Ceaseless Vigilance

A recurring theme in Jacques Barzun’s writings on Berlioz in recent years has been the continuing need for vigilance. He warns us against complacency: we cannot afford to sit back in the comfortable belief that the war has been won. He is surely wise to do so. We Berliozians may assume that Berlioz is now in the mainstream of musical history, where he belongs, but there are still plenty of people out there who consider him a merely peripheral figure, when they think of him at all. How often, for instance, does one find no mention of him in biographies of musicians who, as it happens, were admirers and proselytisers of his music. The last time I consulted a modern life of Busoni, Berlioz’s name was conspicuous by its absence — Busoni, who said that Berlioz “pointed the way for untold generations” (quoted, Barzun II, 287). Until Gunther Braam gave me chapter and verse, I hadn’t realised that Bruckner admired Berlioz. When do you see that stated?

Recently, at a party at the British Library given in honour of Chris Banks (Secretary of the New Berlioz Edition, who was leaving the Library to take up a senior post at the University of Aberdeen), the composer Robert Saxton told me that Elizabeth Lutyens, whom he had known well in her last years, was passionate about Berlioz and for ever talking about him; but I am not aware that this important allegiance of her life came up during last year’s celebrations of the centenary of her birth. At the same party Julian Anderson described Thomas Adès’s delight when a fellow-composer said that a passage in a new work of his reminded him powerfully of Berlioz. It will be interesting to see how frequently Berlioz is mentioned in discussions of Adès’s music.

Grove VI

In the edition of Grove’s Dictionary published in 1980 — Grove VI — it is almost as if omission of Berlioz were a guiding editorial principle. The Berlioz entry does him full and splendid justice, because it is by Hugh Macdonald, but elsewhere he is simply too marginal to register. Thus in the entry on John Ella we read that Ella “cultivated a wide circle of acquaintance among foreign musicians, including Meyerbeer […], Thalberg and Wagner” — but not, apparently, Berlioz. That The Flight into Egypt was dedicated to Ella, that he was one of the small group of friends at Berlioz’s wedding to Marie Recio, that his congratulatory letter on Berlioz’s election to the Institute is one of the most whole-hearted and enthusiastic (“Mon cher, bon Berlioz, ce jour sera, je pense, le plus brilliant de ma vie […] [j’ai] le bonheur de vous féliciter pour la justice que la France a rendue […] à l’un des hommes que j’aime le plus”) — all this evidently cuts no ice with the contributor. Again, under “Rouget de Lisle”, we are informed that “with the July Revolution in 1830 the Marseillaise regained acceptability”, but there is no word about Berlioz’s setting of it, composed that year. This is strange, given that the entry is credited to Frédéric Robert, who edited the second volume of the Correspondance Générale d’Hector Berlioz.

It is the same even when we turn to, of all entries, “Weimar”. The roster of those who “frequented” Liszt’s home, the Villa Altenburg, includes “such musicians as Wagner, Raff, Brahms, Cornelius, Smetana, Borodin, Glazunov, Rubinstein and Bülow”, but not the musician whom Liszt regarded as, next to Wagner, the most important composer of the day and in whose honour he put on several “Berlioz Weeks”, and who was elected one of the two non-German members of the New Weimar Association. Under “Cornelius, Peter”, one looks in vain for the name of the composer whose Damnation of Faust Cornelius called “one of our great musical masterpieces, to be ranked with The Creation, Handel’s oratorios and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony”, and who told Berlioz that The Barber of Baghdad “would show you that you have a disciple in Germany and that Cellini has offspring!”.


Admittedly these and other bêtises were corrected in the next edition of Grove (and perhaps not just as a result of the protests they inspired in one or two quarters). There has certainly been progress, great progress in the quarter-century since Grove VI. Berlioz is continually making converts. Some of the defective articles referred to were the work of German musicologists. They were a measure of the status, or lack of it, that Berlioz was accorded in Germany at the time. That is quite different now. The influence of Bärenreiter’s New Berlioz Edition, the crusading zeal of Colin Davis in Dresden and Munich, and productions of The Trojans in German theatres great and small, have all borne fruit in a fundamentally new attitude.

Apropos of conversions, here is a tale of justice, poetic and actual, told me by our President. Some years ago he sent me a copy of a letter from a friend, a professor of music at an American university who, on the point of retirement, wrote that to his great joy his final seminars were being devoted to Berlioz’s Te Deum. “What a way to go!”, he said. The irony of this communication is that many years before, when Jacques Barzun was at work on Berlioz and the Romantic Century, he was taken to task at a dinner party and attacked all evening in the most violent terms by this same professor of music, who poured scorn on the project and warned him that his reputation as a serious scholar would never recover if he persisted in devoting himself to such a disreputable apology for a composer. This particular story, as I have said, had a happy ending. But we will do well not to forget that such fierce and resentful prejudice still exists and is not always so gratifyingly repented of.


I remember that evening [14 May 1964]. One of the other rarities heard was the Marche marocaine of Léopold de Meyer. In his speech, Jacques Barzun predicted that Berlioz's coronation would take place in London, though he added that he hoped Léopold de Meyer would not be part of it.

Later, there was a memorable Berlioz Society gathering at Cecil Hopkinson's flat in Knightsbridge at which Jacques was guest of honour. I can still hear Colin Davis's wonderfully appreciative laugh at Barzun's answer to a question about Stravinsky's dismissal of Berlioz in his Poetics of Music: Stravinsky is an absolute non-thinker.

In July 1972 Jacques was at Wembley Town Hall for all the recording sessions of Benvenuto Cellini (a work very close to his heart). He is just visible at the far left of this picture taken in the control room at Wembley. Seated at the console, from right to left, are Colin Davis, Erik Smith and David Cairns. Seated to the right of Colin Davis is the soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre (Teresa), and, standing to her right, Nicolai Gedda (Cellini). To Gedda's right, second from the left in the standing group, is Douglas Robinson, chorus master of the Royal Opera House.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial