A Source of Joy and Instruction

In the mid-1960s Jacques Barzun, to my great delight, spent a period as a visiting scholar at Churchill College, Cambridge (where he rubbed shoulders with that other great historian of ideas, George Steiner). I was then a newly appointed Junior Fellow at Pembroke College, with the privilege of inviting a guest to the annual College Feast. I shall not forget the look of amazement and admiration when I introduced as my guest one of the greatest scholars and teachers of the western world, known at least by name and reputation to many of my high table colleagues. Jacques was, as ever, the model of courtesy and self-effacement, and the conversation that evening was of a sophistication, erudition and charm that the ancient universities are always supposed to cultivate but all too rarely do.

Having been a committed Berlioz freak since the 1958 Trojans at Covent Garden (I can’t claim membership of the 1957 club, alas), I knew Jacques’ colossal two-volume biography well. My copy is dated 30 May 1959, a day of thrills since the book was already out of print and I had had to scour the second-hand market to find it. I had not before read any book that took such a broad yet intimate look at its subject, opening up areas of cultural and musical understanding of which I had no previous inkling. You can open the book on any page and find ideas and suggestions that stimulate and instruct. Its vast bibliography was a challenge to find and read all those other books, and it guided my early exploration of Roméo et Juliette, La Damnation de Faust and the other works, great and small.

I ventured to write to Jacques soon after, or at least when I felt I had acquired a respectable knowledge of our subject, and his correspondence has ever after been, as many others have reported, a source of joy and instruction and a model of gracious scholarly exchange. When we began to plan the New Berlioz Edition, he lent the weight of his authority to our efforts, and he watched and eagerly approved its progress to the end (its, not his). After all, his passionate listing of the shortcomings of the old Breitkopf & Härtel edition of Berlioz’s works was one of the factors that made a new edition seem imperative.

I first travelled to the United States, my present home, in March 1975. On my second day on American soil I was invited to dinner at the Barzuns’ apartment at Fifth Avenue and 98th Street. “What a civilized and pleasant evening,” I wrote in my diary, “the embodiment of culture and civility”. We were nine to dinner, mostly English guests, yet Jacques obviously knew more about English life and literature than any of us natives, wearing his learning with the lightest touch. “Immaturity is the modern prejudice” was a remark I felt deserved to be recorded that evening.

A few days later I was ushered in to the Provost’s office at Columbia University where Jacques sat at a large dark brown desk with a fine bust of Berlioz over his shoulder. Books were everywhere. He was dressed in black with the ruban in his lapel. At his invitation I gave a lecture in the Music Department and spent some hours in the library, where Jacques had deposited his Berlioz materials and had promoted the acquisition of many Berlioz autographs and scores. Columbia University is today one of the leading centres for Berlioz research, thanks to Jacques’ oversight and vision.

We Berliozians sometimes forget that our composer occupies only a small area of Jacques Barzun’s vast intellectual map. His range in history, literature, philosophy, language and ideas is hard even to contemplate, although a glance at the list of the books he has written, edited and translated will convey a small sense of that brilliance. His recent panoramic account of European culture in From Dawn to Decadence is evidence enough of that superhuman breadth. Still, his dedication to Berlioz is one of the great achievements of his long life. It is hard to imagine the contempt in which Berlioz was generally held in America when he first took up the gauntlet, and together with Kubelik’s revival of the Trojans and the advent of the long-playing record, Barzun must be credited with the astonishing turnaround that the 1950s brought, and of which we are all the grateful beneficiaries.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial