Romantic movements

Sue Gaisford is entranced by the emotional letters of the composer Berlioz; Selected Letters of Berlioz ed. Hugh Macdonald Faber, pounds 25

"I loathe the profession of critic, having to marshal a heap of platitudes which sicken the heart." Sure, Berlioz, we know what you mean. Without the sweated labour of turning out your newspaper column for 30 years, how much more sublime music you might have written. But you were not to know what pleasure was in store, 130 years after your death, for today's critic, when presented with your letters.

This selection represents only one eighth of his enormous output. It provides a narrative that is more accurate than the author's colourful Memoires, if less full than David Cairns's masterly biography (the second volume of which is very eagerly awaited). The letters are the outpourings of a man cursed with excessive imagination, tortured by memory, beleaguered by financial pressures, dogged by personal disasters, yet able to rise above it all, supported by the certainty of his genius: a quintessential Romantic. "The fire is going out, wait a moment," he wrote to a friend in 1830, then, "to light it, I've burnt the manuscript of my Elegie en Prose."

The first letter is full of assurance, written when he was 15 to some music publishers, suggesting grandly that his work should be published at their expense. The second, to his sister, contains the kernel of all the rest: "My pleasures invariably come down to strong emotions and tears." The last, pathetically, is to his brother-in-law, begging for money.

By this time, he had weathered the loss of all his siblings, two wives and, saddest of all, his only child, Louis, dead at 33 of yellow fever in Havana. But he had also known enormous joys. Sometimes they came from hearing other people's music: to Mendelssohn he wrote, after a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream,"I would willingly have given three years of my life to be able to embrace you." The work of his other musical heroes, Beethoven, Gluck and Spontini, transported him to extravagant heights of ecstasy, but he could also write of the sheer fun of picnicking with Chopin, de Vigny and Liszt under an unseasonably hot May sun, newly-married to his muse, Harriet Smithson, and very happy.

Others were just as enthusiastic about his work. Once, after a sweltering August concert, the harps of the orchestra made a tent around him so that he could change his clothes on stage before acknowledging rapturous applause. Once, Paganini, on hearing his Harold in Italy, went down on his knees to him and gave him a present of 20,000 francs, providing the only few months he ever enjoyed of financial freedom. "I am being dragged involuntarily towards a magnificent career," he wrote to his father - who never accepted that his wayward son was not to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. Yet he was endearingly aware of his vanity: "I have the modesty to admit that I have the failing of lacking modesty."

He was no Don Juan, but he loved several women passionately and, on the whole, serially. Harriet, the Irish actress who delighted Paris as Ophelia in the 1820s, took to drink and died young, but she always represented to him the incarnation of Shakespeare's heroines. When she died, he was distraught - and wrote to his sister that he had kept her hair, but "who will take her memory from me?"

Paris treated him badly, but then it was full of "snakes, hedgehogs, toads, geese, guinea-fowl, crows, bugs and vermin of every kind." In Prague, where he had his greatest triumph, "I'm a Fetish, a Lama, a Manitou". Yet to Paris he always returned and there he died. This turbulent, magnificent man predicted his own sad end: "The world's a stage," he wrote, "but it's a tragic theatre rather than a comic one."

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect