Life stories come in all sizes, from the smallest notice in a dictionary of musical biography to largest multi-volume epic. Fitting form to subject, David Cairns's enormous retelling of Berlioz's--of which this is volume one (running from 1803-1832)--is on the grandest possible scale. It contains a tremendous amount of fascinating detail, and conveys a real sense of what it was like to grow up in France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic defeats. But above all it is a completely convincing portrait of the character of Berlioz himself, and of his sense of his own artistic mission. He lived passionately, sometimes gushingly. When he fell in love, for instance, he did so hyperbolically ("my heart expands and my imagination struggles to comprehend this intensity of happiness");he suffered amorous reversals with melodramatic intensity ("wandering the streets at night with a bitter grief that haunts me like a red-hot iron on my breast"), and he spoke with gusto of the effect great art had on him("I came out of Hamlet shaken to the core by the experience; I vowed I should not expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare's genius"). But one of the nice things in Cairns's account is the way the ordinary neatly undercuts Berlioz's self-dramatisation; for instance the letter to his mother that begins "thank you, dear Mama, for the handkerchiefs. What I am short of is stockings."
Volume One takes us up to the composition of Berlioz's early triumph, theFantastic Symphony, which Cairns describes in powerful prose. But most absorbing are the accounts of Berlioz's all-consuming love affairs: his boyhood infatuation with Estelle Dubeuf, his obsessive love for the English actress Harriet Smithson, for whom he learned to speak English, and his more realistic love for the pianist Camille Moke. You finish reading it eager to carry the story on in volume two, Servitude and Greatness.--Adam Roberts