gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

a musical season

Jacques Barzun’s love of variety guides these posts.  There may be occasion for marching through some titles in chronological order within one category, following and expanding upon Virginia Xanthos’s selected bibliography in From Parnassus (Harper & Row, 1976).  However, a forced march through over 200 education articles, for instance, might lead to desertions.  Besides, variety motivates me, too.  Readers who marvel at a first Barzun book may grow dizzy when looking into his bibliography.  Take heart, Michael Murray’s editorial talents produced a fine sampler with  A Jacques Barzun Reader (HarperCollins, 2002).

Honoring that organ virtuoso who became Barzun’s biographer, I turn to a musical item excluded from the 1976 bibliography.  “Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” appears in Music and Recordings, 1955, (Frederic V. Grunfeld, ed., Oxford University Press, 1955).  Barzun’s landmark life-and-times of the misrepresented composer, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, had been stimulating a reconsideration of his works during the previous five years.  One of the busiest periods of Barzun’s career, the bestselling success of God’s Country and Mine prompted a request for a similar appraisal that became Music in American Life (Audiocom, 1955; Harper & Row, 1956; reprinted 1965).  By the following year, Barzun sounded ready to move on to other subjects, as implied by the title of his Energies of Art essay, “Whirligig: Last Words on Berlioz.”

“Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” considers the merits and shortcomings of 1955’s recordings of pruned symphonies and miscellaneous collections.  Five new records are evaluated; conductors, musicians, and technology, too, he judges by their fidelity to Berlioz’s intentions.  Barzun seldom misses an opportunity to compare topical matters to lasting qualities, as he does to conclude his assessment of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Damnation of Faust (RCA Victor LM 6114):

A good test of any conductor of Berlioz is the familiar Rákóczy March: if from the start it sounds like a winded warhorse on the run, the conductor has missed his chance: it should begin in calmness and distinction and develop without a break, as it does thematically, into the ordered cataclysm of the close.  So played, it is a tone poem which belongs to the score, instead of a time-out debauch for baton and orchestra.

I didn’t know what I was missing when first hearing Berlioz in that very recording.  Though my “breadth requirement” had been satisfied with a Renaissance Art History class, I followed JB’s lead into the Music Library, sat in a soundproof booth, put on headphones, and experienced the power and expressiveness of dramatic music.  And it could have been even better.  I wish there had been time to take a course like Music Humanities at Columbia, where students that relish the art’s development through the ages have Jacques Barzun to thank.

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