Frère Jacques

This tribute to Jacques Barzun was read by Peter Bloom at the dinner during the Berlioz Society’s Members Weekend in London on December 1, 2007.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here, in Bloomsbury, to profit from the wisdom of many eminent Berliozians, to see many friends, to pay tribute to the man who is le frère de nous tous, frère Jacques, Jacques Barzun. In fact Jacques is le père de nous tous, but to call him a brother is to emphasize the affection, comradeship, enthusiasm, and encouragement he has manifested for well over half a century for the work of so many of us, for that of David and Richard and Hugh — to which triumvirate (Cairns, Macnutt, Macdonald) he dedicated the third edition of Berlioz and the Romantic Century — and for that of my humble self. It was as a lowly graduate student, some forty years ago, that I first wrote to Jacques with a question about Berlioz: he was only sixty at the time, and replied with a rapidity, incisiveness, and personal attention that were for him tout à fait normal, as I soon learned from our extended correspondence, which has continued, with great regularity, until shortly before this day.

Last spring, in the course of preparing a tribute for Jacques that took place in mid-October, in New York City, I discovered the astounding number of others with whom he has maintained a regular correspondence and to whom he has demonstrated his gift — which Berlioz also possessed — for friendship: a website established by a graduate of Jacques’s alma mater, Columbia University, revealed the names of countless individuals whose admiration for their former professor and colleague had been immeasurably enhanced by personal letters from the master: the master of cultural history; the master of humanistic thought, the master of detective fiction, of American baseball, of Berlioz studies, of course, and the master of the American-English language.1 I specify American English because that is what we speak and write over there, and that is what Jacques writes and writes about in his various highly polished guides to that (for you) foreign tongue.

The admirers posting tributes on that website are by no means all former students or colleagues: like me, others who claim Jacques as their most influential teacher have been mentored by mail. Berlioz’s preserved letters number roughly four thousand and fill eight volumes, with a ninth in the works. I am certain that Jacques’s number at least four or five times that many, and will not be surprised if someone soon suggests a collected edition.

Most of you have probably never heard Jacques speak: he went to the United States when he was seventeen years old and at that time had to have spoken with a French accent. The accent completely disappeared. The famously refined and articulate American oratory that Jacques has practiced for well over eight decades shows no trace whatsoever of his French origins. He even goes so far as to pronounce certain French words à l’américaine. He speaks in paragraphs — few Americans do — and they are musical, with direction, and clear beginnings, middles, and ends.

My assumption is that everyone here is aware of Jacques’s great book, the result of twenty years’ research, published in Boston in 1950. Berlioz and the Romantic Century was not at all Jacques’s first book, but it is possible that Berlioz was Jacques’s first love.2

It is a not very well known fact that Henri Martin, Jacques’s father, poet, novelist, and fonctionnaire in the French Ministry of Labor, was the instigator, in 1908, of a Fondation Hector Berlioz. Henri-Martin — who sometimes dropped the name Barzun in order to avoid confusion with his own father’s writings3 — asked the world’s then most famous musician, Richard Strauss, to serve as honorary president of the organization designed to make better known the life and work of the French composer, and in a little-known letter that is found in the Jacques Barzun collection at Columbia University, Strauss accepted the honor with pleasure.4

That was when Jacques was one year old. When he was three, he heard La Marche de pèlerins, at the Saturday-afternoon children’s concerts given in Paris by the Orchestre Lamoureux. He was, he told me, forever after “à la merci de Berlioz.” When Felix Weingartner conducted the Berlioz Requiem at the Trocadéro, in 1912, Jacques was present, as he was when Benvenuto Cellini was given, the following year, in the brand new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, whose architect, Auguste Perret, was a friend of the family.

That Jacques was inspired by the “Pilgrims’ March,” one of Berlioz’s most premeditative compositions, and by Benvenuto Cellini, one of his most passionately inspired and least understood, was not without consequence. Convinced of the composer’s superior intellect and daring imagination, Jacques became not only a defender of but a fighter for the man who has now regained his place among the B’s, among the best. In various articles, including the one that Jacques completed for the new book of essays on Berlioz that I have lately edited, Jacques takes pleasure in noting that the original three B’s were the two that you know plus Berlioz.5 This allegorical alliteration was adumbrated by Berlioz’s admirateur allemand, Peter Cornelius. It was another B, Hans von Bülow, who bumped Berlioz and brought in Brahms.

When we celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, in 2003, some of us tried to effect what Jacques first suggested in his opus magnum of many years ago: that Berlioz’s remains be transferred to the Panthéon in Paris: “aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.” President Chirac actually agreed to our request but then changed his mind: he voted for it . . . before he voted against it. (To an American audience, those words would sound familiar, because they are what annihilated the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, in 2004, John Kerry, as he tried to explain his stance on the war in Iraq: he voted for it, he said, before he voted against it. The words have since become a mantra.)

Jacques was not surprised by President Chirac’s action, because he had himself lost a similar battle in his native country when, in the nineteen-fifties, he found no publisher willing to bring out a French translation of Berlioz and the Romantic Century. This meant that the standard biography in France remained the three deeply flawed volumes on Berlioz by yet another B, Adolphe Boschot, whom Jacques remembers as having had thick glasses, a slow gait, and a poor sense of music. It is poetic justice, and of some consolation, that Boschot’s books were never translated into English.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have now been speaking for five or six minutes and have yet to tell a joke. Nor do I dare do so over here, where the crucial word — bags, fags, shags — will mean something other than what I intend. Berlioz’s sense of humor was sometimes tinged with malice, I’m afraid, but it usually turned on word play, and in this sense Jacques Barzun is his disciple. Is the English writer Clerihew Bentley known to all of you, and the genre of the “Clerihew” that he invented? Here is a “Clerihew” from Jacques’s pen: “Margaret of Navarre / Strummed on the guitar / While her bawdy friend Rabelais / Warbled cantabile.” Here’s another: “Arthur Conan Doyle / Burned the midnight oil / To create a sinister party / Named Moriarty.” The first line names a famous person; the couplets are rhymed but unmatched and irregular in length. I tried this one out on our honoree: “Jacques BarZUN, that’s Henri’s son, acquired numerous friends and foes, admiring Berlioz.” Jacques didn’t like it, and I don’t blame him. Here’s another one of his: “G.W.F. Hegel / Invented the bagel / He liked its peculiar density. / (His prose has the same propensity.)” And I’ll stop with this one: “Wise old Lao-Tse / Knew he knew the Way. / Had it been wise to walk with the Buddha, / He woudda.”6

The very clever tinged with the very silly is a continual element of Jacques’s humor. (This may be what prevented him from acceding to the presidency of Harvard University, for which he was nominated.) When I had a student working on the songs of Alma Mahler, I asked Jacques if he had ever met that redoubtable woman, who lived in New York from 1945 until her death in 1964, a period during which Jacques, with his Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling, was the city’s reigning intellectual.7 “No,” Jacques replied, “I never ran into Alma Mahler. Your advisee probably confused her with Alma Mater, who can indeed be a muse to a true student.” And when I asked him if as a boy he had heard in Paris a performance of the string quartet by Claude Debussy, he said no, adding: “My one recollection is of sitting through the concert version of Pelléas et Mélisande. Though cut it still felt as long as her hair. . . .”

When I asked Jacques if he had any patience for the music of the young, he remarked: “Like you I know only that ‘hip-hop’ is another of the many styles of pop music, which or what is not something I need to know right now. But I am ready to tell a fan of same that hip, hop figures in an important way in the Damnation of Faust — in the ‘Ride to Hell.’ Come to think of it, the use of the words then and now may be prophetic; the devotees of the various rhythmic yells and shouts of current entertainment are destined to pursue their cries down below.”

One reason for Jacques’s preeminence in the English speaking world, apart from the simply astonishing breadth and depth of his knowledge of history and literature, science and the arts, is his virtuosity with the word, its connotations, denotations, and placement. Take this sentence from a recent letter I have from him, on a subject we often discuss: “There are in French turns of such rapidity and weight that it’s a losing game to try rendering them in another language.” Would you have said “there are in French turns of such rapidity”? Or, like me, would you have said “there are turns of such rapidity in French”? Multiply this tiny example by a million and you have a speedy, sinewy style. Queried on the origins of this particular sense of order, Jacques pointed not to reading Shakespeare and Henry James, but rather to doing themes in a French lycée. “The place of clauses and modifiers is pretty well fixed in French,” he explained, while “the misplacing in English is tolerated. I am unreasonably annoyed,” he said, “when I look in the rearway mirror of a car and read: ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they look.’ There are no objects in the mirror. What the CEO at General Motors meant was: ‘Objects are closer than they look in the mirror.’ ”

Or take this sentence from Jacques’s translation of Les Soirées de l’orchestre.8 We are in the second Evening, and the concertmaster, Corsino, is about to listen to the tale of the strolling harpist. “Nous nous mîmes à table,” says Corsino — “we sat down to table”; “on apporta l’inévitable vin du Rhin” — “the inevitable Rhine wine was brought in”; and “nous bûmes quelques rasades”—“we drank a few bumpers.” Does everyone in England say “bumpers”? In the colonies that is a very esoteric usage, but it came to Jacques as naturally as “un demi,” or as “a pint.”

Jacques has thought long and hard about English and French. Though he has rarely published in it, he has not at all forgotten his native language. When I finished the draft of the text and notes of the Traité d’instrumentation, which Hugh had the brilliant idea of including in the New Berlioz Edition, I sent the whole kit and caboodle to Jacques, who corrected any number of my scribal errors in the French text, and even a few errors of Berlioz’s invention. I’m not sure that I confessed to Hugh each and every one of Jacques’s corrections et perfectionnements. Confession is for sin; Jacques’s remarks were godly.

I have always been amused by Jacques’s view of Hugh, speaking of confessions, because he seems to find in our great friend a touch of “bad-boy” behavior. That is the expression he used, and it was specifically in connection with Hugh’s edition of Benvenuto Cellini. Now, I defy anyone who has looked closely at the extant autograph materials of Cellini to criticize Hugh’s effort, which is simply a triumph. It is too bad that Jacques did not hear Hugh’s speech at the celebrations here in London on the completion of the New Berlioz Edition, when Hugh suggested to Frau Scheuche of Bärenreiter Verlag that the firm include in the price of the score a box of paper clips. It was the need for paper clips that led to the silliness of Jacques’s bad-boy appellation.

I, too, have found myself a bad-boy, in Jacques’s eyes, not for paper clips, or trombones, as they are called in French — Berlioz’s favorite instrument, as we should have reminded Jacques — but for criticism of our mutual hero. I once wrote an article on Berlioz’s financial picture that produced an image of a man somewhat less needy than is the artist in the portrait he left us.9 Jacques was thrilled neither by the subject nor by the result. But not for a second was he anything other than totally respectful of the research, which required digging in dusty archives and reading miserable microfilms in the minutier central, a terrible place that is terribly important if in France you’re interested in other people’s money.

Jacques himself is of course interested in musicians other than Berlioz, among them the composer Edgard Varèse, who was a friend of Jacques’s father, and, who was a fellow admirer of Berlioz. Varèse, who made his conducting début in the United States with the Berlioz Requiem, in 1917, read Berlioz and the Romantic Century with apparent approbation, as we learn from Louise Varèse’s biography, Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary, published in New York by Norton in 1972. After Varèse’s death, Jacques remained in touch with Louise Varèse, and assisted her in promoting her deceased husband’s work. Shortly before an Hommage à Varese that took place in New York in mid-November 1973, Jacques wrote to Louise: “I am confident the occasion will be splendid and vengeresse; but it makes me boil to think that the slow-witted public, officialdom, and musical community had to wait, as always, till the master could not take part, see it happen, as he knew it would.” This letter, with its characteristically Berliozian spirit of vengeance, is found among the papers of Louise Varèse that are on deposit in the notable women’s archives — the Sophia Smith Collection — at my institution.

In the political arena, Jacques is what I believe it is fair to call guarded: he writes often neither about Berlioz’s political views nor about his own. In a recent reply to a letter in which I had said something vaguely positive about the new French president, Jacques sounds what I take to be a Berliozian tone: “I agree with you about Sarkozy. His interpretation of law and order is certainly needed in modern France — and other spots you and I could name. The notion that the democratic spirit means letting everybody do as he lists is going to end democracy unless his sort of governance returns, because when the laissez faire exceeds the limit we’ll get dictatorship without fail.”10

I conclude with one more anecdote, this one concerning the great German novelist Thomas Mann, who, as you know, went into exile in the United States in 1938. In 1940 Mann was a panelist, with Jacques, at a public discussion of the question of the policy that the United States should adopt towards Nazi Germany. Jacques does not now remember the particulars of the event, but one thing remains very clear: “I spoke to the issue at hand,” Jacques told me; “Thomas Mann spoke about himself.”

It is this, Ladies and Gentlemen, that causes Jacques Barzun to stand above so many contemporary historians of culture and so many other great minds: his eternal civility, his modesty, his muted mirth, his unpretentious display of Olympian erudition. These virtues are best on display in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, published in New York by HarperCollins in 2000, as Jacques approached his ninety-third birthday. What is perhaps most astounding about this encyclopedic accomplishment, which became a best-seller, is how much of it was written from memory, with its various sections reviewed for accuracy by many helpers of whom I am honored to have been one. In a tribute that appears on the aforementioned website, Katherine Kolb notes that another small miracle, Jacques’s Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry (1990), was likewise composed solely from the contents of his remarkably well-stocked mind.

I have not dwelled on what Jacques has done for Berlioz — establishing him as the central musical figure of his century — but I think he is most proud of what today’s Berliozians, Jacques’s brothers, children, and grandchildren, have now been able to do, standing on his shoulders, and that is to ensure that our man is considered not a “maverick,” not an “exception,” but a well-educated and well-prepared “normal composer,” one, however, to use Jacques’s phrase, of “conspicuous originality.” In Jacques Barzun, whose one-hundredth birthday was yesterday, November 30, 2007, Berlioz found an uncommon interpreter of conspicuous achievement, who has inspired us all.

December 2012:

The news of Jacques's death was transmitted to the world by obituaries in the New York Times and scores of newspapers, magazines, and blogs world-wide. I am deeply saddened by Jacques's passing, honoured as I have always been by his affectionate encouragement of my own work, and I am moved by the recollections of so many others to whom Jacques appears to have meant as much as he did to me.

Reading about himself in two pieces of mine in particular, Jacques responded with a sentence that encompasses his generosity, his modesty, and his indomitable wit: I don't dare thank you, for it would imply your fiddling with the scientific truth in your account, and that is so alien to your character that any friendly exaggeration of my merits you choose to make becomes the truth. Jacques Barzun marked his century as few others did. And that is the truth.

Peter Bloom, author of a Life of Berlioz, editor of five collections of articles about Berlioz and his era and of two volumes of the New Berlioz Edition, and currently preparing a new supplementary volume of Berlioz's collected correspondence, is the Grace Jarcho Ross Professor of Humanities at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

1 The website, The Jacques Barzun Centennial, was established by Leo Wong. Mr. Wong and I, along with various others, attempted to organize a day-long celebration for Jacques that would include a concert with Berlioz’s Nuits d’été sung by the great American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. In the end the celebration was limited to the Society of Columbia Graduates Great Teacher Award Gala Dinner, on Thursday, October 19, 2007, at which the Columbia University’s Great Teacher Ward was made in absentia to Jacques Barzun, A.B., Columbia, 1927, Ph.D., Columbia, 1932, University Professor Emeritus, and University Provost Emeritus.

2 Of the nine books Jacques published before Berlioz and the Romantic Century, the best known are probably Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941) and Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943), the least known, Introduction to Naval History (1943).

3 Personal correspondence. In the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, there are nine books listed under the name of Henri-Martin Barzun. I assume but am not certain that all are by Jacques’s father (1881-1972), an editor of Georges Clemenceau’s journal L’Homme Libre, a member of the French Press Commission to the United States from 1918 to 1920, an assistant to the French Ambassador to the United States, Victor-Henry Bérenger, and a Visiting Professor of French Civilization at Fordham University, in New York City.

4 I published this letter in “Berlioz et ses biographes: de Boschot à Barzun,” in Hector Berlioz: Regards sur un dauphinois fantastique, ed. Alban Ramaut (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2005).

5 Jacques Barzun, “The Music in the Music of Berlioz,” in Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work, ed. Peter Bloom (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2008).

6 These and others are included in A Jacques Barzun Reader, ed. Michael Murray (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

7 When Time Magazine devoted its issue of 11 June 1956 to “America and the Intellectual,” the photograph on the cover was of Jacques Barzun.

8 The latest edition is Evenings with the Orchestra, ed. and transl. Jacques Barzun, with a new Foreword by Peter Bloom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

9 “Episodes in the Livelihood of an Artist: Berlioz’s Contacts and Contracts with Publishers,” Journal of Musicological Research, 15 (1995).

10 Personal correspondence.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial