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Music and beyond,
investigated by GORDON RUMSON


Writing about Jacques Barzun is rather like dancing about Baryshnikov. It tends to show the follower in a poor light. But let us begin.

Jacques Barzun is one of the most eminent of 20th century American intellectuals. He now also belongs to the 21st century as he celebrates his 100th birthday today. He was born in 1907 in France and educated mostly in America.

Musicians will know him because of such books as Berlioz and the Romantic Century and Music in American Life. Barzun is president of the Hector Berlioz Society and was an important force in the revaluation and recognition of this remarkable composer. Moreover, Barzun was one of the earliest supporters of the microtonal composer Harry Partch and he had wise words to say about electronic music when that was new.

Jacques Barzun
Jacques Barzun

But, he is also the author of a prodigious range of other books and an uncounted number of articles. Barzun is described as a historian and critic. He has written on literature, science, art, music, historic figures (James, Lincoln), culture and even baseball. He has scanned the field of knowledge and clearly and precisely stated his findings in widely influential books -- including a New York Times best seller: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.

It can not be said that Barzun has founded a school, or produced a following. Such religiosity is not in keeping with Jacques Barzun's methods, or ideals. In his teaching, where such cultish behaviour could most likely appear, he did his best to open minds, provide information and jar entrenched sensibilities, so that his students could go out into the world armed. The same can be said for his writings.

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Copyright © 30 November 2007 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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