Berlioz, Hector

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BERLIOZ, HECTOR (1803–1869), French composer and writer.

Louis-Hector Berlioz was born at La Côte-St.-André in the département of Isère in southeast France, the first of six children born to Louis-Joseph (a physician) and Marie-Antoinette (née Marmion) Berlioz.

Berlioz was a dashing and intriguing personality, an imaginative and innovative composer, and an erudite and perceptive music critic and journalist. Much of his reputation rests on his innovative handling of the many colors of the orchestra, and his treatise on orchestration remains an important text in the field. To many, he remains the quintessential representative of the Romantic era, for his music reflects the basic themes of Romanticism—the classics, Shakespeare's plays, love, nature, and the supernatural. His music—highly original in concept, structure, and variety of musical process—was unlike any in his time, and was not always understood or appreciated, even by some contemporary composers and musicians.

His father took charge of his early education, including studies in French and Latin literature, both of which were to significantly influence his compositions and prose writings. His musical training was quite unlike that of earlier composers; he taught himself basic music theory and his father gave him musical instruction on the flute and guitar, but he had virtually no training or competence on the customary instruments, such as the piano.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1821, he was sent (against his wishes) to the École de Médecine in Paris, where he eventually completed the baccalauréat de sciences physiques (1824). However, his passion for music soon led to his enrollment in the Conservatoire de Musique, to the dismay of his family, who hoped he would follow his father's path in medicine. He had, by then, published several musical works and some writings on music, but his rebellious nature left him continually at odds with the musical conservatism of the faculty.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Berlioz finally won the coveted Prix de Rome, which resulted in the completion of his Symphonie fantastique:Episode de la vie d'un artiste (1830; Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist). The symphony is autobiographical, based on his own passionate infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell in love at first sight while attending a play she was appearing in. It describes the many moods of a young artist who, in a fit of despondence over his passion for a woman, takes an overdose of opium to end his life. The drug induces many emotions and delusions, which are conveyed brilliantly through innovative orchestration and harmonic effects. The work's five movements also incorporate a musical theme (the idée fixe or obsessive idea) that undergoes many rhythmic manipulations, illustrating the young man's wildly conflicting emotional states about the beloved. Berlioz distributed a programme (a written description of the story) to the audience; to this day, the term program music denotes music that deals with extramusical historic or narrative events.

Berlioz's romantic nature is illustrated by his many intense and agonizing love interests, as early as his teenage years. Shortly after his first encounters with Harriet Smithson, he had a year-long affair with a beautiful (and apparently "accessible") young pianist, Camille Moke. He proposed marriage, but this came to naught, and she chose instead to wed the famous piano maker Pleyel. Berlioz's eventual marriage to Harriet (1834) produced a son, but proved disastrous, partly due to his affair with the singer Marie Recio; his later marriage to her (1854) was also unsuccessful.

Much of his mature life was spent conducting concerts of his and other composers' music throughout Europe and was widely recognized in these foreign lands. But, to his frustration, he was less successful in achieving the respect he deserved in his native country. During his many concert tours, he met and was befriended by some of the most important composers of the time—Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner—and the famous violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini.

Berlioz had been plagued for some time by a neurological condition, and in 1864 his physical and emotional health began to deteriorate. A few years after completing and revising his Mémoires (published posthumously in 1870; Memoirs), he died in Paris and was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre. His grave site was improved during the 1969 centennial of his death, and his family home in La Côte-St.-André is now the site of the Musée Berlioz.

His major vocal compositions include: several operas, Benvenuto Cellini (1838), Les Troyens (1858; The Trojans), and Béatrice et Bénédict (1862; Beatrice and Benedict); a requiem mass (1837); a Christmas oratorio, L'Enfance du Christ (1856; The Childhood of Christ); a song cycle, Les nuits d'Été (1852; Summer Nights); a Te Deum (1849); and a "Dramatic Legend," La damnation de Faust (1846; Damnation of Faust).

His principal orchestral works include: Fantastic Symphony (1830); Romeo and Juliet (1839); Harold en Italie (1834; Harold in Italy); Symphonie funebre et triomphale (1840; Grand Funeral and Triumphal Symphony); and several concert overtures, the most important of which are Waverley (1828), Le roi Lear (1831; King Lear), Rob Roy (1831), and Le carnival romain (1843; Roman Carnival).

Equally important are his many prose writings, which include concert critiques and commentaries about the musical scene in his day, many of which ring true even today. He championed those composers who he felt espoused the best musical values and ideals, and railed mercilessly about such topics as government "intrusion" into the arts, the many idiosyncrasies of performers and managers, and the gullibility and fickleness of audiences of his day. His criticisms and observations are often biting and sarcastic, but well informed and erudite, and are enriched by frequent references to French and classical literature.

The most important of the published writings are: Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie (1844; Musical Voyages in Germany and Italy); Les soirées de l'orchestra (1852; Evenings with the Orchestra); his Memoirs (published posthumously in 1870), and, of course, his Grand traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes (1843; 2nd ed., 1855; Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration).

See alsoLiszt, Franz; Music; Paganini, Niccolò; Romanticism; Wagner, Richard.


Primary Sources

Berlioz, Hector. Evenings with the Orchestra. Translated and edited with an introduction and notes by Jacques Barzun. New York, 1969. 2nd ed., Chicago, 1999.

——. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, 1803–1865. Translated by Rachel (Scott Russell) Holmes and Eleanor Holmes. Revised and annotated by Ernest New Newman. New York, 1932.

——. Selected Letters. Edited by Hugh Macdonald. Translated by Roger Nichols. New York, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Barzun, Jacques. Berlioz and the Romantic Century. 3rd ed. 2 vols. New York and London, 1969. The first extensive biography, it remains an essential source, despite some factual errors, and contains valuable information on nineteenth-century culture.

Bennett, Joseph. Hector Berlioz. London, 1884.

Bloom, Peter. The Life of Berlioz. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Cairns, David. Berlioz: The Making of an Artist. London, 1989.

Holoman, D. Kern. Berlioz. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. An important source with a very complete biographical account of Berlioz's life and his musical and social activity, with many illustrations and musical examples, as well as an annotated appendix of the composer's works.

Langford, Jeffrey, and Jane D. Graves. Hector Berlioz: A Guide to Research. New York, 1989.

Macdonald, Hugh. Berlioz. London, 1982.

——. "Berlioz," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, 579–610. Vol. 2. London, 1980.

Rose, Michael. Berlioz Remembered. London, 2001. Contains interesting observations and impressions of the composer by his contemporaries.

William E. Melin