It’s always nice to finish a book. (Something which I don’t do as fast as I would like, I’m afraid . . . I’m also back to the bad habit off having a “book pile” rather than doing it one at a time, which always slows things down.) Anyway, as this is the first book I’ve finished this year, I thought I’d review it. Now, technically, I started it back in August when I was writing my book as part of my research, so there’s been a gap of some months, but hey, Beethoven left nearly 10 years between his 8th and 9th symphonies, so I’m really doing rather well by comparison.

Anyway, very briefly, this book is byHector Berlioz, who some of you may recognise as a famous French composer of the first half of the nineteenth century. This is an interesting book from the perspective that Berlioz lived around the same time (and a bit later) than Beethoven, so this is really the equivalent of a music critic from 20 years later writing a book about Beethoven. It gives you a pretty good idea of how the French public took to Beethoven’s music. (Kind of half-hearted, by the sounds of it. They liked some bits, but not others.)

However, if you’re hoping to gain a deeper understanding of Beethoven’s symphonies, this is not the book to start with. While it contains some interesting comments, Berlioz either doesn’t go too in-depth into the music or, if he does, it’s in very complex musical language that you need to be a scholar to understand.

But an interesting bonus is an article on music by Berlioz in the front of the book, where he argues the case that Western music (as it was then in his day) was the highest form of music that had ever been. But he also has some great (and provocative comments on music. I can’t resist a few of these great quotes:

“Music is the art of producing emotion, by means of combinations of sound, upon men both intelligent and gifted with special and cultivated senses. To define music in this way is equivalent to admitting that we do not believe it to be, as some may say, made for everybody. Whatever may, in fact, be the cause of its existence . . . it has always appeared evident to the impartial observer that a large number of persons remained incapable of either feeling or understanding its power. Such people were not made for it; and it follows that it was not made for them.”

Hector also seems to have been a pursuer of cold shivers. Except, compared with me, I think he would get it a lot worse:

“On hearing certain works my vital strength seems first of all doubled; I feel a delicious pleasure with which the reason has no connection. . . . Emotion, increasing in direct proportion to the energy or grandeur of the composer’s ideas then soon produces a strange agitation in the circulation of the blood; my arteries throb violently; tears which, in a general way, indicate the end of the paroxysm, mark in this case only a progressive stage which is liable to be much exceeded. In the latter case, spasmodic contractions of the muscles supervene; the limbs tremble; there is a total numbness of the feet and hands; a partial paralysis of the nerves of sight and hearing; in short I no longer see or hear perfectly, am seized with giddiness and am half swooning.”

And, finally, I’ll leave you with his comments on Chinese music:

“We have said nothing respecting Oriental music; and for this reason. All that we have so far gathered from travellers respecting this subject is confined to informal puerilities; lacking all relation to the ideas to which we attach the term “music.” In default of information both new and opposed on all points to that which we have acquired, we must regard music among the Oriental peoples as merely a grotesque noise, analagous to that of children at play.”

Overall, 2 1/2 out of 5.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Critical Study of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies (Hector Berlioz)

  1. Part of the problem is that I’ve realised that when it comes to books, a book is most attractive when it’s in the bookstore, pretty darn good-looking in the bag on the way home. Enjoyable for the first couple of pages. Then somewhere along the way, the charm fades and it ends up in a pile.

    Having recognised this character flaw of mine, I am now super-careful about what I actually take home from a bookstore, always asking myself the question, “Seriously, are you going to be able to read this straight away, or is it going to be confined to the pile?” The answer to which is almost unequivocally, “Yes”, but that still doesn’t help the fact that I have a couple of hundred books from the last 15 years that I’ve been swearing I’ll read one of these days.

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