Should music criticism only be written by people who observe the music scene impartially and with a certain “objective” distance? Or can a critic offer something special if he or she is quite the opposite: a deeply committed and even polemically inclined participant in the musical community? That question was raised frankly and confidently by Berlioz in a letter that has just been published for the first time, in the volume reviewed below.
The question will surely resonate with readers of BMInt. After all, one of this site’s great strengths has been its inclusion of the voices of people who are active in musical life and of others who have been involved with composition or performance at some earlier point in their development. Readers of BMInt thus may (we hope) have come to agree with Berlioz’s position that intimate knowledge can enable a critic to write with conviction and special insight.
Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporains, edited by Peter Bloom, et. al., contains numerous revelations, large and small, about Berlioz and the musical life of his era. My review below (reprinted, with kind permission, from a recent issue of Music Library Association Notes, and lightly revised) explains the features of the book as a whole, but also draws attention to some lively and informative passages from the letters, including (toward the end) the declaration alluded to above, which comes from a letter that Berlioz wrote to his sister Nanci Pal early in 1845.
In 1860, Richard Wagner was in Paris, trying to arrange for the Opéra to give the world premiere of the revised version of Tannhäuser. In a letter probably written in May of that year, Hector Berlioz invited him to come over to dine. The various guests that evening, he promised, will share “a very lovely pineapple” direct from Brazil. And, after everyone else leaves, he and Wagner “will have the freedom to spend time together in my study.” Presumably he meant that the two would talk about topics of common interest, such as the Parisian musical world or the recent activities of their mutual friend Franz Liszt. Berlioz’s pineapple letter has now been published for the first time, in the book under review (pp. 548–49). It was apparently written later than any other that survives between Berlioz and Wagner. (They did meet again two months later at the home of Pauline Viardot—the renowned mezzo-soprano and composer—for an advance hearing of parts of Tristan und Isolde.)