Jacques Barzun, 100 Not Out

In the late 1950s, when I was trying to become an accountant and hating it, three events completely changed my life. The first led immediately to the second and third.

The first, which was shared by many of us, was the revelation of Berlioz’s music through the production of Les Troyens at Covent Garden under Kubelik. This was in my case followed within a couple of weeks by my acquisition of Jacques Barzun’s epoch-making Berlioz and the Romantic Century (Boston, 1950) — stimulating both as the first accurate biography of him and as a general assessment of the culture of the period in which he lived. Shortly afterwards I acquired Cecil Hopkinson’s Bibliography of Berlioz’s published works, which fuelled in me a hitherto unsuspected passion for collecting and led within two years to a brand new career in musical bookselling. The three events reacted on me much as that blinding light affected St Paul on the road to Damascus and like the thunderclap of Berlioz’s own discovery of Beethoven hard on the heels of Weber, Shakespeare and Harriet Smithson.

An explosion of Berlioz scholarship and well-directed activity led from the publication of Jacques’ book, not only in English-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic but eventually more widely — especially in France and Germany. It is unimaginable that, without the catalyst of the book and without his leadership, the succeeding wave of scholarly endeavour would have taken place — projects such as the new edition of Les Troyens used for the Covent Garden production under Colin Davis in 1969, the now-completed New Berlioz Edition itself, the London and Paris Berlioz exhibitions of 1969 and 2003 respectively, the several excellent biographies and critical writings on the composer, and the literary productions initiated in France: the Correspondence générale and now the Critique musicale. All this has produced the most important result of all, in that so much of Berlioz’s music is now performed regularly, mainly in correct versions. The composer, in short, is no longer ‘neglected’.

Those of us who are fortunate and privileged to know Jacques will each have memories of how he has touched and influenced us. I was still a student when we first met, and the difference between us in experience, achievement and knowledge could hardly have been more extreme. Yet his interest in anyone who shared his own enthusiasms was and remains boundless, however inexperienced we may be, and he always appears to have time available as well as the wonderful gift of making one feel completely at ease in his presence. I remember his encouragement, determination and good advice when we were trying to set up the NBE in the mid 1960s, though he must surely have felt that a more experienced group of people would have stood a better chance of success. But to take up the cudgels on behalf of Berlioz really was necessary in those days, and however humble one’s potential contribution might be, Jacques was the first to encourage it.

What a contrast between him and the daughter of Adolphe Boschot, who in the early 1960s said one day to Hugh Macdonald and myself in Paris that we were wasting our time working on Berlioz, because her father had already done all that was necessary for him. One wonders what she would have said to Jacques in 1950. Now, little more than half a century later, look what has been achieved.

And what a generous man he is. It may be imagined with what amazement, in retrospect almost embarrassment, I opened the 1969 third edition of his biography to read that I was one of the joint dedicatees — with others who richly and genuinely deserved the honour and have been the backbone of subsequent Berlioz research and activity. But Jacques has always recognized different levels of aspiration and achievement, provided it is well directed, and this was a typical example of his encouragement.

Happy birthday Jacques, and thank you for being the inspiration to all Berliozians and to lovers of the music and culture of the nineteenth century. You have provided us with fuller and infinitely more worthwhile lives than we would have enjoyed without you. A British journalist published a few years ago the names of a cricket team formed of eminent composers: Berlioz was the appointed captain. There is no doubt whatever who would be appointed captain of a team of Berlioz’s supporters, and now you have made a century to underline our choice.

The Berlioz Society

The Jacques Barzun Centennial