Romeo in the fourth form

SELECTED LETTERS OF BERLIOZ edited by Hugh Macdonald Faber pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
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 They were always intended, if not for publication, then for fairly wide informal circulation and are therefore more self- consciously written than much of his post.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."