Discovering Berlioz - Essays, Reviews, Talks
By David Cairns
400 pages, including appendices and index.
With colour and black & white illustrations
First published 2019
Retail price £39.50
Among devotees of the music of Hector Berlioz, David Cairns is a household name. The word ‘magisterial’ scarcely does justice to his monumental two-volume biography of the composer (1989 and 1999) and he also produced in 1969 a lively translation of Berlioz’s Memoirs. As a music critic and journalist, he has ranged far more widely than Berlioz and he is especially noted for his term as music critic of The Sunday Times from 1983 to 1992. From 1967 to 1972 he was classical programme coordinator for Philips records and he provided the sleeve notes for most, if not all, of Sir Colin Davis’s famous cycle of Berlioz recordings for that label. His connection with Davis went back even further, though: David Cairns co-founded the Chelsea Opera Group; Davis was the first conductor of the COG and Cairns sang some solo roles under his baton. Cairns and Davis formed a formidable alliance which furthered the interests of Berlioz’s music. A short foreword to this book by Sir John Eliot Gardiner includes this generous tribute: “If the late Colin Davis was the composer’s most persuasive advocate in the concert hall and opera house, David Cairns provided the crucial intellectual and literary underpinning. Together they swung the tide in favour of one of the most misrepresented and controversial of Romantic composers.”
The present volume gathers together a substantial number of short pieces of writing about Berlioz and his music. These range, in terms of chronology, from Cairns’ very first extended piece about Berlioz almost to the present day. The earliest offering is the introduction he wrote in 1962 to Peregrine Books’ edition of Evenings in the Orchestra, which is here included in a shortened, edited form. The most recent piece is a brief contribution to the Berlioz Society Bulletin on the subject of ‘Berlioz and the music of the past’; this dates from March 2019.
The individual pieces first appeared in a number of places. Several first saw the light of day in the pages of the Berlioz Society Bulletin. Cairns has also included a few, highly relevant extracts from his Berlioz biography. Other chapters were first composed as lectures to various bodies. Inevitably, since the contents of this anthology cover more than five decades of writing and talking about Berlioz, a few points are made more than once but, frankly, that’s not an issue in the slightest; in any case, the points in question almost invariably bear repetition.
As we learn in the Prelude, specially authored for this book, Cairns was converted to the Berlioz cause by the 1957 production of The Trojans at Covent Garden. Thus began what became a life’s work. As Cairns notes in a contribution he made to a 2008 Berlioz compendium: “Berlioz has been, for me, never a mere ‘subject’…but a living person, whom, whatever his faults, I have never felt the desire to debunk or cut down to size.” He adds: “He does not let you down. During all the years I spent immersing myself in them [his writings] I have not once tired of him.” That enthusiasm permeates every page of this book. And, while we’re on the subject of enthusiasm, Berlioz himself was nothing if not an enthusiast for subjects that attracted his approval – just as he was excoriating about matters musical of which he disapproved. Cairns’ writings are liberally sprinkled with quotations from Berlioz’s exuberant prose, virtually all of which confirm that the composer was as passionate when expressing himself in the written word as he was in music. Incidentally, Berlioz is celebrated for the flamboyance – and wit – of his own Memoirs. Some people have doubted the veracity of some of the seemingly tall tales that Berlioz related in that autobiography. However, in the 2008 article previously referenced, Cairns assures us that his own detailed research into the original source material established that many of the outlandish stories in the Memoirs are, in fact, true.
The pieces in this book are largely arranged according to the chronology of Berlioz’s life. There’s a fascinating chapter on the subject of Berlioz’s birthplace, La Côte Saint-André. This is a revised version of a talk that Cairns gave in that town in 2003, as part of the bicentennial celebrations. Herein, two points in particular struck me. Firstly, Cairns posits that it was an advantage that young Hector was schooled at home “by a tolerant, open-minded and endlessly curious father”; in this way he avoided the confines of an orthodox school curriculum. Secondly, and rather to my surprise, Cairns suggests that “the very poverty of the musical environment of La Côte Saint-André was in a way a blessing. Berlioz was free to dream of what might be.” Thus, I suppose, the reality of music when he made his way to Paris in October 1821, officially to study medicine, was something of a coup de foudre. This point is developed later in the book in the course of an essay on the background to Berlioz’s 1844 book, Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes. This essay is full of interesting detail concerning the stupendous effort which Berlioz made during his early years in Paris to self-educate himself about the orchestra and the capabilities of each instrument. Cairns also reminds us that, as he says in the Memoirs, Berlioz counted it a blessing that, unlike most composers, he wasn’t a pianist. In Cairns’ words: “unlike so many of his contemporaries, who approached the orchestra through the piano, Berlioz went straight to it, without intermediary. Its colours and textures struck him directly, fresh, unfiltered, new minted.”
I was fascinated by the piece, originally given as a talk at the 2015 Oxford Lieder Festival, on ‘Berlioz and Song’. Here Cairns discusses how, in the very limited musical environment of La Côte Saint-André, Berlioz’s early exposure to music was confined to a few traditional songs and Noëls. But this limited, parochial musical background stayed with Berlioz. Cairns identifies song influences in a number of major works, not least the Symphonie fantastique. He develops this train of thought and thereby makes the point that an intimate work such as L’Enfance du Christ, which surprised many at the time, didn’t come from nowhere; its simplicity and charm was rooted in the composer’s limited boyhood experiences of music. Apart from Les nuits d’été I wonder how many of us know the songs of Berlioz? In fact, DG were able to assemble a 2-CD set of his mélodies in the early 1990s (435 860-2); it’s still listed on Amazon. The set contains over two hours of music, without including Les nuits d’été. I have that set in my collection but I confess that I haven’t listened to it for years; reading David Cairns on the subject has made me resolve to do so again.
L’Enfance du Christ is just one major score – the others are the Grande Messe des morts and the Te Deum – which Cairns covers in a most interesting talk (‘The Distant God’) in which he discusses why Berlioz, despite his atheism, came to write three major sacred works. Cairns traces this issue right back to the composer’s childhood. There is one other major sacred work, of course, the early Messe solennelle. Long lost, this score was discovered by chance in an Antwerp organ loft in 1991. Cairns’ discussion of this work, which originated in a 1995 talk, is full of interest and insight. I read it with particular fascination since I’ve only recently reviewed a new recording of the work. I’m sure my appraisal of the work would have been much enhanced had I had the chance first to read David Cairns’ thoughts on the subject.
Among the other important sections of this anthology is a chapter entitled ‘The Mighty Bird’ in which Berlioz’s huge admiration for Beethoven’s music is discussed. As Cairns says, he became one of Beethoven’s “most dedicated and articulate champions”. Not only did Berlioz write about the music extensively as a critic, he also conducted it when occasion allowed, from 1841 until he was obliged to curtail his conducting activities significantly in the 1850s. Significantly, though, when he was lured to Russia to conduct some concerts in 1867 Beethoven was among the composers whose music he featured. Shakespeare, too, exerted a massive and never-ending influence on Berlioz: one might say that The Bard and ‘The Mighty Bird’ were the composer’s twin poles (though that would unfairly
exclude the poet Virgil). The impact on Berlioz of Shakespeare receives due weight in these writings. Equally important is the chapter in the anthology devoted to Berlioz’s time in Italy as a Prix de Rome winner. He despised and despaired of the quality of Italian musical life but he was smitten by the country itself and the beneficial influence of Italy was later reflected in a number of works, including Harold in Italy and The Trojans.
Evidently, a number of works are especially close to the heart of David Cairns. Within these pages we can read detailed and perceptive discussions of both Roméo et Juliette and Benvenuto Cellini. There’s also plenty of material relating to La Damnation de Faust. One of the elements of his Faust discussion is the reprint of a 1983 survey of recordings. At first sight, it may seem odd to include a commentary on recordings which were available 37 years ago. However, some of the recordings in question remain in the catalogue. In any case, Cairns’ comments tell us as much about the work itself and how to perform it as about the actual recordings under discussion. As such, the piece remains relevant.
Unsurprisingly, though, when it comes to the discussion of specific works pride of place goes to Les Troyens, the magnum opus which set David Cairns off on his own Berlioz odyssey more than six decades ago. There are no less than seven pieces, of varying lengths, devoted to this subject. Most valuable of all to the enthusiast for this opera will be the substantial essay ’Les Troyens and the Aeneid’ in which Cairns discusses in detail the composer’s compilation of the libretto from Virgil’s huge epic poem. The construction of the libretto was, arguably, as masterly as the music itself. Berlioz, with his vast experience of watching opera as a critic – not to mention his experience derived from his own previous operatic compositions – had a perspicacious eye for what would – and would not – work dramatically. As Cairns points out, the adaptation of the Aeneid essentially followed three precepts: “the interpolating of new material derived from Virgil himself, the re-ordering of the sequence of Virgil’s narrative, and the making explicit what in the poem is implied.” Cairns also reminds his reader that the composer himself described the libretto as ‘Virgil Shakespeareanised’; Berlioz was referring to the dramatic and poetic methodology that he’d imbibed from his own studies of the Bard’s plays, but it’s surely no accident that, as Cairns points out, the great duet in Dido’s garden is adapted from a scene in the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice. Besides discussing the libretto in detail Cairns also speaks with no little insight about the music to which Berlioz set his libretto.
Elsewhere in this section of the book two large shadows loom beneficently. One is the shadow of the 1957 Covent Garden production of Les Troyens (or, rather, The Trojans, since the opera was given in Edward Dent’s English translation). The collection includes the booklet notes that Cairns authored for the 2009 CD release of
the recording of one of the performances in the run by Testament Records (SBT41443). This is valuable not only because it contains comments about the performance itself but also because Cairns discusses the corrupt edition of the score that Kubelik and his team were obliged to use: the Critical Edition by Hugh Macdonald was not published until 1969; it was available in time to be used for the Colin Davis Philips recording and all subsequent recorded versions. This section of the book also contains a 2009 piece reflecting on that 1969 Davis recording as well as an interview with Sir Colin Davis linked to the LSO Live release of his 2000 performance. I can’t resist also mentioning a despairingly waspish review of what sounds like an abominable production of the opera in Hamburg in 1982.
It was a very good idea indeed to reprint, as an Epilogue, a speech which Cairns gave in November 2003 at a glittering London dinner to mark the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth. In it, Cairns gives a tour d’horizon of the work that had been done over the years to ensure the composer’s music was given its due around the world. He pays tribute to several great Berlioz pioneers who performed his music in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries before going on to credit many luminaries - performers, writers and music administrators - who have done so much to foster the reputation of Berlioz in the post-Second World war era. Of course, in such a speech modesty means he can’t mention his own contribution, but no one reading this book could doubt that the name of David Cairns belongs among the elite of Berlioz disciples.
It’s a long time since I enjoyed a book about music so much. David Cairns knows his subject backwards yet his writings are never weighed down by misapplied excessive scholarship. The scholarship is there for all to see but it’s worn lightly; he is one of those authors whom one instinctively trusts to be right. Even after more than sixty years of writing abut the music of Hector Berlioz it’s evident that while his knowledge and wisdom have deepened over the years his enthusiasm for his subject has remained absolutely constant.
This generously filled volume is an indispensable treasure trove for Berlioz enthusiasts. One great thing about it is that because the chapters are quite short and all self-contained, one can dip in and out at will, though, as I mentioned previously, the chapters are presented in an ordered sequence. Cairns’ written style is generally excellent though one mild criticism I’d venture is that his sentences can be lengthy; there were several occasions when I had to go back to the beginning of a sentence to remind myself of the starting point. Mostly, though, I found the style elegant and he held my interest throughout. The book is beautifully presented. The layout of the text is ideally clear and there are copious illustrations, all of which are relevant and enhance the text.
This book is Volume 12 in the ‘Musicians on Music’ series from Toccata Press. I spotted that the frontispiece also describes this book as ‘David Cairns on Music Vol 1’. I hope very much, therefore, that Toccata Press plan to issue in book form more of the writings of this fine writer about music.