Monday, October 09, 2006

Peter Bloom

It remains to say the obvious. First, that Barzun, professor and provost at Columbia for half a century, has a Berliozian turn of mind. Like the composer, who was also an academician (a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, that is) and an administrator (at the library of the Conservatoire), Barzun often makes sport of the absurdities of the academy and the inanities of the administration — with the special knowledge of the insider, and in writing that is a counterpoint of Olympian certitude and challenge to dissent.

Second, that Barzun is a master of the unexpected in French. In his private letters I have received explanations of such urgent matters as why “Greek,” in French is hébreu, and why canaque, in English, is “Tahitian.” In Barzun’s Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry (1990) you will find clear, public discussions of the contrasted semantics and contrary mindsets that characterize French and English and that confound many who speak them.

Third, that Barzun — fifty years after completing the most important study of the composer that has ever appeared — remains Berlioz’s most perceptive modern critic. As writer and teacher he continues to show how Berlioz’s genius, artistic conviction, love of literature, and lively humor led to writing of uncommon wisdom, and to music of “conspicuous uniqueness” — something that has occasionally caused even some of Berlioz’s ostensible defenders to kick him in the shins under the table. Why has the techniques of parenthetical disparagement in the service of praise been applied to Berlioz as to no other artist in the pantheon with the possible exception of Shaw? Perhaps, as Barzun has put it (in words the author of these Evenings would be please to know, “because his career, too, was exempary.”

Peter Bloom, Foreward to Hector Berlioz, Evenings with the Orchestra, translated and edited with introduction and notes by Jacques Barzun, 1999 (1956).