Volume 1. The Making of an Artist
Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1989-1999
This is just the first part of David Cairns’s monumental, two volumes biography on Hector Berlioz, a well researched, in-depth study that was intended as a widening of the composer’s Memoirs edited by the same author. It is subtitled The Making of an Artist and traces Berlioz’s path from before his birth, providing an accurate picture of his family and of the customs – not very much favourable to the pursuit of a musical career – of the provincial society during the Napoleonic period, following him in his struggle to become a composer in spite of his parents’ more or less open opposition, up to his winning of the Prix de Rome and his trip to Rome, from which he came back to Paris in 1832.
At the time of its publication, this book was the first biography on Berlioz after forty years and for this reason a new and more complete narration of his life was needed. Berlioz is richly detailed and explores virtually every aspect of Berlioz’s life during his first twenty-nine years with meticulousness and curiosity, offering a revised interpretation of his parents’ attitude towards his musical inclinations and revealing traits of their personalities that are in contrast with what was taken for sure until then. It also investigates Berlioz’s passion for classical works and his musical preferences to give hints about the way in which he later revised all this material in his own compositions, and reflects on the young composer’s three loves for Estelle Dubeuf, Harriet Smithson and Camille Mock, which were later sublimated in his music.
Cairns quotes at length excerpts or even entire documents to allow the reader to get a first-hand idea of Berlioz’s character and he devotes pages and pages on a specific subject exploring it even in the most trifling details. This, together with a narration which is sometimes repetitive or overabundant and some others farraginous, is the main flaw of this book. Cairns clearly loves writing, but sometimes he exceeds and, rather than sift the material to present the reader with a book that already has an orderly hierarchy among the significant, less important and superfluous facts, has deliberately decided to leave the task to him or her.
The other criticism to the book is that, despite its richness in information, it virtually avoids every comment on the music of Berlioz’s works and it usually prefers to linger on the narration of the smaller detail of the first and next performances rather than attempt to discuss more vital matters. The positive side is that the book is easily comprehensible to those who are not music scholars and it can be read as a “normal” biography and not as a musical one.
Those who wants to study in depth Berlioz’s life and career will find in David Cairns’s monograph a valid and complete source, but to complete the journey they need to read also the second volume, Servitude and Greatness, where it is narrated the most substantial part of Berlioz’s career.