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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 26th, 2002


Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (02 Edition)

by David Cairns

A review by James Marcus

In our age the memoir has become an exalted form of complaint, in which friends, family, and society itself are peevishly taken to task. But when Hector Berlioz sat down to tell his story, in 1848, the creator of the Symphonie Fantastique had other fish to fry. He meant, as he wrote in his preface, to set the record straight on his own life, but also to deliver a crash course for aspiring composers, in order to acquaint them with the perils and pitfalls of the trade. Regarding the latter, Berlioz tended to be gloomy: "The art of music, long since dying, is now quite dead. They are about to bury it or rather throw it on the dung-heap." Yet the Memoirs, which were not published until after his death, in 1870, are unlikely to have discouraged a single aspirant to the musical throne. They are too exuberant, too acerbic, and too entertaining — even when (or especially when) the author is caught up in one of his all too frequent Romantic agonies.

Determined to avoid a kiss-and-tell confession, Berlioz refracted his life through his art. An episode of puppy love, then, produced this comical snapshot of the artist as a very young man: "My youthful essays in composition bore the stamp of a profound melancholy. Almost all my melodies were in the minor. I was aware of the limitation but could not help it. My romantic Meylan passion had edged my thoughts in permanent black crepe." Elsewhere, though, his narrative instincts prodded him toward bravura storytelling. Indeed, the tale of his betrayal by the pianist Camille Moke, which nearly drove him to murder and suicide in 1831, has the snap and sizzle of Stendhal (whom Berlioz observed shortly thereafter in Rome, a "pot-bellied little man with the mischievous smile," driving his carriage through the sewage flooding the Piazza Navona). Other adventures took the author across the length and breadth of Europe, where he ran with a nineteenth-century equivalent of the Rat Pack: Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, and the occasional crowned head.

The Memoirs were first translated into English by a Victorian sister act, Rachel and Eleanor Holmes, in 1884. David Cairns, the author of the definitive biography of Berlioz, produced his own version in 1969, which he has further updated for this edition. The result is a superbly readable text that should win the author a wider audience than ever (although I wish that Cherubini, the hero's arch-nemesis at the Conservatoire, weren't made to sound so much like Chico Marx). According to at least one witness, Berlioz's last words represented a kind of parting shot at posterity: "They are finally going to play my music." But as it turned out, that was only the half of it — they were going to read his book, too.

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