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Like many other composers, Berlioz could not survive on the proceeds from his works and concert promotion. some resort to teaching as a supplementary income, others (like schumann, Wagner or Debussy) turn to writing. Berlioz loathed his journalistic work, but he was a brilliant writer – caustic, enraged, ironic, or equally generous, and not only to his idols Beethoven, gluck and Weber. For instance, his youthful impatience with rossini gave way to deep appreciation of William Tell. many of our tastes and opinions change with maturity, but Berlioz’ bêtes noires do recur – fugues on the word amen (even Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis does not escape censure), over-use of the bass drum or the Parisians’ well-developed taste for musical frivolity.

Berlioz is at his funniest on the music for Catholic worship – ‘Where would be the harm if the already pomp-filled ceremonies ... were divested of the ridiculous tatters of barbarous music that are meant to adorn them?’ ‘... if the devil himself were to parody the sacred rites, he would produce nothing worse than what we hear every day.’ He was always ready to criticise the great masters or, conversely, to praise composers towards whom he felt personal animosity. Thus the Tuba mirum in Mozart’s Requiem disappoints him (‘this movement ... presents almost nothing outstanding’), while the hated Cherubini’s Requiem is greatly admired (‘magnificent ... so truthful ... a triumph of genius’).

Berlioz’ writings are very diverse and imaginative – from an unforgettable description of a particular Parisian audience’s reaction to Beethoven fifth symphony (even allowing for his aptitude for colourful exaggeration, this reminds one of the Rite of Spring premiere) to a neat parody of his own critics.

Katherine Kolb’s 26-page introduction – actually a superb essay – includes essential background regarding French literacy at the time (less than 50%) and the contemporary state of the national musical press. This invaluable book has biographical notes, bibliography, index and a companion website.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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