Romeo and Juliet.' He fell instantly and passionately in love with the Irish actress who played both Ophelia and Juliet. On fire, he composed a masterpiece. He pursued the actress. Their relationship was fraught and tempestuous. They married, but within a few years their union dissolved... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) into depression and mayhem; yet, despite everything, they loved each other until their deaths. That tale could make for a torrid romance novel, but the brilliant historical novelist Jude Morgan has turned it into a deeply empathic exploration of obsession and art, genius and madness. The author's narrative flows musically. The text is scored for many voices, the operatic cast is large, and Morgan's ability to bring each character to life is virtuosic. Harriet Smithson was the Irish actress who inspired perhaps the most iconic orchestral work of the 19th century: 'Symphonie Fantastique,' by Hector Berlioz. From an impoverished theatrical family, Harriet is reluctantly led into a life as a 'player,' but instead of sleeping her way to success (the usual path for an actress of her era) she remains pure and, therefore, obscure. Harriet's theatrical influences are vividly depicted, from her father, 'whose voice bounced off the wainscoted walls,' to the renowned actor Edmund Kean, who 'rasps like a crow and scuttles unpredictably about the stage.' Joining up with an English troupe, Harriet heads off across the Channel to bring the Bard to France, becoming an overnight celebrity. 'For life to turn about like this, with such completeness, must mean something,' the author writes. 'But there was no thinking what it might be, no time to think. Scarcely time to feel: the exultation, the fear, the delight slipped like beads through your fingers.' Berlioz is from a wealthy art-phobic family. 'Music is not a future,' says his grandfather. 'Not an occupation, not a profession — unless you count leading a dancing bear as a profession.' Hector's father, a famous doctor who sometimes indulges in 'the secret carnival of opium,' insists that his son follow in his medical footsteps. Rebelling, Hector leaves the cold cadavers of med school and embraces the warmth and ferment of artistic life in Paris. Composer Jean-Francois Le Sueur takes him on, telling his new student, 'You don't know what you're doing. ... In spite of that, there is fire here, motion. Yes, there is promise.' And is there promise in Berlioz the man? 'You must be quick to catch him,' Morgan tells us. 'He is always on the point of going somewhere, doing something. He is not shy or secretive: he is just simultaneously obvious and hard to perceive, like the drifting bubbles in the fluid of your eye. See them? Once you fix them, you have to stop seeing: you lose the world.' As for Hector's mind? There is 'the continual, and beautiful, and maddening brain-sound of music, grinding splendidly at him like the opposite of toothache.' Berlioz works hard and has little success, but after he sees 'La Belle Irlandaise' at the Odeon, 'He dreamed of Ophelia, wept, laughed: plunged his whole head into a bowl of cold water to tell himself, Come on, stop, end it. He roamed the streets, trying to tire himself, until his thighs and calves burned and his breath was a guttural sob; but his mind was in charge, and it kept on beating and flashing like a beacon through smoke.' That beacon leads Berlioz to write his masterpiece, but when Harriet hears the work, she finds her role of muse daunting: 'For him, I am the great love of the ages, to be thundered out to posterity by a hundred-piece orchestra. How can I meet that, with my little penny-whistle of emotions? Different when I'm Juliet or Ophelia. But really I'm someone much smaller. I hope he realizes that.' Throughout his novel, Morgan offers stunning descriptions not only of these characters but also of the tumultuous cities through which the story travels and the new movement that is galvanizing the arts: 'The true artist must be a chameleon, Protean, able to enter into any feeling or situation. These are the ideas that are circulating in the bloodstream of Paris just now; and the name given to the various strains of infection is Romantic.' Morgan's historical novel is deliciously romantic yet elegantly restrained. It resembles the musical work that is at its core, not only in its structure — chapters marked 'Prelude' through five 'Movements' to its 'Coda' — but also in its complexity, its wit and insight, its rangy themes and its thrilling momentum. Flutist Eugenia Zukerman is the author of four books, a television arts correspondent, and the artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival." Reviewed by Eugenia Zukerman, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
In 1827, Harriet Smithson, a beautiful and talented Irish actress, joins an English Shakespeare company where she falls in love with a young composer. But his love becomes obsession, and their lives will be transfigured and destroyed by genius, inspiration, and madness.
“A deeply empathic exploration of obsession and art, genius and madness. . . . Morgans ability to bring each character to life is virtuosic.” —The Washington Post Book World
In 1827 Harriet Smithson, a beautiful young Irish actress, determined to avoid the traditional route to stardom via the managers bed, joins an English company in the bold experiment of taking Shakespeare to Paris.
With the ferment of revolution in the air, the new generation is longing for passionate, spontaneous art. And to Harriets astonishment, it is embodied in her—La Belle Irlandaise. In the midst of this frenzy she finds herself pursued by a strange, intense young composer named Hector Berlioz. So begins a painful and profound love affair. She is his muse; his idée fixe; his obsession. And Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique, directly inspired by Harriet, will change music forever.
About the Author
Jude Morgan, who studied writing with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, lives in Peterborough, England.
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