Barzun and the Founding of the Berlioz Society

The wonderful news that our president Jacques Barzun has celebrated his hundredth birthday reminds me that younger members may be unaware of his role in the origins of the Berlioz Society. As I was present at some of its earliest meetings I hope a few reminiscences may be of interest.

The great success of Jacques Barzun’s Berlioz and the Romantic Century, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz in 1951, seems to have increased calls for the formation of a Berlioz Socety: I responded to an advertisement (in the Gramophone, I think) in January 1952 and thus became aware of private meetings already occurring at the home of Tom Daniels, an enthusiast, in Hampstead, London. They were first described in Bulletin No.1 (May/June 1952), above the signatures of Stephen Dreyfuss, Tom Daniels and Ronald Bernheim. They discuss, in rather general terms, how to proceed, and note that not even a name for the group or for its broadsheet has yet been considered.

Bulletin No.2 (Aug,/Sept.1952) reported disappointment — only five responses to their original letter to the Musical Times. On the other hand a letter to Les amis de Berlioz evoked a couple of very friendly letters from their Vice President, M. A. Bourdat- Parmenie — though his assertion, in respect of Berlioz performances, that “his symphonies echo throughout all the world” did not seem to ring true. The same issue reports “At this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Sir Thomas Beecham is directing a performance of l’Enfance du Christ,1 but not one single work of Berlioz appears in the programmes of any of the French music festivals. Those of Aix, Strasbourg, and Bordeaux can be searched in vain.”2

Fresh enthusiasm appears in Bulletin No.3 (Nov. /Dec. 1952): with permission it reproduces the text of a short talk in which, “some time ago” Martin Cooper had reviewed Jacques Barzun’s “Berlioz and the Romantic Century” for BBC Music Magazine. Certainly Bulletin No.4 (Feb /Mar. 1953) is full of activity. A meeting of London members on February 1st set up a committee and indicated the specific tasks of its members (I find myself listed among them). Decisions were made about frequency of meetings and so on, and item 5 agreed that “M. Jacques Barzun . . . be approached and asked to accept the presidency of the Society”. It was explained to him that, in the English sense the Presidency was an honour rather than a position with onerous duties, as in the American model.

In due course Bulletin No.6 (Aug. /Sept) announced “This is in a very special sense the most important bulletin we have issued to date. It marks the adoption at a London meeting, in August, of the Society’s first President. Professor Jacques Barzun has written from Columbia University, New York, in answer to the Committee’s invitation, “I gratefully accept this honor.3 Your kind letter of June 23 caused me”, he says, “as you might readily surmise, the greatest amount of surprise compatible with an equal amount of pleasure. I am delighted to know that there is at last an active Berlioz Society; I find it most fitting that it should have come into being in London”

His letter made a number of helpful suggestions, and concluded “I agree with the philosophy implicit in the bulletins that recordings, and more recordings, and better recordings, form the principal concern of a right-thinking Berlioz Society — not indeed to the neglect of other interests — but as the best, most genuine propaganda; song without words.”

In those days members knew Jacques Barzun through reading his books; none had met or seen him, so an opportunity to do so was very welcome. Such an opportunity occurred four years later, and the committee’s first meeting with its President was described by the Society’s first Bulletin editor (Aldrich Caldwell) in Bulletin Number 20 (March 1957) p.-1-2: “The Man who Came to Dinner”:

A red letter day for your Committee — and in its quiet way, Society history in the making — was the dinner held at Kettner’s Restaurant, Soho, on January 18. Here for the first time we met and talked with our President, Jacques Barzun, for three-and-a-half civilised, enlightening and truly enjoyable hours. Members may perceive a reason, or at any rate a justification, for the venue in that other well-remembered Dinner held there on December 17, 1928.4

The present occasion, suitably formal yet relaxed enough for some plain speaking on both sides, did honour to Berlioz. I nearly said to Berlioz’ memory, but that is precisely what it did not do. Memories of concerts and conductors, books about and around Berlioz, yes; but the man and his music had never seemed so much a part of the present.

And what of the guest of honour?. Babylonian? Pyramidal?. A wild-eyed, streaming-hair-in-the-wind latter-day Byron with a message? .The embodiment of the Berlioz myth on vacation in Europe?. Well hardly. Superficially Jacques Barzun could be any successful American in a quiet way of business. His clothes are well cut, his greying hair sufficiently distinguished, to denote prosperity without ostentation. In conversation the feeling grows that Professor Barzun is more than the sum of his parts — theorist, lecturer, critic, biographer, too-accessible father-confessor to too many students. His hands betray him with eloquence of gesture … his eyes spill over unwarranted compassion, A problem here, if not a tragedy. The world has blunted but not defeated the artist in him.

Does this make him sound morbid? The dinner where nine of us talked and ate and drank our wine and laughed and listened, slightly sordid? It ought not to, because a livelier pen than mine could have caught the gleam and glitter of more than the Chablis, fine as it was, could have engendered.5

Thereafter, Jacques Barzun’s occasional correspondence and rare visits to the UK gave much pleasure. I can confirm the remarks of others, that his correspondence is exemplary: if one makes half a dozen points, all six receive enlightening comment.

The happiest visit I recall was on 14th May 1964, when he kindly spoke to the assembled members at the British Institute of Recorded Sound (in its earliest home in Russell Square) at the end of a Society musical soirée, which included a first performance of the fragments from Les Francs Juges and other rarities, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, my very best wishes to him.

1 I vividly recall the deep impression made by Beecham’s performance, notably of heavenly choruses from high in the Usher Hall. At the end of it the audience applauded enthusiastically, and Beecham returned a number times with head erect, barely acknowledging the approbation: in those days a concert on the Sabbath, albeit with religious theme, might be disapproved; applause would have offended many Scots.

2 It seems that French Berlioz Festivals with no Berlioz were not uncommon: Bulletin No.6 cites a Radio Times choice of “Continental Programmes” on Medium Wave. It detailed a concert in Paris to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the composer’s birth. The programme comprised works by Florent Schmitt, Saint-Saëns, Dukas, Debussy and Ravel.

3 In correspondence Jacques Barzun has sometimes modestly subscribed himself “Your do-nothing President”.

4 Lest anyone should forget the occasion, it is briefly described in Bulletin No 4, eight distinguished speakers discussed Berlioz and his position in music.

5 At that time some considered Societies for Dead Composers, especially for those less than 200 years dead, to be a morbid preoccupation.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial