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R.I.P., Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun died last week, just a month short of his 105th birthday.

I've written of Barzun before: here for example, and here.

I had the honor of a long, though epistolatory, friendship with Prof. Barzun, and it now seems incumbent upon me to donate his letters to some appropriate scholarly repository. I do think that some of this correspondence will help shed some light on his thought, for future researchers.

I'm certain that his reputation is bound to grow over the coming decades. Perhaps the definitive biographer, the one who can do for Barzun what Barzun did for Hector Berlioz, is still 81 years away. Berlioz, after all, died in 1869, and Barzun's two-volume work on his life and times appeared in 1950.

And it did so in no small part because Barzun heard Berlioz's "Ballet of the Sylphs" performed when he was only four or five years, a memory that never left him.

Perhaps we can best pay tribute to Barzun in his passing with some words he wrote of "the greatest artists" in general, though words he wrote with Berlioz specifically in mind.

"The greatest artists have never been men of taste. By never sophisticating their instincts they have never lost the awareness of the great simplicities, which they relish both from appetite and from the challenge these offer to skill in competition with popular art."

Barzun, by profession historian and teacher, was by virtue of his own engagement with the great simplicities of a piece with the greatest artists whose work he chronicled and explained.

But in both the easy and definitive character of his erudition, he was a work of art himself. Arthur Krystal, also prominent man of letters, in his memoir EXCEPT WHEN I WRITE, tells a story about Barzun with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. Krystal was working on a magazine piece about the origin of the first world war. He was going to reference a well-known statement by Lord Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who on August 3, 1914 expressed his foreboding thus: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time."

Krystal remembered the quote, but wasn't sure it was Lord Grey who said it, so he called Barzun. Barzun cautioned against calling him "Lord Grey" in that connection.

"Why not?"

"Well, you know, he wasn't a Lord when he said it. He didn't become Viscount of Fallodon until 1916."

You can check on and confirm that sort of fact but, of course, once you had heard Barzun say it there was no real need for that. That was simply the sort of thing Barzun made it his business to know.

What I know is that I'll miss him.

Here are some further thoughts I've expressed at AllAboutAlpha.


  1. The most affecting remembrance of JB I have read thus far. It's that one brief sentence, placed where it is. (I will too.)

    Louis Torres


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