Saturday, 3 December 2011

Tracking Berlioz


I have trod the upward and the downward slope”: for me, it was an unabashed nostalgia trip, as precipitous Meylan had been one of my temporary homes. It’s due north of the university campus at Grenoble, where I first taught back in 1993. That was the spring semester of that year, and I’m currently here for the autumn, so I’ve been curious to revisit Meylan and see a fadingly familiar haunt in (to me) its unfamilar garb of this season.
I’d forgotten it was so steep: obviously I was a lot younger nineteen years ago – cue T.S.Eliot parody (do you know it?): “As we get oldah we do not get any youngah” – but I Iike to think I’m just as fit. Qu’importe: I was determined to make my way to Berlioz’s Scottish castle. For just before my first posting here, composer Ronald Stevenson had told me that Berlioz came from the part of France to which I was headed.

I didn’t realise, then, just how near my digs would be to key sites associated with the composer of the Rob Roy and Waverley overtures. This quiet suburb of Grenoble is packed with historical meaning. A memorial marks the spot where a group of Resistance fighters was executed by the Nazi occupiers. Stendhal, who maintained a love-hate relationship with his native Grenoble, wrote praise-prose-poetry to the sheer rock faces east of the city and the expansive glen of the Grésivaudan over which Meylan is perched. The final scene of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust has our eponymous hero singing of the rough terrain that echoes his mood as he awaits Mephistopheles for the last time. In that music you can hear the landscape that Berlioz knew from his youth.

Just up the road from my old quarters is the former house of Berlioz’s maternal grandfather, Nicolas Marmion. Yes – you read that right: Walter Scott is the not--very-sub subtext of all this. Berlioz, like other young French Romantics of his time, was avidly reading the Wizard, and a ruined tower to the north of Marmion’s house gave him, in imagination, something of the Scotland which he would never visit in that dull dimension which we call real life.

It was in grandfather Marmion’s house, at a party, that the 12-year-old Berlioz fell in love with an 18-year-old guest, Estelle, who wanted to dance with the little fellow, and later take him on Sunday walks up the slope. Out of this bittersweet experience came the idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique. In his sixties, the composer traced her to Geneva: both, by then, were widowed, but Estelle gently told him that it was now too late. You can read all about it in his memoirs, but be aware that these often stray from that dull dimension cited above.

As does, no doubt, his Scottish tower. Yesterday it was misty, so visibility on these wooded crags was much less than it had been when I was here with visiting wife and daughter in the spring of ’93. I had a detailed map, but as I climbed nearer, I was puzzled. A woman coming from her house saw me peering at the map and wanted to help. Was I looking for Château Corbeau? She directed me to a pebbly track heading up into the forest.

Château Corbeau – let’s appropriate it as Castle Corbie - is a gloomy place, a tumbled wall entwined with roots and branches. I clambered over it, thinking that it wasn’t so much a Rob Roy or Waverley setting - it was more redolent of the ballads collected by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, or of his own shorter verse narratives. In the thickening mist, the cafés of Grenoble seemed a world away. More distant yet, in so many senses, was our actually-existing Scotland.


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