Sue Gaisford is entranced by the emotional letters of the composer Berlioz; Selected Letters of Berlioz ed. Hugh Macdonald Faber, pounds 25
Saturday 29 July 1995
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."
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