In Berlioz in Time, Peter Bloom assembles decades’ worth of research on the composer’s life and social milieu. The title is an allusion to Edmund Hippeau’s 1883 biography Berlioz intime. Although Bloom claims that the allusion is “not by design” (p. 272), his book’s questions revolve around intimate details of the composer’s personal and professional life. While focused exclusively—sometimes obsessively—on the composer’s personal affairs, Berlioz in Time is not a biography, not really. Consisting of previously published or presented material, the book comes across as many things: an essay collection, an essay compilation, a Festschrift to Berlioz, a Festschrift to Berliozians, and on occasion, a scholarly manifesto. The tones and lengths of chapters differ (as a result of their original forms as either conference papers or published articles and chapters), but several themes emerge: Berlioz’s politics, as understood through his navigation of French bureaucracy; his relationship with literature, in particular that in English; how his personal affairs informed his professional and artistic trajectory; and the state of Berlioz scholarship in the wake of the eminent Berliozian Jacques Barzun.
Berlioz’s politics have long eluded scholars. The extent to which his embrace of Romanticism included revolutionary and utopian thought, particularly during the tumultuous years of 1830, 1848, and 1851, is unclear. Was he an engaged citizen? An opportunist? Both? Neither? What is evident is that Berlioz revered authority, especially during the Second Empire. He wrote about Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état in aesthetic terms, calling it a “stroke of genius, an utter masterpiece” (p. 196). “Politics” is loosely defined—or rather, exemplified—by a variety of case studies. Berlioz’s would-be directorship of the Théâtre-Italien receives a whole chapter, ostensibly to document the legal paper trail that led to his being passed over for Édouard Robert and Louis Viardot (future spouse of Pauline Garcia). But the chapter also probes Berlioz’s views on artistic patronage. His enthusiasm for the court-style patronage system of the ancien régime seemed out of time in an era defined by the liberalization and commodification of musical labor. In a chapter on Berlioz and Wagner (adapted from the Cambridge Companion to Berlioz), Berlioz appears envious of Wagner’s Bavarian patronage, which might explain why he greeted Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état with excitement. Bloom concludes that Berlioz “was temperamentally more suited to become a court musician than had been Wagner, in the eighteen-forties” (p. 176). Had Berlioz actually become a Kapellmeister, would he have realized his operatic visions differently?
Berlioz’s most ambitious operatic vision was Les Troyens, for which he wrote his own libretto after Virgil. This feat would not have been possible had he lacked the linguistic and literary acumen to pull it off. But it is his relationship to the English language that most interests Bloom. Bloom painstakingly details the translated editions of English-language classics that would have been available to Berlioz in Parisian bookshops and libraries, and we also learn about Berlioz’s own translation efforts. Several chapters discuss his musical adaptations of Shakespeare. Particularly strong is the chapter on La mort d’Ophélie, which also details the intersections between Berlioz and Eugène Delacroix as the two returned to Hamlet over the course of their respective careers. The irregularity of the song’s tonal and stanzaic form reflects Berlioz’s musical persona: that he was “allergic to regularity and predictability and addicted to originality in the service of the central idea he wished to express” (p. 149). While satisfying, this chapter, like others in the book, seems predicated on a desire to excavate the truth—as much as is possible—about the composer’s intentions. After recounting Delacroix’s and Berlioz’s parallel Ophelian journeys, the concluding section, named “Correspondences” after Baudelaire’s poem, misses a chance to offer a synesthetic reflection on the Ophelia topos across artistic media. Had Delacroix actually documented that he was inspired by a Berlioz melody, Bloom concludes, “our mission would be accomplished” (p. 151). The “mission,” it follows, is to lay down the record as it appears in the archive.
A major preoccupation of Berlioz in Time is the documentation of the composer’s sex life. Details of Berlioz’s intimate relations with Harriet Smithson, Camille Moke, and Marie Recio are scattered throughout the text, as are laments that he did not leave more written details of these relations. Early in chapter 13, Bloom writes that “what we might have liked to discover [in the Mémoires] is … sex” (p. 247). Later in the paragraph: “But is it not curious that the Mémoires … of a man on intimate terms with the great séducteur that was Franz Liszt—should remain almost speechless in the theaters of eroticism and lust?” (pp. 247–48). That a composer’s sex life might be of interest to scholarship is not new; readers might be familiar with the debates around Schubert’s sexuality that took place in the 1990s. Such questions function best when posed in the context of revealing the broader power structures of a composer’s time. This is not the intention of Berlioz in Time. Rather, the heavy arsenal of archival research marshaled in this book, whether to contextualize Berlioz’s attitudes about patronage or to document his sexual encounters, serves a common purpose: to map archival evidence onto a chronology of Berlioz’s life and milieu—to lock Berlioz in time.
Symptomatic of this merger of documentary detective work and voyeuristic curiosity is chapter 3, titled “Liszt and Berlioz in the Locker Room.” The chapter originally appeared with that title in 2013. But given Donald Trump’s use of the expression “locker room talk” in the infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked in 2016, one would have hoped for at least a reference to this unforgettable media event, or better still, an avoidance of the expression altogether. The chapter’s title refers to a series of letters exchanged by the two composers in the early 1830s, many of which dealt with strictly musical issues. Bloom’s focus is Berlioz’s audaciously misogynistic postscript to Liszt on October 7, 1833, regarding the first night of his marriage to Smithson: “[P.S.] Vierge, tout ce qu’il ce qu’il y a de plus vierge” (p. 58). A literal translation would be “A virgin, as virgin as can be.” Bloom justifiably denounces Berlioz’s “hubris” in this postscript, although his idiomatic translation “A virgin, as pure as the driven snow” disarms Berlioz’s unsavory comment. Bloom offers a few sentences of cultural context on “virginity” as a nineteenth-century concept. Further context would have provided a more sensitive commentary on Berlioz’s letter and its implication for the historiography of canonical male composers. But the short chapter instead focuses on questions of detail and veracity: “Is it true that Harriet was a virgin?” (p. 59). While this question is posed in order to relativize virginity as a cultural concept, the chapter’s subsequent pursuit of detail obfuscates the fact that historical truth is itself an ideology, especially when it is constructed from a written, curated archive. Epistemology is less a concern of this book than the accumulation of truth. Granted, Bloom questions Berlioz’s own truthfulness in commenting on Smithson’s virginity to Liszt. But the ultimate aim of the chapter is nonetheless to establish veracity, rather than comment on the discursive violence such letters inflict on the legacy of the woman implicated in its contents.
Given the abundance of revealing archival detail, Berlioz in Time might have sought to bring biographical scholarship into ongoing scholarly conversations about gender, canonicity, the archive, and Eurocentrism. The book broaches some of these issues, but in instances like the “locker room” chapter, does not see them through. In chapter 9, a letter from Wagner to Liszt is quoted, in which the German composer uses a rape metaphor to discuss the poetic weakness of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini: “[Berlioz] needs a poet to fill him through and through, a poet who is driven by ecstasy to violate him, and who is to him what man is to woman” (p. 185). There is a lot to unpack here, especially in connection to Berlioz’s own lewd postscript to Liszt quoted in chapter 3. It is therefore unfortunate that Bloom introduces Wagner’s letter as being “couched in explicit imagery that a ‘new’ musicologist might wish to pursue” (ibid.). This reference to “new” musicology (a decades-old moniker) raises the question of the author’s intended audience. In the prologue, we read that given Bloom’s “fifty years’ residence at the largest liberal arts college for women in the United States [Smith College],” the “locker room” chapter is written through a “lens tinged … with feminism” (p. xii). The book does not specify which mode of feminist critique is being applied. Recent musicological approaches to feminism include intersectional, decolonial frameworks that situate human agency on a global network of power structures. Keeping this de facto definition in mind, Bloom’s remark about modern-day musicology is worth a quotation: “Perhaps the musicological ‘globalists,’ who as I write are intent upon ‘decentering’ the Western canon, can find in Berlioz an interesting case study. He did indeed tend to infantilize the music of other cultures—an obvious minus! But the patterns of his music—a potential plus?—do not readily match those that the new globalists find too male and too white” (p. xx). It is unclear what is implied by “globalist,” or who is implicated under this label. Berlioz’s life—not only the documentary record but also how the composer himself constructed it—is, in fact, a fascinating case study, and one not incongruent with newer, “decentered” approaches.
There is a tension in Berlioz in Time between its advocacy for a “global” approach to Berlioz research and its defense of the composer’s hard-fought inclusion in the Western musical canon. Perhaps in reply to Jacques Barzun’s question “Why Berlioz?” the present book seems to ask of its readership, “Why not Berlioz?”1 The perpetual defense of Berlioz by Berliozians, which can be traced back to Barzun, seems to stem from a nostalgic mindset about what it means to study the composer. If I may be permitted a psychoanalytic analogy, ongoing arguments for Berlioz’s canonicity seem to channel his own self-image as an unsatisfied artist. Berlioz in Time leaves open whose time is in question: Berlioz’s, Bloom’s, or, indeed, Barzun’s.
Some of the most interesting moments of Berlioz in Time are its reflections on Berlioz scholarship. The influence of Barzun, Bloom’s mentor, is evident. (Barzun is introduced on page 44, playfully, as “our forefather who art in heaven,” and on page 279, unironically, as “a genius.”) Despite his myriad intellectual and administrative endeavors, Barzun always found time to write about Berlioz, but the impression remained, to paraphrase Diana Hallman, that Barzun was defending Berlioz from a “maverick” reputation of the composer’s own making.2 Throughout Berlioz in Time, Bloom calls on Barzun for translation advice, for reflections on the profession, to reminisce on the friendship between the two men, and on occasion, to disagree; for example, Berlioz in Time takes the composer’s politics more seriously than does Barzun’s Berlioz and the Romantic Century. So outsized is Barzun’s influence on the book that he receives a generous biographical sketch in the epilogue.
Stylishly written and impeccably researched, Berlioz in Time belongs in the library of any serious Berliozian. The question remains, however, what it means to be a “Berliozian” outside the shadow of Barzun, and whether the defense of Berlioz’s place in the nineteenth-century canon can finally be laid to rest. The story of Berlioz’s global “afterlife” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—what Bloom reluctantly dubs “Berliozism” as a nod to Alex Ross’s book Wagnerism (p. 289)—is, I think, a story worth telling.3 For the non-Berliozians, Berlioz in Time leaves plenty of paths open for new critical, interdisciplinary, and, yes, “global” approaches to the composer and his reception, both in his time and in our own.
Jacques Barzun, “Why Berlioz?,” in Berlioz and His Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 7–8.
Diana Hallman, review of Berlioz: Past, Present, Future, Music and Letters 87, no. 3 (August 2006): 441–46, here 446. See also Paul Watt, “Jacques Barzun’s Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950): A Musicological Brontosaurus?,” Journal of Musicological Research 38, nos. 3–4 (2019): 298–312.
Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).