The conclusion to David Cairns's epic biography of Hector Berlioz has been eagerly awaited ever since the first volume, Berlioz: The Making of an Artist, appeared in 1989. With an achievement as massive as that highly praised volume, part of the tension of waiting for the follow-up involves wondering whether Cairns can capture again the sweep, the vividness, and the power of his first book. But he has managed to do exactly that.
Cairns picks up the story at the time of Berlioz's marriage to Harriet Smithson in 1833, with whom he had been obsessively infatuated for so long. It's a mournful story, with her alcoholism, their separation in 1844, and her premature death in 1854. Cairns links the vicissitudes of Berlioz's own life directly with his music: the composition of La Mort d'Ophélie marks the symbolic end of their marriage. "The elegiac significance of this infinitely sad melody would be hard to miss." Cairns writes sensitively and evocatively about Berlioz's music, and one of the central pillars of this second volume is a compelling defense of the composer's Les Troyens (1856), his much-maligned and chopped-about operatic masterpiece. Critics of the day were not kind: "so vulgar, so badly designed and so distorted with impossible modulations that one would take it to be the music of a deaf man," said one. There were many cartoons, which Cairns reprints, along the lines of "new method of killing cattle to be introduced at all slaughterhouses," in which an ox is pictured felled by having The Trojans played to it through a large tuba. But Cairns convincingly demonstrates just how far ahead of his time Berlioz was and how heroic was his struggle to have this titanic opera performed and accepted in the teeth of persistent obstacles. It is Cairns's opinion that Berlioz, "like the biblical man, was born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards." His biography follows the tragedies and the triumphs of this larger-than-life individual with a narrative force as gripping as a good novel. --Adam Roberts