Anyone familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde will of course know where the "take-off" above comes from. And how trenchantly - even scathingly - funny that particular work is, even to the point where some folks have fun citing extended passages at will, out loud, just for the "yuks" it contains. Well, add "The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz" to that short list.
I am now barely 100 pages into this screamer, after having recently concluded reading the magisterial and sympathetic two-volume biography of Berlioz by David Cairns (who also provides the perfect translation of these Memoirs). Frankly, I wasn't sure that I could handle "yet more Berlioz" so soon after finishing the Cairns volumes (although Cairns provided plenty of justification, in terms of his ability to pinpoint Berlioz's scathing wit).
I shouldn't have worried.
Berlioz is certainly famous among music lovers, and musicians and composers, for a long list of "firsts": The first to take the proto-Romantic beginnings started so auspiciously by Beethoven to new heights, the first to expand the size (and instruments) of the classical orchestra to something closely resembling today's symphony orchestra, the first to write a detailed study on the uses of the instruments in the orchestra, including the effects of venue acoustics on the orchestra's sound... It's a long list, and this is just a part of it.
But Berlioz was also a brilliant writer. Inter alia, his "feuilletons" (music & arts criticism for the cultural journals of his time) and his "Evenings in the Orchestra" (including several of his better feuilletons) showed both his brilliance as a writer on the arts and his scathing wit. And that wit comes across as well in his Memoirs, as can be evidenced by this example on his very first page:
"Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out I have always kept most tender memories of it. Indeed, such is its appeal for me that had I the misfortune to be born into the bosom of one of those schisms ponderously hatched by Luther or Calvin I should undoubtedly abjured it the moment I was able..."
It gets even better later on, and the Memoirs are very well served by Cairns's idiomatic translation that so perfectly captures the trenchantly ascerbic writing qualities of which Berlioz was so capable. (Apparently, earlier translations, whether due to "bowdlerization" or simple lack of supporting documents, did not succeed to the same degree in capturing all of these qualities.)
Berlioz started these Memoirs while in his mid-40's and while in London for performances of his works and finding himself with some spare time. From then until the end of his life two decades later, he would add to them, with the express requirement that they be published posthumously. There is no need to "wonder why" at this requirement: He had something to say about nearly everything and everybody in the world of music and culture of his time, and wasn't afraid to "name names." And good for him!
I hope to have more (but not too much more) to say about these alternately hilarious and moving Memoirs once I've finished them. In the meantime, I hope that these brief comments serve to whet your appetite for one of the best books ever written about music by a musician. And a suitably famous one at that. This hardcover version is inexpensive and beautifully bound; a worthwhile addition to every music lover's library.