Name: Louis-Hector Berlioz
Born: 11 December 1803
Died: 8 March 1869
Place of birth: La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
Known for: a French composer, conductor and music critic; the epitome of the Romantic artist.
After turning his back on the expected medical career, Berlioz began to pursue a life in music. His first works weren’t successful. He composed Messe solennelle, a setting of the Catholic Solemn Mass, in 1824; It was only performed twice. During 1825 and 1826 he wrote his first opera, Les Francs-juges (The Free Judges). This was never performed and survives only in fragments. The first full concert of Berlioz’s work came in 1828. It wasn’t well attended and he lost money.
However, in 1826 he began studying at the Paris Conservatoire. The same year he made the first of four attempts to win the Prix de Rome, France’s premier music prize. He eventually won in 1830, with the cantata La Mort de Sardanapale (The Death of Sardanapalus). That same year he wrote Symphonie fantastique (Fantastical Symphony), which today is considered a seminal work in 19th-century music.
Berlioz’s entry to the Conservatoire prompted his father to cut off his allowance and throughout much of the 1830s and ’40s the composer struggled financially. He supplemented his income by writing music criticism, although touring throughout Europe provided him with another source of money.
During this time, though, he produced some impressive works, including the symphony Harold en Italie (1834), the requiem Grande messe des morts (1837) and the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839). However, an opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1838), and a choral work, La Damnation de Faust (1846), both flopped.
The 1850s were more successful for the composer. His sacred trilogy L’Enfance du Christ (Christ’s Childhood) premiered in 1854 and was an immediate success. In 1858 he was elected to the Institut de France, an honour he had long sought and one which came with a generous stipend.
It was also during this time that he worked on his great masterpiece, Les Troyens (The Trojans), writing his own libretto based on Virgil’s Aeneid. This five-act, five-hour opera was never staged in full during Berlioz’s lifetime. A truncated version consisting of the final three acts was presented at the Théâtre‐Lyrique, Paris, in November 1863. The premiere of the whole opera only took place in 1890, 21 years after Berlioz’s death.
A final opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, was written between 1860 and 1862. Based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Berlioz also wrote the French libretto of this witty two-act opéra comique. It premiered in August 1862 at Theater Baden-Baden in the German spa town of Baden-Baden in Baden-Württemberg.
Louis-Hector Berlioz, more simply known as Hector Berlioz, was born on 11 December 1803, in the commune of La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère in south-eastern France. He was the eldest child of Louis-Joseph Berlioz, a doctor of some distinction, and his wife Marie-Antoinette Joséphine (nee Marmion). Berlioz had five siblings, only two of whom – Nanci and Adèle – survived into adulthood.
The young Berlioz was educated at home by his father, who gave him his first music lessons, as well as a grounding in Latin and anatomy – Berlioz senior expected his son to follow him into the medical profession. The boy also took flute and guitar lessons with local teachers.
Following his father’s wishes, at 18 years old, Berlioz moved to Paris to study medicine at the University of Paris. Medicine wasn’t really for the young man – he was particularly repulsed by having to dissect bodies. He stuck at it, though, and in 1824 he graduated from medical school.
However, his father’s generous allowance during his studies had allowed Berlioz to enjoy the musical life of Paris and during this time he became convinced that his vocation was to be a composer and he abandoned medicine. This caused a deep rift with his father, who as punishment reduced and eventually withheld his son’s allowance.
Berlioz wasn’t especially happy in love. He tended to form passionate, even obsessive attachments to women. The first of these was Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw playing Ophelia in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His feelings weren’t returned, though, and Berlioz instead got engaged to Marie Moke, a Belgian concert pianist. However, Moke broke off their engagement and instead married Camille Pleyel.
Later, Berlioz returned to wooing Smithson and they eventually married at the British Embassy in Paris on 3 October 1833. They had a son, Louis-Clément-Thomas, on 14 August 1834. The marriage foundered and in 1844 the couple separated; divorce was illegal at the time. Berlioz became involved with French opera singer Marie Recio, whom he married in 1854 following Smithson’s death.
Berlioz died in Paris on 8 March 1869.
Did you know?
Berlioz’s musical life represented the archetypal tragic struggle of new ideas for acceptance and his genius only came to full recognition in the 20th century.
Berlioz is best remembered for Grande messe des morts; Symphonie fantastique, a hallmark of Romantic composition; L’Enfance du Christ; and Les Troyens.
Hector Berlioz photographed in 1863 by Pierre Petit (via Wikimedia Commons).