Romeo in the fourth form

SELECTED LETTERS OF BERLIOZ edited by Hugh Macdonald Faber pounds 12.99

NOTORIOUS tightwad though he was, Paganini was so stunned on first hearing Harold en ltalie that he immediately wrote a cheque for 20,000 francs and sent it to Berlioz with a note acclaiming him as the reincarnation of Beethoven. In response to this extraordinary gift (pounds 25,000 in today's terms) the composer began work on his grand dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette - and was ever a magnificent gesture more magnificently answered? The symphony is both quintessential Berlioz and the epitome of French romanticism - emotional, exotic, densely textured, lyrical and gorgeous, yet hugely dignified and without a treacly moment.

In the Berlioz centenary year of 1969, I lavished a practically unaffordable pounds 4 19s 6d on this work, in the boxed set of Colin Davis's brilliant Philips recording. Listening in my cold and poky undergraduate digs, I felt hit by a lightning flash of fearful pleasure - a flash from the same bolt that whopped Berlioz when he first saw a Shakespeare play at the Theatre de l'Odeon in September 1827. In his Memoires, themselves a primary text of European Romanticism, he tells how it showed him "the whole paradise of art, lighting its remotest depths in a single flash."

Romeo et Juliette takes you straight, as Berlioz fully intended, "to the hot sunshine and balmy nights of Italy - to love quick as thought, burning as lava, imperious, irresistible". It is music for youth and for reliving youth - idealistic, of course, and quick-tempered; sorry, doomy and drunk; laughing, sexual, reckless, defiant.

The Memoires, like Romeo et Juliette - are a heady experience and reminiscent of the author's musical style too. Just as he often assembled fragments and oddments of music to create new unities, his autobiography is predominantly a recycling of letters and essays written at the times described and still warm from the enthusiasm and indignation of the moment. These were the materials, used mostly raw, for the book which established Berlioz as, in Hugh Macdonald's own words, "a master of readable prose".

The letters he used in these memoirs - most of them addressed to Humbert Ferrand and other friends whilst Berlioz was touring abroad - are omitted from this selection. They were always intended, if not for publication, then for fairly wide informal circulation and are therefore more self- consciously written than much of his post. Yet it is still striking how few of the 500 letters translated for this selection - one-eighth of the surviving correspondence - look as if they come from the same hand. Berlioz's tone tends here towards the transactional and the prosaic. To his mother he sends news about shirts and the weather; to his sisters lists of works played at concerts; to dignitaries respectful greetings; to his father wary details of his career mixed with complaints about poverty; to his friends health bulletins and titbits of (frankly often tedious) episodes from his daily life.

There seems also to be a problem with the translation. A number of phrases look suspiciously like Fourth-Form literalisms ("this species of malady"; "believe me, dear Papa, I am desolate that...") but the real issue is the dullness and occasional ugliness of the phrasing. To Robert Griepenkerl, who wrote a book on him, Berlioz seems to wrap himself in a terrible knot: "Nothing in the world is better able to give me patience, strength and courage than this parallelism between my thoughts and those of a mind as distinguished as your own." To his sister, he complains of his need to write his newspaper column "for which I have to busy myself with so many small, mean-minded actions and often to speak of them with a kind of deference!" To the Minister of the Interior: "I do not think it a gross conceit on my part to consider myself capable of teaching harmony, instrumentation and composition in general, far more than certain unknown professors at the Conservatoire." This writer is unrecognisable as the author of the Memoires.

For his revealing letters to his father, for the description of the alcoholism of Harriet, his Irish actress-wife, for a most touching letter to George Sand requesting a play "for an Englishwoman who speaks French with difficulty" and for many other inclusions, Berliozians will require this book. And yet, overall, it does scant justice to the man whose friend and benefactor Ernest Legouve wrote "everything about Berlioz is original. An extraordinary mixture of enthusiasm and mockery; a mind that you could never predict."

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'