In his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century, historian Jacques Barzun argued that the much-maligned and misunderstood composer was in fact the dominant cultural figure of his day, “who by will and genius stamped his effigy upon the nineteenth century” and brought “kings, ministers, and public institutions, no less than poets and musicians, under his spell.”

Publisher’s Note: This essay is part of a series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz.

In 1919, the famous Steinway Piano Company published a brochure that included paintings and short reflections, written by critic James Gibbons Huneker, on a selected group of the great composers. Huneker had this to say of Hector Berlioz:

[Berlioz wrote that] “the dominant qualities of my music are passionate expression, inward ardor, rhythmical animation and the unexpected.” But he forgot to add, exaggeration. He was nothing if not melodramatic…. His frescoes are orgies. His music is like massive blocks of granite juxtaposed. It never seems to flow, but rests in monumental Egyptian rigidity. There is powerful characterization in the Fantastic Symphony and many extravagances… In his King Lear overture, one of his works that best stands repetition, there are… the forced, the hollow, and even the trivial beside the most powerful impulses.[1]

Such was the fate of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) for decades after his death. Even those who have admired the Frenchman seemingly have felt the need to qualify their praise of his music. Richard Wagner, who knew and generally admired his fellow composer, wrote that in listening to Berlioz’s music,

the overall impression was that I could never overcome a strange and deep sense of unease. I was left with a feeling of awe at something alien which would forever remain unfamiliar, and was puzzled that every time I heard a major work by Berlioz I was on the one hand thrilled, yet at times repelled, and sometimes even altogether bored.

Even Berlioz’s own countrymen have been loathe to champion him as one of their own, perhaps because his music is not conventionally “French,” but cosmopolitan in both its style and content. Claude Debussy famously called his compatriot a “monster.” Berlioz, it is true, drew inspiration for his dramatic works—his symphonies and operas—not from French sources, but from Goethe, Byron, Virgil, and Shakespeare. His seeming betrayal of his inheritance of French culture provided the background for a debate in the early 2000s, as the bicentenary of his birth loomed, about whether the composer’s remains should be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, the burial site of many of France’s cultural heroes. (President Jacques Chirac decided that they should not.)

To Berlioz’s rescue in the mid-twentieth century came Jacques Barzun, a cultural historian who had already made a name for himself in academia with such works as Of Human Freedom (1939), Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943), and Teacher in America (1945). Born in Créteil, France outside Paris in 1907, Barzun, whose diplomat-father became enamored with the United States while on a mission during the First World War, attended a college preparatory school in America before entering Columbia University. Graduating with a Ph.D. in 1932, Barzun would teach at Columbia for forty-eight years until his retirement in 1975. He was such an institution at the university that he designed a curriculum of classic literary texts that all Columbia College freshmen had to complete, redesigned the school’s academic robes, and had its traditional graduation music replaced with Hector Berlioz’s “Trojan March.” He and literature professor Lionel Trilling for many years conducted a famous Great Books course at the university. Barzun’s formidable intellect awed both students and colleagues. “He was terrifying,” a dean at the school recalled of his undergraduate days at Columbia:

He would disgorge an absolutely enormous amount of information during his lectures, more than anyone could possibly remember, and what you felt was—you felt you couldn’t compete. I mean, you could imagine one day writing something on the order of Trilling—maybe. But how could you ever know as much as Barzun did? [2]

During his long career—he began his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, at the age of 84, publishing it nine years later—Barzun published thirty books, edited five more, and translated ten others. Also along the way, he helped invent the very idea of cultural history. Though he described the household in which he was raised as “a seedbed of modernism,” Barzun made a reputation as a cultural conservative. Remaining apolitical, he was nonetheless a critic of modern science (“at once a mode of thought, a source of strong emotion and faith as fanatical as any in history”) and a defender of the university as a “city of the mind” against attempts to make it a catalyst for “public utility” or social change (he termed the riots at Columbia in 1968 “student despotism”). Barzun resisted the notion that history could be subject to interpretative lenses; he concluded in From Dawn to Decadence that “history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars.”[3] In a 1974 essay, Barzun elaborated on this idea:

History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.[4]

It was the “particulars” of the Romantic age that especially attracted Barzun during the early part of his career. He saw Romanticism as not so much a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment but as a development of it, adding feeling to thought and combining the two into a powerful new force in human history. As he would put in his From Dawn to Decadence:

Man, then, is conceived by Romanticism as a creature that feels and can think. His every thought is charged with some emotion. When this opinion is new in the culture the need is felt to study the ways of mind-and-heart as one force, while giving form to its less conscious stirrings…. The Imagination emerges as a leading faculty, because it conceives things in the round, as they look and feel, not simply as they are conceived in words. Enthusiasm turns from being a dangerous form of folly to the prerequisite of all great deeds…. He who is possessed by these ideas and can communicate his discoveries is the Genius. For the Romanticists and since, the name stands for productive power. One now is, a genius, not as formerly he “has a genius for “– some activity or other. The genius is an uncommon type of human being and the outward sign that he deserves the title is the scope of his imagination, matched by means adequate to its concrete and lasting expression.[5]

To Barzun the great exemplar of the Romantic Genius was Hector Berlioz. In 1950, he published Berlioz and the Romantic Century, a consideration of the life and works of his favorite composer, understood against the cultural backdrop of the nineteenth century. Barzun flatly states his agenda for writing the book in his introduction: He means to correct the many misconceptions about Berlioz and to provide a “summa of ascertained truth, a reasoned orthodoxy for the faithful.” Barzun lamented that heretofore no musician, music critic, or scholar had treated Berlioz fairly: “I have hardly come across any critical document, however brief, which did not contain a grievous error. Like the atom of Lucretius, each writer follows a straight line for a shorter or longer time, then swerves.” In his introduction, Barzun quotes an English critic who wrote in 1935 that the concert-going public was divided between those who saw Berlioz as a “less than second-rate figure, a mere scene painter in sounds, with nothing save a gift for orchestration to commend him,” and those who considered him “simply one of the very greatest of all composers who have ever lived.” “How was it,” Barzun wondered, “that a man who had lived so recently, and in the glare of life-long publicity, could be the object of so much confident misrepresentation?”[6]

Barzun not only saw Berlioz as the greatest composer who ever lived, but as one of the major figures of the nineteenth century. For Berlioz was not only a composer, but a longtime music critic, an essayist, and the author of both perhaps the greatest treatise on orchestration ever written and arguably the greatest memoir ever penned by an artist. Ten years after the composer’s death, the influential Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians described Berlioz as “a colossus with few friends and no direct followers.” Barzun certainly agreed with the former sentiment, but in Berlioz and the Romantic Century, he argued that the Frenchman’s influence could be found on most of the major composers who lived during his lifetime and later, including even Richard Wagner.

Berlioz “was no withdrawn spirit cultivating music in a private shrine,” Barzun proclaimed. Rather the Frenchman was the dominant figure of the Romantic era:

He ranged over its whole domain as critic, theorist, conductor and producer, and for forty years bore the brunt of fighting for the modern art of his epoch…. Nor is this all. As a cultured man and observant traveler he thought and wrote about many other things than music; as a dramatic musician and poet he breached the operatic tradition; and as a leader of the musical world he left the impress of his uncommon personality on nearly every important figure in his century. Kings, ministers, and public institutions, no less than poets and musicians, in one way or another came under his spell…. The story of his life is that of one of the world’s very few complete artists. As in a bustling Elizabethan play, the hero moves against a background of historic tramps, accidents, and revolutions, but he also lives through a private drama of passion, moral conflict, and philosophic doubt.… a Renaissance figure transplanted into the nineteenth century, who by will and genius stamped his effigy upon it. [7]

There were some gentle criticisms of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, with one critic being put off by “the quarrelsome overtone to the book”; W.H. Auden, who served on a panel with Barzun and Lionel Trilling for the Reader’s Subscription Book Club, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Barzun “sometimes seems a fanatic to whom Berlioz is the only composer who ever lived, against whom the slightest criticism is blasphemy” [8]. Nevertheless, Berlioz and the Romantic Century did much to enhance the composer’s reputation, which as even Barzun recognized, was already on the ascent in the decade before the book’s publication. On the concert platform, Berlioz’s countryman Charles Munch was already making the composer’s major works better known to the musical public, and in the next decade, British conductor Colin Davis would champion Berlioz’s lesser-known works as well as his major ones, committing to record for the first time the operas Benvenuto Cellini and Béatrice et Bénédict and the premier of the complete version of Les Troyens. By the bicentenary of the composer’s birth in 2003, Les Troyens had at last entered the repertoire of the world’s major opera houses and was rightly considered by many to be among the greatest operas ever written.

In May 2012, at the age of 104, the indefatigable Jacques Barzun was the guest of honor at a concert of Berlioz’s works performed by the San Antonio Symphony in the city that he made his home late in life. “I cannot imagine a grander honor,” the eminent historian in addressing the audience. “Thanks to the orchestra. I will never again find a pleasure like this in this life.” Less than six months later, Barzun was dead. He had become convinced years earlier that the West had entered a period of cultural decline, though he was confident that it would experience a revival of some sort. Certainly that revival depended greatly on a renewal of esteem for the great cultural achievements of the past, and for the artists who had accomplished them, including, of course, Barzun’s friend, Hector Berlioz.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of essays commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz. 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] The Steinway Collection: Paintings of Great Composers quoted from the Harvey T. Dunn website.

[2] Steven Marcus quoted by Arthur Krystal in Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic, Chapter 6: “A Man for All Reasons—Jacques Barzun.”

[3] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, p. 654.

[4] Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History & History, chapter 5: “History as Counter-Method and Anti-Abstraction,” p. 95 (1974).

[5] From Dawn to Decadence, p. 470.

[6] Berlioz and the Romantic Century, Volume 1, p. 5, 13-15.

[7] Ibid., p. 5-6.

[8] Robert Lawrence, Saturday Review of Literature, 13 May 1950, as reproduced on The Hector Berlioz website; “Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West,” by Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, October 25, 2012

Further Bibliography:

Editor’s Note: The featured image combines a painting of Jacques Barzun around the age of forty by Eric Robert Morse (courtesy of Wikipedia) with a drawing of Hector Berlioz (1845) by August Prinzhofer (also courtesy of Wikipedia).

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