Symphony Paperback – Dec 9 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
The real-life marriage of Irish actress Harriet Smithson (1800–1854) to composer Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) is the ostensible subject of Morgan's latest (following Indiscretion), but the two don't meet until two thirds of the way into this thickly embellished historical romance. After initial reluctance, the young Harriet, her passion for theatre inflamed by Shakespeare, joins her family's traveling theater company. As drink dissipates her father, weight softens her mother and minimal talent limits her brother Joseph, Harriet takes charge of the family business and appears with theatrical stars of the time. But it's her magnificent interpretation of Ophelia in Paris that brings her a public, including Hector, the son of a successful doctor and a pious mother. Young Hector's path to a musical education is told in parallel to Harriet's youth. After her Ophelia, Harriet turns away Hector's ardent pursuit, but as her theater begins to fail and his musical star begins to rise, she attends a performance of his Symphonie Fantastique, inspired by her. Morgan's modernist style, with frequent shifts in tense and POV, won't be for everyone, but it lets Morgan nicely capture the multiple levels of consciousness a performer juggles on stage (the three minds) and gives the novel real texture. (Dec.)
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“[Jude Morgan] deserves to be widely acknowledged as a writer to be read.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“Morgan's modernist style . . . nicely captures the multiple levels of consciousness a performer juggles on stage and gives the novel real texture.” ―Publishers Weekly
“With empathy and formidable imagination, [Passion brings] the Romantic era to full, resplendent life.” ―Entertainment Weekly, Grade: ASee all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A great deal of research has gone into the book, but it is lightly worn. Berlioz first sees her perform about half way through the book; but in the early part we have a superb account of their lives before that time. Not only the principal characters, but the other members of their families are splendidly realized in the round, as is the social and political background of the time. Morgan also beautifully captures Berlioz' overheated Romantic sensibilities and Harriet's insecurities. His passionate wooing of her and her response are touchingly described, as is the brief period of happiness which follows.
Both had been warned that it was an unsuitable marriage; but who could have told just how it would turn out? The torture that afflicted both their lives makes painful reading.
The style is a little idiosyncratic. Sometimes events are narrated in the historic present, sometimes in the past tense; there are very many short fragments of sentences without a main verb; and I don't think I care for the intrusion at one stage of a libretto Morgan has invented, nor for the few pages of mock-Shakespearean drama that presumably presents itself to an opium-drugged Berlioz near the end. In the last 100 pages or so the power of the book slackens considerably, tragic though its material is. It is almost as if Morgan has himself lost interest. The chronology becomes too loose, and there is an unnecessary section on Mendelssohn. Personally I also think it would have been better to have put the material of the Prologue into the end of the book instead: coming at the beginning, it gives too much away. But the choice of vocabulary is always imaginative without being forced, and from a purely literary point of view, too, about three-quarters of the book is a real pleasure to read.
Readers who are interested in the lives of the Romantic composers may also want to check out the fine biography (it reads better than most novels) titled "Chopin's Funeral," by Benita Eisler.
I have to say first that I did not care for the book's style. Morgan switches between past tense and present tense, often with different styles of punctuation; he interpolates first-person bits in which it seems Harriet is addressing the author directly, and there are even odder bits in which the author is essentially interviewing other composers (Chopin, Mendelssohn) about Hector and Harriet. I've read books where the author's tense changes seemed to mean something (Jo Walton's Lifelode or Rumer Godden's _China Court_, for example), but here, I just found them and the other style variations confusing and self-consciously clever. Every time the style changed, I was bounced out of the narrative and had to work to re-immerse myself.
But dislike of the style aside, I always was able to dive back into the book and keep reading with enjoyment. Morgan does beautifully with the period, with the characters, and most of all, with the portrayal of life as an artist (whether actor or composer). The novel does slow in the last hundred pages or so, because once Harriet and Hector are together, the tension of wondering when that would happen is gone and replaced by a drearier anxiety over how long their relationship will actually last. On balance, though, it's an excellent story, though hampered by an overly elaborate style.
So glad I borrow books from the library than buy stuff like this.
In France she takes over running the group as her father sinks deeper into alcoholism, her brother has no talent for the stage or business, and her mother feels her age and her growing waistline. Her performance as Ophelia in Hamlet is the rage of the city leading to acclaim and the demand by the adulating public to see her perform. Composer Hector Berlioz is attracted to Harriet, but she rejects his advances until her fame wanes while his soars especially when he credits her as his muse and the Symphonie Fantastique is performed.
Rotating perspective between the actress and the composer, readers obtain a fascinating biographical historical fiction that is not easy to read due shifting tense, but worth the time as fans obtain a rare deep look inside the mind of a performer while performing. Harriet and Hector come alive on and off stage as Jude Morgan provides a virtuoso performance with the entertaining SYMPHONY.