In 1853 a writer for the London-based periodical Fraser's Magazine remarked that Berlioz's “heroic temperament” could be “read legibly in the noble style of his compositions. His own life forms to these works the most interesting accompaniment and commentary.” The linking of life and work in Berlioz's case is nothing unusual. However, a particular set of circumstances unique to London meant that critics based in that city persistently used Berlioz's biography to further their own agendas while also promoting his music. In this article, I argue that, when writing about Berlioz's London performances, critics employed biographical ideas and narratives that enabled them to use the composer as a means to shape local debates about the future of London's orchestral institutions: the Philharmonic Society and its latest “rival”: the New Philharmonic Society.
Biography proved a powerful rhetorical device from which Berlioz profited and is central to our understanding of his critical reception in London. It was used to introduce, to persuade, to simplify, to generate sympathy, admiration, and outrage. However, I reveal that in later visits biographical narratives overshadowed the coverage of Berlioz's music. In some articles, Berlioz was reduced to a rhetorical device to be employed to give strength to criticisms of either the old Philharmonic or the new, with the critic offering little insight into Berlioz's music. Biography had given Berlioz a foothold in musical London, but it could not win him the lasting success he craved.