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Jacques Barzun

Music historian;

Born: November 30, 1907; Died: October 26, 2012.

Jacques Barzun, who has died aged 104, was Hector Berlioz's most distinguished French biographer and the Simon Schama of his day.

His two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century, published in 1950 and housed in a sturdy box, still holds place of honour in this critic's collection of Berlioz books, but his tastes ranged wider than these 1000-or-so well-thumbed pages might suggest. "From Berlioz to baseball" is how one American critic summed up the scope of the elegantly erudite French writer who lived in New York for more than half a century before finally settling in California.

The baseball connection was no mere quip. Lamenting the fate of the Dodgers in a 1951 essay, Barzun spoke of "what Greek tragedy was like".

Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz's sculptor hero, was a feature of Pleasures of Music, Barzun's choice of "great writing about music and musicians," yet music as a whole was insufficient to satisfy his enthusiasms as a scholar.

Lincoln's Philosophic Vision, The Use and Abuse of Art, and The Delights of Detection were other topics to which he devoted himself before reaching the vastness of his great millennium opus, From Dawn to Decadence, at the age of 93. Subtitled 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, this was an improbably non-didactic study of its spacious subject, which characteristically embraced European history from the Reformation to the present day in consistently accessible prose, even when dealing with such topics as the links between political and cultural egalitarianism.

Born in the Parisian suburb of Creteil, Barzun knew the famous writers and artists of his childhood, including Cocteau, Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin, though it was not until he emigrated to America that he really spread his wings.

In 1932 he received his doctorate from Columbia University (whose academic robes he redesigned) for a thesis on Montesquieu, which in 1937 became his Study in Modern Superstition. Soon afterwards came Darwin, Marx, Wagner, his tripartite Critique of a Heritage.

He was literary consultant to Life magazine and adviser to the publishers Charles Scribners, as well as a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur and an extraordinary fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

By the age of nine, he said: "I had the conviction that everybody in the world was an artist except plumbers or people who delivered groceries." Yet, as From Dawn to Decadence so famously proved, an elitist he was not.

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