Books: Blighted by love and longevity

Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness 1832-1869 by David Cairns Allen Lane pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
The second half of David Cairns's mighty biography of Hector Berlioz has been a long time coming. The first volume, The Making of an Artist 1803-1832 (now reissued by Allen Lane in a revised uniform edition) originally appeared a decade ago, leaving its hero at the age of 29 and poised on the threshold of success. The life which that earlier work brilliantly described was an extended adolescence of unceasing emotional turbulence and creative struggle. Hector had fought with his provincial doctor father, who never sanctioned the son's musical ambitions, regarding them as superficial and insecure compared to the profession in which he had distinguished himself and in which he always hoped his son would follow.

But inter-generational conflict was only one of the ways in which Berlioz stoked the fires of his remarkable talent. While putting himself through an exhausting apprenticeship in orchestral composition, he conceived an obsessive love for an Irish Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson, who had made a sensation at the Odeon Theatre, Paris, in the late-1820s. Smithson spurned the unknown young composer at first but, as we learn in the first pages of the new volume, Berlioz returned to the fray after his interlude as a Prix de Rome laureate in Italy. Having achieved a succes d'estime with his revolutionary, ultra-romantic Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz won her love and the pair were married in 1833.

Though Harriet was later to lapse into unemployment, obesity and alcoholism, Cairns's view of the first phase of the marriage is surprisingly positive: Berlioz now puts behind him his tempestuous youth and settles down with Harriet and their son Louis in Montmartre, his love developing in maturity and softening for a while its sharp, hysterical edge. The composer's creative impulses are starved of money and patronage, and he is forced to write for the musical papers to earn a living. But Harriet gives him the emotional support to carry on. Meanwhile he makes pathetic attempts to refloat her now shipwrecked career, even begging George Sand to write "a French drama [for] an Englishwoman who speaks French with difficulty", and at another point applying for the job of running an Italian opera company, on condition that it would perform, as a sideline, "German opera and English tragedy" - the latter purely for Harriet's benefit. Neither project was to come about.

According to a superficially persuasive caricature, Berlioz's whole life was a succession of struggles against obstacles he himself threw into his path. A second liaison, after his eventual separation from Harriet, was seen by many acquaintances as a case in point. This was with Marie Recio, a sexually responsive but emotionally rapacious and professionally jealous singer. This second long-term relationship was ultimately no happier than his first, yet Marie too gave Berlioz much that was positive at a time when he was chronically disappointed by France's reception of his music, now including the astounding dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette, the monumental Grande Messe des morts and the powerful concert opera La Damnation de Faust. Berlioz's life was maddened by the pecuniary need to produce endless journalism, and made chaotic by his new existence as one of the world's first itinerant composer-conductors, touring through Belgium, Germany, Russia and England. In Marie he found that most essential utility of the entertainment industry, a manager. At the end of his life, Berlioz amazed and embarrassed both friends and family by reopening the courtship of Estelle Dubeuf, a woman from Grenoble whom he had first passionately loved at the age of 12. But this reawakened love for the entirely unillusioned Estelle, now almost 70, became a lifeline for the ageing and depressive Berlioz. He had suffered the demise of his parents, his wives, his sisters Adele and Nancy and his son Louis (at 33, from yellow fever in Cuba). Most of all, he had endured the artistic destruction of his final masterpiece, the opera Les Troyens, which had been performed in Paris only in a hopelessly truncated version. In turning back to Estelle, Berlioz sought blindly to return full circle to one of the few individuals who had survived the emotional maelstrom of his life.

Berlioz's music is intoxicating, quintessentially romantic and inseparable from his life and loves. Such a career fulfills all the criteria for a transcendent romantic artist, except one. Berlioz lived too long. To be enrolled in the highest Pantheon of tragic 19th century creators, he should probably have died after the composition of Faust in 1846, when he was 43. Then, he was like a force of nature, still bursting with all the combustible passions of youth. But he lived on - to produce a summation of his entire work in Les Troyens, which he never heard it in its entirety. Cairns attributes the sad figure cut by the elderly Berlioz to his shameful ill-treatment at the hands of the musical establishment of France. His is a generous view of a man who was always exceptionally generous to others - even the egregious Wagner, who had originally made himself out to be Berlioz's friend before turning to denounce the great Frenchman as a reactionary fuddy-duddy. But then Berlioz on balance was always, as George Sand observed, "a great, misunderstood artist". Cairns's is a fine detailed biography which does much to redress that balance.