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Classical Composers A-Z: Hector Berlioz

Peter Wintersgill continues his series of "potted'' biographies of clasical composers with this word portrait of a giant of the French musical scene.

Born
11th December, 1803, at La Cote St. Andre, near Grenoble.

Father
Louis Joseph, doctor, prominent citizen, once mayor.

Mother
Marie Antoinette Josephine.

Family
Two younger sisters, Nancy and Adele, younger brother Prosper.

Childhood
Education started by father, including music. Read a lot, especially travel books and Virgil. Fell in love at 12 with Estelle, then 18.

Adolescence
Started music lessons with Imbert aged 13, who taught him the flute. Later with another teacher, Dorant, he learnt the guitar. He never learnt the piano. During his teens he started to compose chamber works, but never returned to them in later life. He entered the Paris medical school aged 17 but left after 3 years, at which time he wrote a Mass.

Early Adult Life
He enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire aged 22, where he studied with Leseur. During this time he wrote his first opera and joined the chorus at a nearby theatre. He continued to read widely, becoming especially keen on Goethe and Shakespeare, whose plays he went to see. His favourite composers were Gluck and especially Beethoven, whose influence can be seen in his early works. In 1827 he went to see Hamlet, in which there was an English actress called Harriet Smithson; he not only admired her acting, but felt very attracted to her. He therefore made a point of seeing her again, to him she appeared almost ethereal and unattainable. In the meantime he had a much more down to earth affair with Camille, a fellow music teacher. Berlioz was a very introverted, rather neurotic young man; later in life he was to become mentally unstable. After several attempts he finally won the Prix de Rome, a very valuable scholarship, in 1830. After admiring Harriet from a distance for some time, he finally met her, after a prolonged courtship he married her in 1833, to the dismay of his family, who considered actresses a very low form of life. The story of his life and courtship were put into musical terms in his Symphony Fantastique, which he sub-titled "Episodes in the life of an artist". The piece uses an idee fixe, a theme which is repeated in each successive movement. This well known work was praised by Schumann in his journal. Another well known work, Harold in Italy, appeared in 1834, based on Byron's Child Harold. It had a prominent part for viola, originally intended for Paganini, who never played it, despite paying him 20,000 francs, a large sum in those days.
The same year his son Louis was born. His continued interest in Shakespeare led to a dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, which was admired by Wagner, he also admired his Grand Messe des Morts (Requiem) for four brass bands, chorus and orchestra, produced in 1837.

Later Adult Life
Several other works emerged around this time, the opera Benevenuto Cellini (1838) which was a failure, the song cycle Nuit d'Ete and the Symphony Funebre et Triomphale for massed bands, both in 1840. There were two deaths in the family, his brother Prosper in 1839 and his mother in 1838. His marriage was rather shaky, not helped by a continuing affair with Marie, a young singer, at one point he had a home with her to support, as well as his marital home. After Harriet's death in 1854 he married Marie. At this time, indeed throughout his professional life, he travelled widely, thus he visited Russia, London and Prague, staying in each for varying periods, conducting his own works as well as those of his hero, Beethoven.

He also wrote his memoirs, a book on orchestration, as well as sundry articles, reviews, etc. He disliked writing, but was good at it and found it a useful source of income. In 1845 he wrote the cantata The Damnation of Faust, which was a failure. In 1848 his father died and his sister Nancy in 1850. He wrote his Te Deum in 1849, His oratorio L' Enfance du Christ in 1854 and the massive opera Les Troyens occupied him from 1856 to 1859. The libretto, which he wrote himself, was based on Shakespeare and Virgil. The whole work lasted for five hours, and so was divided into two parts; part II was produced in 1863, but part I not till after his death in 1890. In spite of being a failure at the time, it later gained in popularity, which it still has. In 1860 his other sister Adele died. Like many musicians he was highly strung and suffered nervous disorders; the chief one being described then as “intestinal neuralgia”, a very painful complaint, which we should now call either spastic colon or the irritable bowel syndrome; it became more severe as he got older.

In 1982 he wrote his final work, the comic opera Beatrice and Benedict, based on Shakepeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This was, as it were, his final fling, he enjoyed its gestation and birth, it was one bright spot to brighten the last decade of his life.
The other bright spot was the increased closeness of the relationship with his son Louis, whereas previously father and son had been separated, both geographically and otherwise. The boy was serving in the navy and so was often far away’ however during a spell near home, there grew a greater understanding between them, each coming to take the other’s views into consideration. This apart, his last few years became increasingly dull and miserable, he felt very lonely and fed up, amounting at times to a state of depression, increased by more frequent bouts of abdominal pain. During 1866/67 he travelled to Vienna to conduct his Damnation of Faust, and did a short conducting tour of Russia. A dark spot was the death of Louis in Havana from yellow fever at the age of only 33.

After increasing weakness and depression, he finally died on the 8th March 1869 in Paris aged 66.

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