An Interview with Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin
Behind the fabulous website hberlioz.com, turning 20 this year, is not a team of French musicologists, but rather a pair of retired academics in Edinburgh, Scotland. Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin live in a quite street which traces its origins back to the 18th century. In the living room, above two large computers, hangs a portrait of the French composer, who watches over the couple as they spend their days working to preserve details about his life and music.
Tayeb and Austin are now in their early 70s. Their website contains more than 13,000 files in all. There is no other comparably centralized resource about Berlioz—indeed, some of the documents there can be found nowhere else in the world. And the website is popular: in April 2017, it was accessed over 100,000 times. When we met, Austin, a professor emeritus of history, led most of the conversation, while we snacked on Scottish shortbread.
VAN: What got you interested in Hector Berlioz?
Michel Austin: I started to get into music while my family was living in France, outside Paris. We moved there after the war. My mother was French, and my father Australian, where I was born as well. And my father, who loved music in general, had a great passion for Wagner.
That was in the ‘50s. I was born in 1843…1943 [laughs]! And Monir was born in in Iran the year of “La Damnation de Faust.”
So 1946, a century after “La Damnation de Faust” was written.
A very early experience of Berlioz I had was of that piece. I can remember an orchestra concert, to which an uncle took me and my two brothers. There were the three excerpts from the “Damnation,” the three traditional orchestra pieces. I can still remember the conductor bowing to the audience. Our uncle was a little bit critical: “Ça manquait de nuance,” he said, “It lacked finesse.” But my father had a piano score of “La Damnation,” and I started sniffing around it, using the old piano we had at home—which had long outlived its usefulness.
Was that the thing that sparked your initial interest?
Austin: Actually, in those days I heard rather more Wagner. Every summer my father would listen religiously to the Bayreuth Festival on the radio. It was really when we moved to Manchester, in 1956, that my interest in Berlioz took off. As a schoolboy I had access to cheap tickets for the Hallé concerts, and there was a public library; so I started going there regularly, reading the scores, and very quickly Berlioz became one of the big ones for me.
I remember discussing seriously with myself who the greatest is: Bach or Beethoven, and what about Berlioz? The man who invented the concept of the Three Bs, in the 1850s, was Peter Cornelius, and it was Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz. Which was then distorted by Hans von Bülow to become Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Monir Tayeb: Michel was very lucky because he was born in a musical family. At the music library in Tehran, they mostly had Mozart and Beethoven—I used to go there to ask for records, and they would play them for you. I hadn’t heard of Berlioz, until I met Michel and read Berlioz’s Memoirs, in English at first. I thought, “A person who writes like that must be fascinating.” Later, I went to an Open University to learn French in order to be able to read his book in French. When you read his reviews and compare them with reviews nowadays, the difference is staggering.
Austin: And his correspondence! They are gems in their own right. He’s a natural talent, a born artiste. Artiste, in his own vocabulary, is a word of tremendous praise. He’s so authentic, the real thing—very direct and truthful. I’ve often had the suspicion that the reason why he is not more popular with the general public is because he’s really not comfortable, not reassuring. He confronts you with reality. And at the same time he confronts you with a tremendous imagination of what might be.
Tayeb: In his music, he expects people to be intelligent enough to understand what he is saying.
Austin: He respects his listener. He says, “This is what I have to say. You may follow me if you want, but I’m not going to impose this on you.” It’s not like Wagner, who really wants to overwhelm his listener, to have him kneeling at his feet in admiration.
Wagner himself was overwhelmed by a performance of Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette,” conducted by the composer, that he heard in 1839.
Austin: “Schülerhaft klein.” He felt like a little schoolboy. It was a very complex relationship.
It seems like you know everything there is to know about Berlioz, although neither of you are musicians or musicologists.
Austin: We have many shortcomings…
Tayeb: …but we both come from academic disciplines. We make sure that everything [on the website] is absolutely correct.
Austin: I started off studying classics, Latin and Greek, and specialized in ancient Greek history. Then I got a job as a lecturer in ancient history at St. Andrews, in 1968; that went on until after the year 2000, when I was lucky to be able to take early retirement. But all that time I was really a crypto-Berliozian, pretending to be an ancient historian.
Tayeb: My field was cross cultural management studies. I studied business in Tehran, continuing in 1976 at Oxford. And then I ended up at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, as a senior academic.
As two people from different backgrounds, working in different fields, how did you two meet?
Austin: At the train station.
Tayeb: At Waverly Station, fittingly. Berlioz’s Op. 1 was the “Waverley Overture,” based on the novel by Walter Scott.
Scott was born in Edinburgh.
Austin: We met in 1989, a great year in European history [laughs]. And then the Berlioz plague started to rage, but we had to wait a few years until the internet got off the ground.
Tayeb: We started [the site] in 1997. We thought, “Why don’t we do something for Berlioz?” And then I started a very primitive page with listings of concerts, CDs, and publications.
Austin: The first building block was when we went to [Berlioz’s birthplace] La Côte-Saint-André, in March of 1998. We created a page about Berlioz in La Côte with our own pictures. Then I started off notating scores, putting them on the website. I decided to do all the orchestral music by Berlioz. That took about two years, but it was great fun. At one point I thought, “Why not put Berliozian writings on the internet?” The wonderful thing with Berlioz is that he wrote so much which is perfect material for a website.
Your site now even includes Berlioz’s complete writings for the Journal des Débats, nearly 400 articles, as well as a search function.
Austin: That was possible because the Bibliothèque Nationale uploaded the entire journal.
They uploaded photographs of the old newspapers. Does that mean you had to type everything in yourself?
Austin: Yes. That was hard work, but it was worth doing because now you have the complete feuilleton online with a search facility. We’d been confronted very recently with a problem that was really the result of the software we had been using to create the website, Microsoft FrontPage. Possibly because of its date, the program ignored the question of the HTML document type completely.
In the end, I had to take the plunge and I started learning about [the latest format] HTML 5 to convert the site. We’ve started to do this folder by folder. It’s going to take months and months, but it has to be done, because we would like our website to last. It may be presumptuous, but having invested so much effort in it…
It sounds like you basically followed the entire development of the internet by hand. The speed of technological development today reminds of in Berlioz’s time. At one point, he lived close to Paris’s first train station, Gare St. Lazare…
Austin: He forecasted air travel. In the second to last feuilleton from September 1863, there’s a paragraph where he predicted what would have been a propeller driven aircraft. He had a rather optimistic view of how this would bring people together rather than create further conflicts.
Tayeb: He even talked about people from China coming here…
Austin: I think we have perhaps waited for the right moment. We started the website a few years before the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth; early enough to establish a position.
Tayeb: That year I got emails from almost everywhere in the world, every day. Cities large and small asked us to list their concerts—we even got emails from Saudia Arabia and Vietnam.
Austin: The bicentennial celebrations made a big difference. Berlioz had arrived at last. It took several celebrations to get there: 1903 was a beginning; 1969 was a big step forward; and then 2003 became the target. The Bärenreiter edition was completed soon after, the Correspondance Générale was largely done by then. The critical works were in progress but not yet fully published. [They are now at Volume 8—Ed.] So now, everything is available, and there are far more conductors for whom conducting Berlioz is the natural thing to do. It’s nice to see that among the younger generation there are really good Berlioz conductors. François Xavier Roth is excellent. In a way, Berlioz no longer needs pioneers. The age of pioneers is over.
But you were responsible for so much of that pioneering work: you translated Berlioz’s studies on Beethoven’s Symphonies into English, and 244 newly discovered letters from his family are only available on your site, where visitors can see images of the originals. You also transcribed and commented on all of them. This is work that could keep entire university research departments, with funding, busy. Isn’t it time for you to get some help from institutions?
Austin: Institutions are hopeless, it’s people who matter. One lady, Thérèse Husson, who worked at the Association Nationale Hector Berlioz, is one of the unsung heroes in the story of Berlioz. She was the driving force behind the publication of the Correspondance Générale. The moment too many people are involved the whole thing slows down. There’s so much bureaucracy, you can’t just decide something and then do it. The beauty of the internet—it’s very liberating.
Tayeb: We wanted it to be just us! But we do often accept suggestions and corrections.
You do work closely with the Musée Hector Berlioz, which is located in La Côte-Saint-André. You’ve bequeathed the entire website to the town, where it now runs on the servers of the Conseil Général de l’Isère in Grenoble. And the museum led you to the unpublished letters of his family members.
Austin: A descendant of Berlioz’s sister Nanci had given them to the museum. I took part in the transcription of the originals—in fact, I took the bigger part of it—and then the museum asked me, “Why don’t you publish these on your website?” You can publish both a literal translation and an edited text there, eliminate mistakes, modernize spellings. In print no publisher would accept the doubling of the size of the volume. The Correspondance Générale is an edited text too, not what Berlioz himself actually wrote.
Tayeb: For instance, there was a lady whose daughter had a liaison with Berlioz’s son Louis. She wrote a letter to him saying, “The baby is born, why aren’t you looking after it?” The text is full of mistakes, because she was obviously illiterate.
Austin: She asked him in a very dignified and polite way, but obviously has no idea whatsoever of spelling. She wrote phonetically: “Jai resut votre laitre.”
I didn’t know Berlioz was a grandfather.
Austin: The story was really rather suppressed. Louis wanted to marry the girl, the mother of little Clémentine, but Berlioz was strictly against it.
Hector Berlioz’s own father was against his marriage to an actress.
Austin: Bourgeois self respect! It’s amazing that such a provincial background managed to produce this great genius. In the Bach family there was a context for Johann Sebastian, he was a natural growth from that, still with the exception that he was a genius. But in the case of Berlioz it comes out of nowhere.
Did that influence his music?
Austin: In a way. The fact that his early education was walking in the fields and admiring mountains and landscapes and hearing natural sounds, being sensitive to the sound of a church bell in the distance…I think that’s one element that lead to his sense not just of the quality of sound, but of sound’s placement. Berlioz thinks really stereophonically in the placement of the instruments.
In his early days, he had an inkling of music: he read in Michaut’s Biographie Universelle about Haydn and Gluck, great men, whose music he hadn’t heard. He was imagining what music might be before he even heard the real thing and the moment he arrived in Paris he dashed off to the opera and was completely bowled over.
You’ve spent so much time with him. What kind of a guy was he?
One has the impression that he is basically a very likable person. He’s hypersensitive, and can be difficult, but is both genuine and generous. He lives his real life, but at the same time stands outside looking in at it. “My life,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “is a novel, which I find very interesting.” ¶