Louis Hector Berlioz

Louis Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a French composer, conductor, and music critic. His works contributed to the burgeoning romanticism and influenced orchestral techniques for more than a century.

Hector Berlioz is the epitome of the romantic artist, together with the writer Victor Hugo and the painter Eugène Delacroix. Berlioz helped to break old molds and create new forms full of strong contrasts of passion and emotion. He ranks indubitably as one of the most original creative musicians of all time.

Berlioz was born at La-Côte-Saint-André (Isère) on Dec. 9, 1803, the son of a doctor. His father, a cultured man, was his first teacher. Berlioz formed his lifelong attachment to the poetry of Virgil at this time. From the age of 12 he took music lessons; he studied flute and then guitar, and these were the only instruments he ever played. After reading some treatises on harmony he began to compose.

Musical Life in Paris

After matriculating at Grenoble in 1821, Berlioz continued his university studies at Paris in medicine for a year. But medicine did not interest him, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into Parisian musical life, frequenting the opera and studying scores, especially those of Christoph Willibald Gluck, Gasparo Spontini, and Carl Maria von Weber, at the Conservatory library. He became a student of Jean François Lesueur, a teacher at the Conservatory, from whom he learned to experiment in program music. By 1823 Berlioz was also working as a critic on Le Corsaire and composing. His first efforts went quite badly: two attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome resulted in failure, and his new works suffered from bad performances.

In 1826 Berlioz entered the Conservatory. His father suspended his allowance, and Berlioz subsisted by singing in a theater chorus, writing a few articles, and giving lessons in flute and solfeggio. Despite this, his creative output flourished, and in 1828 he presented a concert of his own music at the Conservatory, including the Waverley Overture; excerpts from an opera, Les Francs-Juges; a cantata, La Révolution grecque; the Resurrexit from a Mass; another cantata, La Mort d'Orphée; and the Marche des rois Mages.

In the meantime Berlioz became passionately fond of the works of Shakespeare, especially performances of his plays by an English dramatic company, one of whose members was the actress Harriett Smithson, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. He also read a great deal in English romantic literature. Another important influence was the symphonies of Beethoven—his last and greatest musical discovery.

Berlioz's final literary discovery was Goethe; inspired by this poet, he composed Huit scènes de Faust in 1829, had the score published at his own expense, and sent it to Goethe. Goethe's musical adviser condemned it vociferously, and Goethe never replied to Berlioz.

A third try at the Prix de Rome with his cantata Herminie et Tancrède earned Berlioz the second prize. A fourth try with the cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre was not successful, but his fame was furthered by another concert of his works at the Conservatory. A critical moment occurred in 1830, the year of his Symphonie fantastique, when on his fifth try he won the coveted Prix de Rome with his cantata Sardanapale.

Roman Period

In the meantime, after an unhappy attempt to communicate his affections to Harriett Smithson, Berlioz turned to the pianist Marie Mok and proposed marriage to her. He left for Rome early in 1831 for a 2-year stay at the Villa Medici, promising to return at the end of that time to marry Marie. A little later he learned that she had married someone else and decided to rush to Paris to kill her and then himself. He changed his mind after getting as far as Nice and turned back to Rome.

Rome pleased him very little, but of his impressions of Italy were born the symphony Harold en Italie and the opera Benvenuto Cellini. During his stay in Rome he composed or finished several works— the overtures Le Corsaire, Rob Roy, and Le Roi Lear and the melologue Lélio, ou Le retour àla vie—plus works required under the rules of the Prix de Rome.

Years in Paris

Berlioz returned to Paris in 1832, where a concert of his works was given that included the Symphonie fantastique and Lélio. He met Harriett Smithson again; despite the opposition of his parents, he married her in 1833. The marriage was not a happy one. Harriett, no longer acting, became irritable and jealous and took to drinking.

Berlioz advanced as a critic, writing for a variety of journals. Although fairly well-paid for his musical criticism, he was in constant financial difficulties. He did not belong to the official musical circles; hence he had to go into debt to finance his concerts. All in all, through 1838 his life remained hard. During this period, however, there were performances of Harold en Italie, the Grande Messe des morts (Requiem), and Benvenuto Cellini. The failure of this opera was a bitter blow to Berlioz, who was ambitious for success as an opera composer.

On Dec. 16, 1838, however, at a concert of his works, Berlioz was honored and praised by the eminent violinist Niccolo Paganini, who later sent him a gift of 20,000 francs. This helped establish Berlioz's fame and redressed his economic situation in a definitive manner. Berlioz's appointment to the Conservatory library staff also contributed to his financial security. Successful performances followed of his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, at which Richard Wagner was present as an admirer, and of his Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale for chorus and band.

European Travels

A notable turn in Berlioz's career occurred in 1842 with the beginning of his trips outside France. He made a triumphal tour of Germany in the company of Maria Recio, a mediocre singer, with whom he became friendly after falling out with his wife. Trips to Austria-Hungary in 1845-1846 and to Russia in 1847 were not only musically successful but economically fruitful. There followed a trip to London in 1852 and to Weimar, Germany, in 1855, where Franz Liszt organized a Berlioz week.

Berlioz's principal compositions up to 1855 are the overture Le Carnaval romain; the dramatic legend La Damnation de Faust; a Te Deum for three choruses, orchestra, and organ; and the oratorio L'Enfance du Christ. He also published his important treatise on instrumentation, as well as books describing his travels in Germany and Italy. During this period Berlioz was passed over for the post of director of the Conservatory. His wife died in 1854; shortly afterward he married Maria Recio.

Last Works

During the years 1856-1858 Berlioz worked on his masterpiece, the opera Les Troyens, based on Virgil's epic. Between 1861 and 1862 he wrote his last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, which he conducted at a festival at Baden-Baden, although ill and distraught over the sudden death of his second wife.

In 1863 Les Troyens was performed at the Theâtre Lyrique in a drastically shortened form. Berlioz died in Paris on March 8, 1869, and it was only after his death that Les Troyens was given in its entirety.

Further Reading on Louis Hector Berlioz

Humphrey Searle translated Hector Berlioz: A Selection from His Letters (1966). Many of Berlioz's writings appear in English translation; see especially the translations by Jacques Barzun, Evenings with the Orchestra (1956), and by David Cairns, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (1969). The best general work on Berlioz is Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and His Century (2 vols., 1950; 3d ed., 1 vol., 1969). Two older biographies are also useful: W. J. Turner, Berlioz: The Man and His Works (1934), and Tom S. Wotton, Hector Berlioz (1935). Both the Barzun and Turner studies contain detailed information about Berlioz's compositions. For general historical background see Romain Rolland, Musicians of Today (trans. 1928), and Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1943; 2d rev. ed. 1961).