Hector Berlioz - Biography


Hector Louis Berlioz the great French Romantic composer, writer and theorist was born in December 11th 1803 near Lyon France and died in Paris March 8th 1869. His father was a medical doctor and had a great influence on Berlioz’s life. He was educated by his father who was an amateur scholar; Berlioz was enraptured at an early age by the great classics of Roman and Greek literature that were to be echoed in his works throughout his life. We have a unique view of Berlioz’s childhood and adolescence through his Memoirs which itself is a great classic of French literature. The Memoirs notes that at twelve he feel in love with a an eighteen year old girl in his village Estelle Founier who he worshipped as his ideal over the next fifty years (she was never aware of his infatuation until he met her again when she was seventy) indicate that his hyper romantic personality developed at an early age. Berlioz unlike any major composer did not have any form al musical education in his youth, at the age of twelve he started playing the flute and the guitar which are the only instrument he was ever proficient on. He was an auto didactic who taught himself the rudiments of music by reading text books. His father was adamant that he become a physician and so he left for Paris to go to medical school. Berlioz has left a hair raising description of what the dissecting rooms and medical education of the times were, he was sickened by them and decided that he was to become a composer. His ambition was such that he composed two major works before he had a formal musical training the Messe Sollennelle and an unfinished opera Les Francs- Juges (the mass which has tunes that show up in other Berlioz works was found in i990 after being missing for 165 years, the opera was destroyed except for an overture with the same name he put together from some of its themes.


Berlioz convinced his father that he wasn’t going to be a doctor and asked for his support in attending the Paris Conservatoire. When he entered the school he was 22 nearly a decade older than the average freshman. He studied with eminent composers like Reicha and Le Sueur but his fiery nature crossed swords with the terrifying figure of the schools director the great composer Luigi Cherubini. In 1828 he completed the Seven Scenes from Goethe’s Faust his first opus that was later to be incorporated into the dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust. In 1828 he was introduced to Shakespeare when he attended a performance by a traveling troop of actors from England featuring a beautiful Irish actress Harriet Smithson, Shakespeare and Miss Smithson inflamed him and he fell madly (I mean madly) in love with her. Throughout his life he became infatuated by women who were simple in nature and were terrified by his intense manic often one sided love. Berlioz artistic response to this madness was to write his great revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique. This work a program symphony that in its harmony, orchestration and structure had no precedent in music, had a ‘story’ that involved a young artist insanely in love with a perfidious young women who whilst taking opium and believes in his delirious dreams that he murders her, then is executed and sent to hell. The beloved is represented by a theme “a fixed idea” that transforms itself throughout the work. This device of a unifying musical theme was to have great influence in music for the next seventy years (Berlioz finally convinced the poor women to marry him they were miserable and the only positive thing to come out of it was his son Louis). Berlioz wrote a sequel to Symphonie Fantastique entitled Leilo a few years later wherein the hero recovers from his opium “trip” and narrates a dramatic monologue that ties together a group of vocal and choral pieces, a truly mad work.


Berlioz won the coveted Prix de Rome which allowed for further subsidized study in Rome. Berlioz hated modern Rome but was entranced by the remnants of Ancient and Renaissance Italy. The immediate inspiration of this trip was his second programmatic symphony Harold in Italy based loosely on Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold. It was written as a piece for viola and orchestra for the legendary violinist Paganini. While Berlioz was in Italy he became involved in another romantic escapade, before Miss Smithson married him he fell in love before his Roman sojourn with a young lady Camille Molke, while in Italy her mother married her off to another man, Pleyel a piano manufacturer, Berlioz in his Memoirs wrote that he seriously planned to return to Paris and shoot and our poison, mother, daughter and suitor and then kill himself. He evidently changed his mind when he returned to Paris.


Paganini initially rejected Harold in Italy, in all probability because what was supposed to be a concerto became a symphony with viola obbligato. Paganini when he heard the piece was so moved by the piece that he declared Berlioz to be Beethoven’s heir and gave him a gift of 20,000 francs. He wrote his first opera Benvenuto Cellini about the great Renaissance sculptor which despite superb music has never permanently held the stage in either it’s original or revised version. The next year Berlioz was commissioned to write a requiem to commemorate a French colonial military disaster in Algeria, the result was the Grand Messe de Marts a stupendous work for 500 or more performers that is most famous for an episode that depicts the Last Judgment with four brass choirs resounding through each quadrant of the church as sixteen tympani thunder beneath representing the opening of the earth. The work also has many beautiful quiet moments was first performed in the Church of Les InvalIdes in Paris the site of Napoleon’s tomb. Paganini’s gift enabled Berlioz and his family to have some secure income and gave him the time to concentrate on his next great work the Dramatic Symphony Romeo et Juliette for chorus, solo voices and orchestra. This work is a symphony in name only and is in truth a gigantic cantata that has episodes like the orchestral love scene and Romeo alone that are of unsurpassable beauty. In the audience of the premiere was the young Richard Wagner who was greatly inspired by the score, echoes of which can be heard in his Tristan und Isolde written twenty years later.


Berlioz in 1840 composed another one of his monumental patriotic “public” works the Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale for a huge brass band and chorus to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 1830 revolution. During the 1840’s besides his work as a prominent music critic Berlioz had considerable success as a conductor throughout Europe. He established his reputation as a pedagogue by writing his Treatise on Orchestration which became the standard text on the subject. In the late 1840’s he expanded his early Seven Pieces on Goethe’s Faust to the dimensions of his great dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust. Other well known pieces from this era include the Corsair Overture and the famed Roman Carnival Overture based on themes from Benvenuto Cellini .he was also to write the song cycle Le Nuits d’ete. His personal affairs were complex as ever, after his estrangement from Harriet Smithson he lived with and later married the singer Marie Recio.


The next decade began with the composition of the Requiem’s mighty sister work the Te Deum for multiple choruses and a huge orchestra (the closing chorus of Judex Ergo is terrifying in its power). Berlioz during this period becomes the spiritual father of the “Music of the Future” movement spearheaded by Liszt and Wagner. Berlioz was somewhat uncomfortable with this tag; he became more musically conservative as he grows older and while he was a close friend of Liszt he had an ambiguous relationship professionally and personally with Wagner. In the mid 1850’s he wrote an untypical work for him the three Part Oratorio L’enfance du Christ a deeply moving triptych that depicts three episodes of Christ’s birth and infancy scored for a chamber orchestra chorus and soloists that barely speak above a whisper. Berlioz as we have noted was deeply in love with the Latin classics since childhood was now to embark on his magnum opus Les Troyens based on Virgil’s Aeneid. This opera in two parts lasting four hours or more covered first the capture of Troy, the second part Aeneid’s voyage with remnants of his army to Carthage where he falls in love and then abandons their queen Dido. This work which is so monumental in scope and requires a huge production took over a century before it started to receive adequate performances. Berlioz’s attempts to mount the work in the Paris Opera caused him great grief and heart ache (the famed composer and friend of Berlioz Gounod bitterly quipped that like his namesake the Trojan leader Hector he fell at the walls of Troy). The bitterness was accentuated when the Paris Opera performed Wagner’s Tannhauser. Berlioz glee at its failure is one of the few examples where his noble character is put in a bad light. He was to conclude his career in 1862 with a total change of change of pace with a short delicate comic opera Beatrice et Benedict based on Shakespeare’s Much ado About Nothing.


Berlioz began to age rapidly as he reached sixty and suffered from severe intestinal pains which withered him physically. He retired as a music critic in 1864.The last major event in life was a tour of Russia in 1867 that inspired their young nationalist composers to view him as their hero (the cold he noted to friends nearly finished him off).Berlioz son Louis became an officer for a merchant sailing company and died in Havana in 1867 of malaria while on duty, this loss deeply affected Berlioz and was a final blow. Berlioz in the interim had lost both of his wives Marie quite suddenly and Harriet suffering from severe alcoholism died from a stroke. As mentioned he reunited with his boyhood love Estelle now old women in Lyons. She was somewhat bewildered why this famous man was lavishing all this attention on her. In 1868 he had a bad fall on the rocks in Nice precipitating a stroke; he never recovered and died on March 8TH 1869.


Berlioz with the exception of Wagner lived the most colorful of all the major composers. If he wasn’t a great composer he would have been remembered as the first great virtuoso conductor or for his brilliance as a writer on musical subjects along with his incomparable Memoirs. Berlioz is still a controversial composer some people as with Mahler seem to have a gene that makes them allergic to his music. What I and many others view as grandeur and tremendous daring is viewed by others as megalomania and vulgarity. The paradox was that he was an ultra romantic yet was a great classicist whose great models were Shakespeare, Gluck and Beethoven. Berlioz always had committed interpreters on recordings, they were to include Toscanini, Hamilton Harty, Sir Thomas Beecham, Charles Munch and above all Sir Colin Davis whose recordings of nearly his complete works is a monument in the history of recordings.

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