The Three B’s

The music of Berlioz — which inspired me some forty years ago to approach a distinguished professor at Columbia University — is marked by what Jacques has called a “conspicuous uniqueness.” Those two words require careful enunciation. As you say them you are compelled to think about what they suggest. They carry meaning and emotion; they come from the brain and the heart.

In the world at large Jacques’s study of Berlioz and the Romantic Century may not be his most celebrated book. But in the world of music it remains a triumph. First published in 1950 after twenty years’ research and reissued in 1969, those two volumes — and Jacques’s subsequent writings on the subject — restored Berlioz to his rightful place among the B’s, among the best. (The inventor of “the three B’s,” you might be surprised to learn, was in fact thinking of Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz. Another “B,” Bülow, bumped him for Brahms.) It is thanks to our own “B,” and to his grateful Berliozian disciples, that only the deaf still hear Berlioz as an ill-educated maverick. Others hear him, I should like to hope, as that brilliantly informed and remarkably imaginative artist who thrilled Jacques when he was a boy in Paris, and continued to stimulate his creative energies for nine more decades.

A talent for friendship, which Jacques has demonstrated to me with the grace and generosity that others more eloquent than I have spoken about in this space, is one that Berlioz possessed as well. The French composer also demonstrated a sense of humor that was at once playful and biting. To the best of my knowledge, Jacques, whose ambrosial mirth is well-known to his admirers, has eschewed sarcasm. If he has enemies (Berlioz enjoyed talking about his), they seem to have remained mute.

The countless letters I have received from Jacques are among my most treasured possessions. They have made me glad to be another “B,” albeit of the small variety, and they have provided me with the best private tutorial one could possibly have in English style, French culture, and humane scholarship. Others “here” surely feel the same way. I hope Jacques senses our gratitude. It comes from the brain and the heart.

Peter Bloom is Grace Jarcho Ross 1933 Professor of Humanities at Smith College. In the several collective volumes on Berlioz that he has edited — Berlioz Studies (1992), The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz (2000), Berlioz: Past, Present, Future (2003), and Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work (2007) — he has been privileged to include articles by Jacques Barzun.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial