of Berlioz by Signol, 1832Louis 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
Berlioz, by Alphonse
LegrosBerlioz 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
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 after he saw Harold in Italy
performed live as the money was intended as a reward for writing a viola
piece for the violin virtuoso to perform as 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 the glory
of France in comparison to such figures as Andre Malraux, Jean Jaures,
and Alexandre Dumas. In his land of birth, Berlioz still remains something
of the neglected prophet.
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
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 compositions.
Next to Beethoven, Berlioz worshipped Christoph Willibald Gluck, Etienne
Mehul, Carl Maria von Weber, and Gaspare Spontini.
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.
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.
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:
visits of Berlioz, there was no Russian music. His was the
paradigm that inspired the genre. Tchaikovsky raided the Symphonie fantastique
like a tuck-shop for his third symphony. Mussorgsky died with a copy
of the Berlioz Treatise on his bed. 
7 February Louis Berlioz, a young doctor from La Côte Saint André
in the Département of Isère, and Marie-Antoinette-Josephine,
daughter of Nicolas Marmion, a lawyer from Meylan, are married in her
home town on. She is 18 years old, he is 27.
is born at 5.00pm on 11 December at No. 83 rue nationale, La Côte
Saint-André and is baptised in the chapel of the Church of Saint
André (14 December). His paternal grand-father Nicolas Marmion
and great-grand-mother Sophie Brochier are, respectively, his god-father
Dr and Madame Berlioz
will have five other children of whom two will reach adulthood, Nanci
ca 1811 Following
the closure of the local seminary, Dr Louis Berlioz takes charge of
his son’s education.
ca 1815 Berlioz
receives his first communion in spring where he undergoes his first
Berlioz learns to
read Virgil in the original Latin and translate it into French under
his father’s tuition.
learns to play the flageolet; earliest attempts at composition.
of two quintets for flute and strings. A theme from one of them is reused
later in the overture to Les Francs-Juges.
January Dr Berlioz buys a flute and later a guitar for his son who begins
lessons on the instrument with his new teacher Dorant.
1821 Berlioz is
made bachelier ès lettres at Grenoble on 22 March.
He departs for Paris
to read medicine in late October.
First visit to the
Opéra, where he sees a performance of Gluck’s masterpiece
Iphigénie en Tauride (November). Shortly after he writes to his
sister Nanci about this first experience.
decides to devote himself to music. He is introduced by a friend to
Lesueur, director of the Royal Chapel and professor at the Paris Conservatoire,
who gives him encouragement.
writes his very first article at the age of 20, in the form of a letter
to the journal Le Corsaire, which is published in the issue of 12 August
During a visit to
La Côte in spring and early summer his family fails to make him
abandon his interest in music, he wins over his father but his mother
Composition of Estelle
et Némorin (now lost); the libretto is by Hyacinthe-Christophe
Gerono, after Florian’s poem of the same title.
During the winter
he writes an oratorio entitled Le Passage de la mer Rouge (The Crossing
of the Red Sea; now lost) and shows it to Lesueur, who admits him as
one of his private pupils.
1824 He is made
Bachelier ès sciences physiques (12 January).
He finally abandons
medicine and embarks on a career in music.
In December he attends
a performance of Der Freischütz at the Odéon Theatre; this
is Berlioz’s first acquaintance with the music of Weber.
His Messe solennelle
is successfully performed at Saint-Roch on 10 July. The autograph score,
believed to have been destroyed by him in 1827, is miraculously discovered
in 1992 in a chest in the Church of St Carolus Borromeus in Antwerp.
Berlioz starts working
on an opera, Les Francs-Juges, on a libretto by his friend Humbert Ferrand.
During the winter
he composes La Révolution grecque (La Scène héroïque).
is eliminated from the preliminary round of the Prix de Rome competition,
his fugue submitted for consideration is unsuccessful (early July).
He enrols at the
Conservatoire in classes of Lesueur and Reicha (October).
He completes Les
Francs-Juges in October. The libretto is later rejected by the Opéra
of the Symphonie fantastique (January-April).
He starts a relationship
with Camille Moke, a young talented pianist. This is, it seems, his
first relationship with a woman. They are subsequently engaged.
Berlioz meets Liszt,
who has attended the concert; it is the beginning of a long friendship
between the two men which continues until the late 1850s. Later Liszt,
who will champion Berlioz for years to come, transcribes the Symphonie
fantastique for piano.
in Rome for the first time; they will meet again some years later when
Berlioz goes on his first concert tour in Germany (1843).
He writes an autobiographical
sketch, the first he is known to have written, which forms the basis
of an article on him by his friend Joseph d’Ortigue, published
on 23 December in the Revue de Paris.
1833 After a prolonged
and (for Berlioz) painful courtship, Hector and Harriet marry on 3 October
at the British Embassy in Paris; Liszt is one of the witnesses; Berlioz’s
friend Thomas Gounet pays for the expenses. Berlioz and his bride spend
a short honeymoon in Vincennes near Paris. The marriage takes place
against the vehement opposition of Berlioz’s family, except for
his younger sister, Adèle.
and Harriet’s son Louis is born on 14 August. Berlioz’s
younger sister Adèle is the little boy’s godmother.
mother dies on 18 February.
1841 Berlioz starts
his relationship with the singer Marie Recio.
his wife Harriet separate; he moves in with Marie Recio in her flat
at 41 rue de Provence; Harriet continues to live at 43 and then 65 rue
Blanche. From now on Berlioz will maintain two households; he continues
to provide for Harriet and, a few years later when she becomes seriously
ill, he pays for all her medical expenses as well.
sister Nanci dies of breast cancer on 4 May.
of Spontini (24 January).
Smithson dies on 3 March and is buried the next day in the Cimetière
Saint-Vincent, a small cemetery in Montmartre. Later in 1864 she will
be moved to Montmartre Cemetery, to her final resting place which she
will share with Berlioz and his second wife Marie Recio.
1856 In July
and August he visits Plombières (to take waters on his doctor’s
advice) and Baden-Baden for the annual concerts.
Berlioz and Marie
move to 4 rue de Calais in October; this will be Berlioz’s last
domicile in Paris till his death.
Onset of an intestinal
illness from which he will suffer for the rest of his life and which
will progressively get worse.
younger sister Adèle dies of heart-related illness on 2 March,
shortly after being visited by Berlioz. She is buried in Vienne where
she has been living with her husband and two daughters.
of Béatrice et Bénédict, loosely based on Shakespeare’s
Much ado about nothing; both libretto and score are by Berlioz himself.
The autograph score is dated 25 February 1862.
Death of Halévy
(17 March); Berlioz fails in his application to succeed him as permanent
secretary of the Académie des beaux-arts.
second wife, Marie Recio, dies of a heart attack on 13 June at the age
of 48, while staying with some friends at Saint-Germain near Paris.
She is buried at Montmartre Cemetery on 16 June and later moved to a
private plot donated by one of Berlioz’s friends Édouard
Berlioz meets a
young woman called Amélie at Montmartre Cemetery; though she
is only 24 he comes close to her (late June).
of Béatrice et Bénédict at Baden-Baden on 9 and
11 August. Madame Charton-Demeur sings the role of Béatrice.
Berlioz gives to
Vladimir Stasov the manuscript of his Te Deum which he donates to the
municipal library of St-Petersburg (11 September)
Publication of À
Travers Chants (September).
1863 Berlioz ends
his relationship with Amélie at her request and is deeply upset
Les Troyens is dropped
by the Opéra but accepted by Carvalho, director of the newly
re-built Théâtre-Lyrique (mid February).
Visit to Weimar
in April to conduct Béatrice et Bénédict (8 and
10 April); while in Germany he also goes to Loewenberg to give a concert
there (19 April).
He conducts L’Enfance
du Christ in Strasbourg on 22 June.
Visit to Baden-Baden
in August to revive Béatrice et Bénédict in an
augmented form (14 and 18 August).
his last signed article for the Journal des débats on 8 October,
on Bizet’s opera Les Pêcheurs de perles [The Pearl Fishers].
He encounters great
difficulties in staging Les Troyens in a truncated form at the Théâtre-Lyrique.
It is eventually premièred on 4 November and runs to 21 performances
until 20 December. Madame Charton-Demeur sings the role of Didon. Paris
will wait another 140 years to see Les Troyens staged complete and without
cuts in 2003 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, on the opposite
side of the Place du Châtelet.
7. 1864-1869: Final
Arrangement of the
Marche troyenne as a concert piece (January).
remains are moved to the cemetery in Montmartre from the Saint Vincent
Cemetery which was due for demolition (3 February or 3 March).
resigns as music critic of the Journal des débats (end March).
Death of Meyerbeer
Berlioz adds the
Postface to the Memoirs (first half of July)
Berlioz is made
Officier de la Légion d’honneur at the same time as his
friend Legouvé (12 August).
On 22 August, Berlioz
hears from a friend that Amélie, who was suffering from poor
health, had died at the age of 26. A week later, while walking in the
Montmartre Cemetery, Berlioz discovers Amélie’s grave;
she had been dead for six months. He is devastated.
to Dauphiné to visit relatives: Adèle’s family in
Vienne (30 August), Camille Pal (Nanci’s husband) in Grenoble
(ca. 18 September). He revisits Meylan (22 September) and the next day
meets Estelle Fornier in Lyon for the first time in over 40 years. He
begins a regular correspondence with her.
The final section
of the Memoirs, the Trip to Dauphiné, is completed and dated
on 1 January. Berlioz sends the completed text to the publishers.
Completion of the
printing of the Memoirs (1200 copies, on 29 July). Berlioz sends a copy
to Estelle Fornier; the remaining copies are stored in his office at
the Conservatoire awaiting posthumous publication (a copy of this early
print is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris,
and another in the Hector Berlioz Museum in La Côte).
Visit to Estelle
Fornier in Geneva (18-25 August), followed by visits to his brothers-in-law
Camille Pal in Grenoble (ca. 25-29 August) and Marc Suat in Vienne (29
Berlioz meets Liszt
for the last time (21 April).
Last meeting with
his son Louis (early August).
Visit to Estelle
Fornier in Geneva (15-19 September).
of Gluck’s Alceste at the Opéra (first performance on 12
October). During the preceding months Berlioz had supervised the rehearsals
(from July onwards).
Death of Joseph
d’Ortigue, one of Berlioz’s closest friends (20 November).
Visit to Cologne
to give a concert (26 February).
His son Louis, who
was commander of a merchant ship, dies of yellow fever in Havana on
5 June; Berlioz only receives the news on 29 June and is devastated.
In his study at
the Conservatoire Berlioz destroys a large number of papers and memorabilia
associated with his career (mid July).
Berlioz draws up
his will (29 July).
He visits Adèle’s
family in Vienne in August and Estelle Fornier in St Symphorien, where
she now lives with her son and his family, in September. The visit on
9 September is the last time that he sees her.
He accepts an invitation
from Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna to make a concert tour in Russia (18
Departure from Paris
for Russia (12 November).
to Paris from Russia exhausted (17 February).
Last trip to Nice
early in March, where Berlioz suffers two falls. He
adds a codicil to his will.
In August he visits
Grenoble for the last time to address a choral festival.
March: Berlioz dies at his Paris home No. 4 rue de Calais at 30 minutes
past midday. His faithful servant, his mother-in-law Madame Martin and
his devoted friends Ernest Reyer and Madame Charton-Demeur are with
him in his final hours. The funeral service is held at the Église
de la Trinité (11 March). He joins his two wives at Montmartre