Encounters with the Master

I met Jacques Barzun through Berlioz, of course. My Berliozian adventure was set off by reading his Memoirs in David Cairns’ magisterial translation. I was ill at the time and a musicologist friend had lent me a paperback copy of the book. I began the book somewhat reluctantly, as at the time I was not much taken with romanticism. But as I began reading, my amazement grew. The book’s vivid descriptions, Berlioz’s confessional style of opening his heart, his mind, his prodigious ability to commune with the reader, his passion and humour took my breath away. The book was a revelation. What a man! What a creator! What a life! At that time I really didn’t know Berlioz’s works apart from the Fantastic Symphony, The Roman Carnival Overture, Harold in Italy, but I hied off to the public library and took out Berlioz discs. The first one that captivated me was Les nuits d’été sung by Eleanor Steber. Then the Requiem and the operas. I realised that Berlioz was an even greater composer than he was a writer. I also began reading everything I could get my hands on about him. To my great consternation I discovered that he was an extremely controversial figure, both as creator and man. I was shocked and saddened to discover all the attacks and unbelievable misunderstanding he had to suffer during his lifetime and afterwards. I fell very hard for Berlioz. I decided then to dedicate at least a part of my life to righting the wrongs done to Berlioz and working to help the world understand him and come to realise his greatness as composer, writer, and man. As I was a translator, I was delighted to discover he had written volumes of music criticism, of which at the time only Les Soirées de l’Orchestre was translated into proper English by our own Jacques Barzun. Á travers chants had been translated but only early in the 20th century and badly.

In reading the classical musical magazines I discovered to my great joy that there was a Berlioz Festival in Lyon in September. I went. This was pure ecstasy as I could talk about my hero with other people who shared my passion. I also met David Cairns. I told him that I thought A travers chants should be translated anew and that I was a translator and thought I might undertake this task. He was very kind and encouraging: go ahead, but first talk to Jacques Barzun.

So I began to translate a chapter of A travers chants, Letter to the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute, which was typical Berlioz, very funny, very irreverent. Very difficult too. I would go over it ten times — that is, I went through typically ten drafts a page. In those days I was using a simple typewriter, and not a computer, so every time I changed something, I had to retype the entire page. Positively medieval. Finally I finished the chapter and had something to show. But how to reach Jacques Barzun? As I have found in my life, when you are on a path, things seem to arrange themselves to facilitate your journey. I soon heard there was to be a conference on music in Paris in the 1830’s in the spring of 1982 at Smith College in Massachusetts. I attended. There among the outstanding scholars, David Cairns, John Warrack, Peter Bloom, Hugh Macdonald, etc. was Jacques himself. He gave the keynote speech. It was a formidable talk giving us a clear picture of Paris as it was at the time, describing the streets, the sewers, moving up to the salons, the concerts, opera, the social and cultural life, and the place of the artist in all this. I do believe I am not wrong in thinking that we were all in awe. Jacques, though white of hair, seemed at the height of his powers. Then he sat and signed books. Very fearfully I approached him with my copy of his first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century. He was scary. The next day, David very kindly introduced us and I again very timidly gave him my copy of the chapter from ATC I had translated. I had been over it and over it with a fine-tooth comb. It was as good as I could make it. He took it and said that I would hear from him. I thought to myself, despairingly, yes, you’ll put it in the circular file.

I was so wrong. Two weeks later I received a large envelope in the mail. It was from HIM! I was in a flutter of panic, hope, expectation, fright all at once. I opened it and the covering letter said in his elegant way, that although my text was an improvement over the Edward Evans’ translation, it was still far from rendering Berlioz’s original. He then listed in ten points how one should translate. They were so clear. Then I looked at my text. He had corrected about half the pages. At first I was thrown into the depths of despair. This had been the best I could do; otherwise, I would not have handed it to him. After a while, I recovered and began to think, if Jacques Barzun was going to take the time and trouble to explain to me how to improve the text and also to make corrections in half of it, then the least I could do was to take him up on it and correct the other half. The pointers he had given seemed to turn on a light in my head. I set to correcting the next half of the text, then sent it off full of trepidation but also hope in my heart. Very soon it was returned with a brief note that this was exactly as it should be. I was in heaven! This was the beginning of many years of correspondence. I would translate some of ATC, put it in as final form as I could. Later my husband, Clifford Smith, would also look at it. I would send it off to Jacques who would edit it and send it back. Some of his corrections were surprising to me. I didn’t know, for example, that protest needed an against, as this had been dropped in journalism and most contemporary English. But Barzun was always the perfectionist, and, after all, god (or the devil) is in the details. It was like being an apprentice to a master.

When I gathered up my nerve I went up to New York City and was given an appointment to see the great man at Scribner’s. I will never forget the fright I felt. I paced up and down the street in a fever of nerves. Finally when he received me, it was in his office at Scribner’s. I had somehow imagined that it would be grand and luxurious to befit the great man and his brilliant reputation. To my surprise it was quite modest. Jacques greeted me courteously, with his customary reserve, but kindly. We talked about Berlioz, of course. He was one of the few people I know who was truly there. He truly listened; it made you feel as if you were the only person in the world at the time. Most people only half listen to you, they’re already thinking what their response will be to what you say, or their minds are on something else. I walked out half a foot in the air. Later I met Jacques only a few times, of course. I had calmed down in the meantime. He was after all human, but he was so intelligent, so kind, and so completely there; it was positively a Zen experience.

One time I remember particularly. One time Cliff and I him met him in New York before he moved to Texas in San Antonio. He was in his 90’s, less powerful in body and mind, but still very alert. He said he was working on a history of the world. What else? It appeared a few years later as From Dawn to Decadence, a history of the western world from the 1500s to today. Eight hundred pages! It became a best seller in the US. It has since been translated into Hungarian. In Hungarian it is even longer, about one thousand pages.

Of course, as with Berlioz, I read everything I could get my hands on and was amazed at his encyclopedic knowledge. He wrote about music, art, literature, philosophy, politics, how to write. A true renaissance man. Interestingly enough, our tastes proved to be quite similar; in addition to Berlioz, he loved William James, about whom he wrote an excellent book, A Stroll with William James. And it turned out when I sent him for his birthday (or Christmas) a large, beautiful photo book about Lincoln, that Lincoln was one of his heroes, too. A humanist, he too did not agree with the inhuman dominance of technology and techne, which degraded the human spirit. He seemed to me to be a modest man, in spite of his breadth of knowledge, and reputation. Knowing much, he knew that there was so much more to know. And he never used his knowledge or formidable intellect to put one down. It was impressive too that in spite of his enormously wide knowledge, he didn’t seem to get lost in the details of his knowledge, he knew where to put what he knew, and had this great scope and range and breadth. And wisdom. Which is rare. There are many intellectuals, but wise men are few.

When I was younger, I felt that he was rather on the conservative side, but as time went on, as the times grew more conservative, he moved to the centre in my perception: it is the wise man who follows the middle way. Also the formidable intellect, the man who was so frightening, turned out to be kind and warm. We have been corresponding since 1982 when I first met him at the Smith Conference on Music in Paris in the 1830’s. Scary though, writing letters to a man who is considered to be a master of English prose and an authority on writing. But he never makes you feel that you are small in comparison with him; he never patronises. And he is so tremendously generous with his time. A travers chants finally did appear after many years. It could not have done so without his generous help. I consider myself very fortunate to know this great and good man, and believe this was one of the marvellous gifts that Berlioz has given me. And without a doubt one achievement among so many that so far surpass the ordinary human being, is to reach the grand age of 100! I wish him the best possible and many years to come of productive life in good health.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial