Louis Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer best known for the Symphonie fantastique, first performed in 1830, and for his Grande Messe des morts Requiem of 1837, with its tremendous resources that include four antiphonal brass choirs.
Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, between Lyon and Grenoble. His father was a physician, and young Hector was sent to Paris to study medicine at the age of eighteen. Berlioz was horrified by the process of dissection, and, despite his father's disapproval, he abandoned his career path in medicine to study music a year later. He then attended the Paris Conservatoire studying opera and composition.
He became identified early on with the French romantic movement. Among his friends were writers such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Honoré de Balzac. Later, Théophile Gautier wrote, "Hector Berlioz seems to me to form with Hugo and Delacroix, the Trinity of Romantic Art."
Berlioz is said to have been innately romantic, experiencing emotions deeply from early childhood. This manifested itself in his weeping at passages of Virgil as a child, and later in a series of love affairs. At the age of 23, his unrequited (at first) love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Constance Smithson was the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique. In 1830, the same year as the symphony's premiere, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome.
Berlioz's letters were considered so overly passionate by Smithson that she initially refused his advances. The symphony which these emotions are said to inspire was received as startling and vivid. The autobiographic nature of this piece of program music was also considered sensational at the time. After his return to Paris from his two years study in Rome, he finally married Smithson when she had finally attended a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. She quickly realized that it was his depiction of his passionate letters to her. However, after only a few years, the relationship quickly fell apart. (Kamien 242)
During his lifetime, Berlioz was more famous as a conductor than a composer. He regularly toured Germany and England where he conducted operas and symphonic music, both his own and music composed by others. He met virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini a few times and, according to Berlioz's memoirs, Paganini offered him 20,000 francs. With this money, Berlioz could quit for a while his work as a critic and wrote "Roméo et Juliette" , whose "love scene" remained Berlioz' favourite piece of his own.
Hector Berlioz is buried in the Cimetiere de Montmartre with his two wives, Harriet Smithson (died 1854) and Marie Recio (died 1862).
The music of Berlioz enjoyed a revival during the 1960s and 1970s, due in large part to the efforts of British conductor Colin Davis, who recorded his entire oeuvre, bringing a number of Berlioz's lesser-known works to the light. Davis's recording of Les Troyens was the first complete recording of that work. The work, which Berlioz never saw staged in its entirety during his life, is now revived regularly.
In 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth, a proposal was made to remove his remains to the Panthéon, but it was blocked by President Jacques Chirac in a political dispute over Berlioz's worthiness as a symbol of a republican, since Berlioz, who regularly met kings and princes, had severely criticized the 1848 revolution, speaking of the "odious and stupid republic". On an other hand, Berlioz had wished to remain buried close to his wife, and removing his remains would not have respected this will.In his land of birth, Berlioz still remains something of the neglected prophet.
A movement of Carnival of the Animals composed in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saëns, L'Éléphant, uses a theme from Hector Berlioz's Dances des sylphes played on a double bass.
Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and many of his best compositions are inspired by literary works. For Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz was inspired by Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. For La damnation de Faust, Berlioz drew on Goethe's Faust; for Harold in Italy, he drew on Byron's Childe Harold; for Benvenuto Cellini, he drew on Cellini's own autobiography. For Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz turned, of course, to Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. For his magnum opus, the monumental opera Les Troyens, Berlioz turned to Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid. For his last opera, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz prepared a libretto based loosely on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
Apart from the many literary influences, Berlioz also championed Beethoven who was at the time unknown in France. The performance of the "Eroica" symphony in Paris seems to have been a turning point for Berlioz's compositionsÉtienne Méhul, Carl Maria von Weber, and Gaspare Spontini.
Works of music and literature
In addition to the Symphonie Fantastique, some other works of Berlioz currently in the standard orchestral repertoire include his "légende dramatique" La damnation de Faust and "symphonie dramatique" Roméo et Juliette (symphony) (both large-scale works for mixed voices and orchestra), the song cycle Les nuits d'été (originally for voice and piano, later with an orchestral accompaniment), and his symphonic viola concerto Harold in Italy.
The unconventional music of Berlioz irritated the established concert and opera scene. Berlioz had to arrange for his own performances as well as pay for them himself. This took a heavy toll on him financially and emotionally. He had about 1,200 loyal attendants to his performances who guaranteed ticket sales, but the nature of his large works—involving hundreds of performers—made financial success difficult. His journalistic abilities became essential for him to make a living and he survived as a witty critic emphasizing the importance of drama and expressivity in musical entertainment. (Kamien 243)
While Berlioz is best known as a composer, he was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years writing musical criticism. He wrote in a bold, vigorous style, at times imperious and sarcastic. Evenings With the Orchestra (1852) is a scathing satire of provincial musical life in 19th century France. Berlioz's Memoirs (1870) paints a magisterial portrait of the Romantic era through the eyes of one of its chief protagonists.
A pedagogic work, The Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, established his reputation as a master of orchestration. The work was closely studied by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss and served as the foundation for a subsequent textbook by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who as a music student attended the concerts Berlioz conducted in Moscow and St Petersburg. Music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote:
Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. Mcgraw-Hill College; 3rd edition (August 1, 1997) ISBN 0070365210