Hector Berlioz

Information Biography and Works
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General Information

  • Birthdate:11/12/1803
  • Deathdate:08/03/1869
  • Nationality:France


Berlioz: Portrait of a Romantic Musician

Hector Berlioz, who was a composer, conductor, brilliant music critic and eminent music theoretician, should have been a doctor. That is what is father wanted, who was himself a doctor in a small town in the Isère, La Côte Saint-André, where Louis-Hector Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803. Of his five brothers and sisters, only two survived: Nanci, born in 1806, and Adèle, born in 1814.

His childhood in La Côte Saint-André was marked by the glory days of the Napoleonic saga that may be the source of the epic feeling that many of the future musician’s compositions convey.

The Turbulent Life of a Young Romantic Musician

Young Hector took to reading at an early age. He was carried away by Chateaubriand and the “ambiguity of passions” and by a pastorale by Florian, Estelle et Némorin, which he read and reread, falling in love with the heroine. In 1815, the real world met the imaginary world when Hector, at the age of 12, met and was dazzled by an 18-year-old girl, Estelle Duboeuf. He described her in his Mémoires: “She had an elegant, high waist, large eyes ready for war albeit always smiling, hair worthy of adorning Achilles’ helmet, feet – I will not say Andalusian, but rather pure-blooded Parisian – and pink lace boots!I had never seen such a thing…. You laugh! Well, I have forgotten the colour of her hair (I think it was black, however), but I cannot think of her without seeing her pink lace boots sparkling in time with her big eyes.” All of Berlioz is there, between exaltation and the fever of love, with all the literary talent that will make his musical articles and his Mémoires incomparably rich. This Estelle was to become a theme running through his entire life. He composed a melody for her written to verses from Estelle et Némorin, which became the opening motif in the Symphonie fantastique. She also inspired the theme of the idée fixe of this same symphony. He rediscovered her at the end of his life, when she was married, a 70-year-old mother and grandmother. Berlioz ended his Mémoires with an evocation of Estelle, his “star”, in 1865. 

Hector  Berlioz quickly gave himself over to another passion, music. He started with the flute, studied treatises on harmony, and began composing: at 15, he signed his first work, a Pot-pourri concertant sur des themes italiens for flute, horn, two violins, viola and cello. Dr Berlioz did nothing to encourage this inclination, and Hector had to enrol in the Paris School of Medicine in November 1821. A rather unmotivated student, Berlioz often deserted the amphitheatres for the opera, where he discovered Salieri, Spontini, Méhul and especially Gluck. He spent a great deal of time at the Conservatory library, where he studied all sorts of scores. He composed ballads, Le dépit de la bergère, Pleure, pleure, pauvre Colette and le Maure jaloux. In 1823,  Berlioz became the pupil of Jean-François Le Sueur (1763-1837). He planned an opera based on Estelle et Némorin, decided to enter the Conservatory and gave up medicine for good.

In 1824, Berlioz wrote a Messe solennelle for the Church of Saint-Roch. As he had no money to bring together the singers and instrumentalists he needed to perform it, he unsuccessfully asked for a loan from…  Chateaubriand! Fortunately, an ardent music lover, Augustin Pons, made it possible for Berlioz to perform the Messe solennelle: this was the first time that Berlioz heard his own music. Later, he would say that he had burned this score from his youth…. but a manuscript of it was miraculously discovered in 1991 in a Belgian church.

In late summer of 1827, whilst he was working on a work inspired by his discovery of Goethe, the Eight Scenes from Faust, which would later become La Damnation de Faust, the young man discovered Shakespeare. A London theatre company had come to perform several of the Bard’s plays in Paris. For Berlioz, it was a revelation: “Its lightning bolt, by opening up the heavens of art for me with a sublime din, cast light on the deepest depths.” This was especially true inasmuch as he was falling head-over-heels in love with the young actress playing Ophelia, Harriet Smithson, but he did not meet her. It was for her that, at age 27, he composed his Symphonie fantastique, his greatest masterpiece, first performed on 5 December 1830. Subtitled Episodes in the Life of an Artist, this autobiographical symphony expresses both the “ambiguity of Romantic passions”, ardent despair in the face of impossible love, the poetry of Nature, the delirium of the opium addict – all carried along by an unusually rich instrumentation, with instruments that were then seldom used, like harps, English horn, bells and a rhythm treatment of visionary originality.

An 18-year-old Belgian pianist, Camille Moke, soon replaced Harriet in Berlioz’s swirling heart; he asked his new “star” to marry him. Realizing that he had to establish his situation in order to convince the young lady’s mother, the musician decided to compete for the Rome Prize, which would ensure him a situation. He had already tried twice unsuccessfully, in 1826 and 1827; in 1828 he received a second Prize with his cantata Herminie, and in 1829 his Cléopâtre was rejected. In 1830, Berlioz finally won the coveted Rome Prize with a new cantata, Sardanapale, which reassured Camille’s mother as well as Hector’s father, who had not been pleased that his son abandoned his medical studies.

When he arrived at the Villa Médicis on 10 March 1831, the love-struck musician was becoming concerned he had not had news of his beloved when he received a letter from Madame Moke bluntly announcing the approaching wedding of her daughter to piano maker Camille Pleyel. Beside himself with rage, Berlioz decided to return to Paris to enter the Mokes’ home disguised as a maid, kill Camile, her mother and her future husband, and then shoot himself in the head.  But along the way he lost his disguise and, when he got to Nice, he was seized by doubt and returned to Rome, cured of his love for Camille. Out of all this came a composition initially entitled Le Retour à la vie, which would become Lélio, in which he affirms the power of music over passion. But he still had to stay a few months longer in Rome, where he was unable to compose. When it came time to send his first “work from Rome”, a duty imposed on Academy residents, he shamelessly copied the Resurrexit from his 1824 Messe solennelle, and the Institute’s members congratulated him on his “great progress”!

No Man Is a Prophet in His Own Land

Finally, he was allowed to leave Rome earlier than planned and, in November 1832, he returned to Paris. He immediately arranged a concert there that featured the Symphonie fantastique and Le Retour à la vie. Harriet, his idealised passion from 1827, attended the concert. He had never spoken to her previously. Love was reborn in Berlioz’s heart; the feeling was mutual, and despite his parents’ opposition he married his beloved on 3 October 1833 at the British embassy, with his friend Franz Liszt as witness. The young couple settled in Montmartre, and in August 1834 Harriet gave birth to a son, Louis. Berlioz composed and arranged concerts, often with support from Liszt, who was already famous. He did experience some artistic satisfactions, like his meeting with Paganini after one of these concerts. The virtuoso, charmed by Berlioz’s originality, commissioned from him a work for viola and orchestra: this was Harold en Italie. But financing was scarce: this led Berlioz to start working as a music critic, to ensure his household would have at least a regular income. He collaborated in particular with the Correspondant and the Journal des débats. But he wanted to be recognised in what was then the shrine that made or broke reputations: the Opera. At the advice of Alfred de Vigny, he decided to compose an opera on the life of Benvenuto Cellini. But his composition was interrupted by a commission from the State, for a Requiem to celebrate General Mortier, who was killed during the famous Fieschi attack, and the victims of the July Revolution. Ultimately the work was first performed at the church of Les Invalides for the funeral of General Damrémont, killed during the siege of Constantine, with some five hundred performers, which gave Berlioz a chance to present with all the theatricality he desired this musical flame that haunted him. The success was equal to the resources deployed, and the Tuba mirum in particular, with its four brass orchestras arranged around the dome was enthusiastically received.

Buoyed by this triumph, Berlioz staged his opera, Benvenuto Cellini, in 1838: unfortunately, this time he met with utter failure – despite support from Liszt and Paganini, who, some months later, after hearing the work he commissioned, Harold en Italie, gave Berlioz 20,000 francs, an incredibly generous gesture that enabled the composer to devote himself for some time exclusively to composing, particularly Roméo et Juliette, which was dedicated to the great virtuoso.

Berlioz was then 35 years old, and his entire fate was laid out.

Artistically, he continued to compose works; many of them were snubbed by audiences in France, even though they were admired by Liszt, Brahms and Paganini. For his success with Roméo et Juliette, whose first performance was attended by Wagner, who was dazzled, or L’Enfance du Christ, there was also the failure of La Damnation de Faust or Les Troyens, which was never played in full during his lifetime! Berlioz soon understood that, even if no one wanted to hear him in his own country, he could experience success abroad. He undertook his first concert tour in Germany (1842-1844) where he was eagerly acclaimed, as he describes in his Voyage musical en Allemagne. For more than a quarter-century, he travelled in that country where his music was appreciated. He went regularly to Baden-Baden where he staged his opera Béatrice et Bénédict (1862). An indefatigable traveller, the composer who was snubbed in France went to Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Russia and England: everywhere his music was admired, understood, and listened to eagerly. Nothing has changed since then! Where today is one most likely to hear Berlioz’s works? In Russia, Germany and England – the only country where almost all of his works have been recorded, and well before the bicentennial of his death.  One of the greatest Berliozian conductors was Sir Colin Davis. It is often said ironically that Berlioz is “the greatest English musician”.

The Later Years

Berlioz had to spend a good deal of his life looking for commissions, which, among other things, gave us the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840) for the transfer of the ashes of the victims of the July Revolution under the La Bastille column, and the Te Deum for the opening of the 1855 Exposition Universelle. Along with his career as composer, he had to continue his work as music critic, which not only made him one of the most respected voices of his time but today offers us a thrilling view of the musical life of the period, especially as most of these serialised pieces were collected by him into three successive collections, Les Soirées de l’orchestre, Les Grotesques de la musique and A travers chants.

At the personal level, his life was once again turned upside-down: Harriet, crippled in the wake of a bad fall, slipped gradually into alcoholism. Beginning in the 1840s, he maintained a liaison with Marie Recio, a not-very-talented singer who accompanied him on his travels and for whom, undoubtedly, he composed his lovely Nuits d’été cycle. In 1844 he separated from Harriet, but he had to wait for her to die ten years later before he married Marie Recio. And when his second wife also died in 1862, Berlioz, alone, remembered the love of his youth, Estelle of the pink lace boots, whom he returned to; she must have been rather surprised at his reappearance after a half-century. Berlioz ended his Mémoires with an evocation of Estelle, his “star”, in 1865. At the end of a life crisscrossed by multiple waves of feelings, enthusiasms, rages and at times exaggerated passions, the idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique returned, closing the circle.

The final years were overshadowed by illness, an “intestinal neurosis”, undoubtedly a cancer of the intestine, as well as by the death of his son Louis, who had become a sailor, who succumbed to yellow fever in the port of Havana. Some months later, after a final trip to Saint Petersburg, where he was feted by young composers César Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov, Berlioz died at home in Paris in his apartment on the fifth floor of rue de Calais, on 8 March 1869. That year Flaubert published L’Education sentimentale.

Catherine Duault