Biographers and critics: David Cairns
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David Cairns is the author of what is currently the most detailed and authoritative biography of Berlioz in existence. Cairns has written at different times for several London-based newspapers and periodicals, notably The Musical Times, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard, the Financial Times, the Times Educational Supplement, the Spectator, and the New Statesman. He has also worked for the London branch of Phonogram (1967-1972), where he was involved in planning and carrying out large-scale recordings of Berlioz [the Colin Davis Berlioz cycle], Haydn, Mozart, and Tippett. He was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Davis, a visiting scholar at the Getty Center in Santa Monica, and a visiting fellow of Merton College, Oxford.
Together with Stephen Gray, David Cairns founded the amateur Chelsea Opera Group in 1950, which Colin Davis conducted in La Damnation de Faust, Roméo et Juliette and concert performances of Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini in the early 1960s, and of which Davis is now president. The Chelsea Opera Group has also performed many of Berlioz’s major works over the years. David Cairns also formed in 1983 The Thorington Players, an amateur orchestra, which he conducts. The orchestra’s repertoire includes Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Sibelius, Bruckner, and Berlioz. David Cairns was made Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1991 in recognition of his services to French music, and created a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1997.
David Cairns relates in the Prologue of the first volume of his biography of Berlioz (pp. xvii-xviii) how he first discovered Berlioz’s music:
For a long time the music of Berlioz remained a sealed book to me. Each person comes to a particular composer in his or her own way and time; no rules govern the processes of musical discovery. But circumstances of cultural climate and environment may delay it. The more conditioned we are to the music we know, the more, subconsciously, we expect the unfamiliar to approximate to it. […] I remember, one day when I was in my early twenties, my sister coming home in great excitement with a recording of the Fantastic Symphony that she had just heard. She insisted on my listening to it then and there. It made absolutely no sense to me.
Nearly ten years passed before anything occurred to change this attitude. My musical tastes grew outwards from their Germanic centre but on the rare occasions when I heard any Berlioz I could make little sense of it. Then in 1957 Covent Garden produced The Trojans. I went to the dress rehearsal and the première. Unlike many, bouleversés by the experience (the origin of the modern Berlioz revival), I was only partly persuaded. But had I not to go abroad immediately after the first night I should certainly have returned to Covent Garden for a later performance. For by then my interest had been aroused. Not long before, a cousin had played me the old 78 recording by Jean Planel of “Le repos de la sainte famille”, from The Childhood of Christ and had lent me the Memoirs (in the Everyman edition, with its racy, sympathetic translation by Katharine Boult). I was charmed by the strange sweetness and the purity of the piece; and I was riveted by the book: the personality of the author intrigued and attracted me. I felt I must reconsider my rejection of his music and have another shot at it.
The opportunity came a few months later. The Chelsea Opera Group performed The Damnation of Faust, under Meredith Davies. I played in the orchestra, in the percussion section. We had half a dozen rehearsals. Gradually, in the course of them, the barriers fell away and enlightenment dawned – until I realized with delight that the language which ten years before had been so much gibberish to my musical understanding had become familiar and made sense, thrilling, unimagined sense after all.
Cairns’ biography of Berlioz was preceded by his work on Berlioz’s own autobiography. In 1969, the first edition of his English translation of Berlioz’s Memoirs was published by Victor Gollancz to coincide with the centenary of Berlioz’s death. Berlioz’s Memoirs had been translated into English as early as 1884 by Rachel and Eleanor Holmes, which was revised and annotated by Ernest Newman in his 1932 edition of the book. However, it was David Cairns’ translation which did full justice to the Memoirs and made Berlioz’s own account of his life, complete and unabridged, known to the English-speaking world; the translation is supported with detailed critical notes and appendices. The work received at once deserved critical acclaim (see for example on this site the review by Gerald Abraham), and it has since been reprinted many times over, including in the Everyman’s Library Classics & Contemporary Classics series in 2002.
The full-scale biography of Berlioz followed as a natural sequel to the translation of the Memoirs. In 1989 the first volume was published (Berlioz: The Making of an Artist 1803-1832), and it was followed in 1999 by the second volume (Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness 1832-1869), together with the revised edition of the first one. The two volumes, over 1543 pages in all, were the result of many years of meticulous original research into Berlioz’s life through, among others, unpublished correspondence and documents, as David Cairns states in the Preface to volume one of the biography (p. xiii):
I … owe a profound debt of gratitude to Yvonne Reboul-Berlioz, who gave me unrestricted access to the large collection of family documents belonging to her late husband (a great-grandson of Berlioz’s sister Nanci) and made me welcome at her Paris apartment in the Rue du Ranelagh. It was in the many weeks spent going through the letters, diaries and account books of the Reboul Collection that I began to get a picture of the environment from which the composer sprang, and the idea of the book I should write about him first took shape.
The merits of Cairns’ magisterial biography of Berlioz are many: extensive documentation, breadth of historical vision, sympathetic appreciation of the composer coupled with objectivity of approach, fair-mindedness, and a natural elegance of style. The work commands immediate respect and trust, and has an unforced distinction that few other biographies of the composer can emulate. It was deservedly greeted with prizes, awards and appreciative reviews. The first edition of the first volume won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Music Award, the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year and the British Academy’s Derek Allen Prize. Volume two won the Whitbread Biography of the Year (1999), the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Music Award (1999) and the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (2000). It is also important to note that, unlike Barzun’s earlier monumental work, Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1st ed. 1950, 3rd ed. 1969), Cairns’ biography of Berlioz was made available to the French-speaking public: a French translation of both volumes was published in Paris in 2002 under the title Hector Berlioz : La formation d’un artiste 1803-1832 and Hector Berlioz : Servitude et Grandeur 1832-1869.
In addition to these major publications, David Cairns has also contributed several articles and chapters in edited books, and has lectured widely on Berlioz on both sides of the Atlantic.
See also on this site by David Cairns:
Berlioz and Colin Davis, Berlioz, Master Musician: A book review, Berlioz: a centenary retrospect,
Introducing Benvenuto Cellini, Interview with Sir Colin Davis, Putting Hector’s house in order, A Berlioz bicentenary speech
We are most grateful to David Cairns for lending us a selection of his photos and for granting us permission to scan and reproduce them on this page. © David Cairns. Other photos and pictures have been taken or scanned from concert programmes and other publications in our own collection. All rights of reproduction are reserved.
1. Photos of David Cairns
David Cairns c. early 1960s
Davis Cairns is playing Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
David Cairns at Davis, California in 1985
David Cairns is rehearsing the university orchestra (UCDSO) in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
David Cairns and his wife Rosemary in 1986
David Cairns in 2000
The above photo shows David Cairns at the Chelsea Opera Group 50th anniversary reunion.
David Cairns in 2008
David Cairns in 2010
This photograph was taken at the Berlioz Study Day organised by the
Scottish Chamber Orchestra; the event was held at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 31
January 2010. On the table is a copy of the New Berlioz Edition full score of
L’Enfance du Christ. David Cairns led the study day in conversation with
Robin Ticciati, who conducted the SCO in three performances of L’Enfance du Christ
over the following days. The photographer was Lucy Lawe (Scottish Chamber
David Cairns in 2012
The above two photos were taken by Monir Tayeb at a talk given by David Cairns in the auditorium of the Hector Berlioz Museum on 30 August 2012. The talk, entitled “Berlioz et les deux Italie”, was delivered in conjunction with the Festival Berlioz.
2. Publications and concert programmes
1969 edition of the Memoirs
1999 edition of the biography
Symphonie fantastique – London 2000
Mozart and Berlioz – London 2001
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir
Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
Page Berlioz: Pioneers and Champions created on 15 March 2012; this page created on 15 March 2012.
© 2012-2013 Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.
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