Reviews

Introduction

    This page has been created to publish reviews of books on Berlioz. We would like to extend our invitation to you to send us your reviews and comments; they will be published here under your own name.

Book reviewed to date:

On Music and Musicians, reviewed by Mary Weber

Hector Berlioz – Autopsie des Künstlers, reviewed by Daniel Jacobi

First Nights: Five Musical Premières, reviewed by Monir Tayeb

Copyright notice: The reviews published on this page are the intellectual property of the respective contributors and are subject to UK and International Copyright Laws. Their use/reproduction without the authors’ explicit permission is illegal. 

On Music and Musicians

Reviewed by Mary Weber

Camille Saint-Saëns: On Music and Musicians. Edited and translated by Roger Nichols, 2008, Oxford University Press.

On Music and Musicians is a collection of twenty-six excerpts from the writings of Camille Saint-Saëns, edited and translated by Roger Nichols. The editor-translator notes that, to the best of his knowledge, fifteen of the excerpts are appearing in English for the first time. At the end of the book are four poems to friends, both in French and English.

In addition to memories of his own childhood and his schooling at the Paris Conservatoire,Saint-Saëns writes incisively about musicians who were his contemporaries—and often his friends—and their music: Meyerbeer, Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Massenet, and the great mezzo soprano, Pauline Viardot. The first chapter on Berlioz is Saint-Saëns’s character study of a man whom he greatly admired, inspired by the 1881 publication of Berlioz’s Lettres intimes. The second Berlioz chapter presents an insider’s view of Berlioz’s major accomplishments and his weaknesses which is designed to contravene popular misconceptions about him. Throughout the book Saint-Saëns mentions Berlioz frequently in connection with other composers. For example, the Meyerbeer chapter has a most interesting digression contrasting the operatic music of Berlioz and Wagner.

Of special interest among the music essays is “Harmony and Melody,” which invites reflection and rereading. Another essay deals with the genesis of Saint-Saëns’s opera Hélène.

Nichols’s translation is written in lucid and beautifully constructed English. Any admirer of Berlioz should find this slender book thought-provoking, informative, and a pleasure to read.

Mary Weber
February 2009

Hector Berlioz – Autopsie des Künstlers

Reviewed by Daniel Jacobi

Hector Berlioz – Autopsie des Künstlers, Rainer Schmusch, 2000, Kritik München.

The expression "the artist’s autopsy" used as the title reflects the author’s thesis that Berlioz’s art says not only something about the technical side of the music but also much more: Berlioz took as main theme of his artistic production his desire to learn aesthetically something about himself as a psychological phenomenon. At first glance this does not sound very promising to the reader: It seems like an example of the old style biographies, in which the author tries to find analogies between the music and the real life of the composer. But fortunately Schmusch has much more to say: He shows the importance of musical expression as part of a self-examination of the artist. He discusses on the one hand compositions such as Les Francs-Juges, the Requiem, Benvenuto Cellini, Le cinq mai, and Berlioz’s views on the expressive possibilities of musical instruments as discussed in his Traité d’instrumentation. On the other Schmusch tries to explore the influence of the cultural and social surroundings, e.g. the Napoleon-cult, the vocabulary and typology of scenic composition and the programme-music as an autobiographical and cathartic process.

Although in my view not convincing in every musicological detail and sometimes rather superficial and imprecise (especially in the chapter about l’art pour l’art) I have the impression that the author has an interesting point of view which critically places Berlioz in the 19th century without taking away his artistic distinctiveness as an individual.

Many musical examples, and quotations of the original texts in French and German translation, make the reading easy. Altogether a book typical of the new and – as I believe – absolutely necessary style of Berlioz-literature: musicological, historical, sociological, critical – and admiring.

Daniel Jacobi
November 2002

First Nights: Five Musical Premières

Reviewed by Monir Tayeb

First Nights: Five Musical Premières. Thomas Forrest Kelly, 2000, Yale University Press. 387 pages. ISBN: 0-300-0774-2

This fascinating book contains five chapters each of which concerns the first performance of a major ground-breaking work: Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. The works are presented in chronological order and represent music making from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

The narrative in each chapter is much more than just a description of what happened on the night. The author places each performance in its immediate past and contemporary socio-political and musical context, using extant documents.

Mr Kelly has researched extensively for the book, judging by the welter of citations, quotes, facsimiles, drawings, vignettes, even cartoons making fun of the composers concerned used throughout the text. You get to know the work from the contemporary audiences’ point of view, what they used to hear and like before attending the first performance of the work concerned, and what they thought of it afterwards. You also hear the music through the critics’ ears, and get to know the animosity and political intrigue behind some of the hostile notices. You experience the work from the composers’ perspective, the obstacles they faced, the agony and hardship they went through trying to get their works performed, the chaos and clumsiness that are inevitable ingredients of the first nights of such works. You get to know the precedents each work was built on, and the ways in which, in turn, it set the agenda for future generations of composers.

Of the five works represented in the book, I am far more familiar with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and its background and future developments, discussed in Chapter 4, compared to the others. So I used this chapter in part as a yardstick to evaluate the academic standard and historical accuracy of Professor Kelly’s text. I am pleased to say that I was very impressed by the wealth of material/sources that the author has drawn on to compose this chapter – not a major stone has been left un-turned, so to speak. While reading this chapter, each time I asked the author in my mind, "but what about so and so’s remarks on such and such issue, what about this or that?", I found the answer a few paragraphs or pages later.

The style of writing is very reader-friendly and while the issues discussed are dealt with in a scholarly manner, the book does not look down on or intimidate the reader. Instead, like a tactful university lecturer, as indeed Professor Kelly is, the author informs the reader and takes him or her through the events and issues step by step and arouses his or her curiosity by judiciously-placed cross references, bracketed phrases and question marks.

At the end of each chapter there are helpful lists of recommended recording and reading.

I have only two minor reservations about the book. Professor Kelly has avoided almost completely to interpret the events with the benefit of having in some cases centuries of knowledge and information about them after they took place. However, there are a few lapses here and there. For instance, in Chapter 4 whose subject matter I know most about, he says "[Berlioz] ostensibly went to Paris to study medicine, though he was certain that he wanted to succeed as a composer - and only in Paris could that be achieved" (p. 15), emphasis added. This is factually inaccurate. There is no objective and concrete evidence to suggest that Berlioz had any other intention but to read medicine in Paris when he left his home town, La Côte Saint-André, as a teenager. It was his subsequent visits to the Paris Opéra and exposure to the music by Glück and Spontini and others which decided him months later to abandon medicine and enrol at the Paris Conservatoire.

My other reservation is the lack of on-the-spot footnotes or otherwise references to the sources of the author’s text. I am sure this was not his intention, but when you read, for instance, about the literary inspirations for Symphonie fantastique (Goethe, Hugo, etc) or the colour of the papers on which subsequent versions of the Symphonie’s programme notes were printed, you are left with the impression that the author himself discovered the literary links, or saw the notes in person in an archive. In fact these observations are extensively documented in the New Berlioz Edition, vol. 16, edited by Nicholas Temperley, published in 1972. This source should have been acknowledged, and not merely listed under recommended reading as a book which "has a number of important appendices".

Having said that, I would like to emphasise that this book is a major work in its genre and should grace any classical music lover’s bookshelves.

Monir Tayeb
January 2001

See also on this site:

A review of Hector Berlioz: Ein Franzose in Deutschland, by John Ahouse
[Hector Berlioz: A Frenchman in Germany]

Un sixième volume de feuilletons, by Christian Wasselin (in French)

Berlioz de B à Z : un voyage en Berliozie, by Christian Wasselin (in French)

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created in January 2001.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction are reserved.

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