Hector Berlioz is one of the most idiosyncratic composers of the 19th century. He was the foremost French composer at a time when the main artistic endeavours of his country were in literature and the visual arts. He had deep roots in classicism yet his music fully embodied the romantic idiom and he massively contributed to the further development of Romanticism. During his lifetime he was also considerably well known as a music critic and conductor and wrote a Treatise on Instrumentation, a milestone in the evolution of the modern orchestra.
Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André in 1803, the eldest son of a prominent doctor of great intellect and liberal outlook, who taught his son French and Latin literature, geography and gave him rudimentary lessons on the flageolet. He later went on to study flute and guitar with other teachers.
Interestingly, Berlioz never learned the piano and could not play more than a few chords. He learned harmony entirely without reference to a keyboard. As a young teenager, he began to compose ambitiously, but very little survives from this time. His musical horizons were still narrow by the time he was sent to study medicine in Paris in 1821 and he had never heard music by the major composers such as Beethoven, nor had he ever seen a full score. This changed when, within months of his arrival in Paris, he became a regular attendee at the Paris Opéra. Works by Gluck and Salieri made a lasting impression on him and he spent time at the Conservatoire library as often as he could, eventually being admitted to the composition class of Jean-François Le Sueur after being introduced to him by a friend. In was in these years that he focused on large-scale orchestral works for the first time. After eventually quitting his medical studies, he dedicated himself fulltime to music.
The year of completion of Symphony Fantastique was the same year that he won thePrix de Rome, requiring Berlioz’s residency in Italy where he spent a valuably formative 15 months. His masterpiecesLes Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict reflect the warmth and stillness of the Mediterranean.
From 1840 for the next 20 years, Berlioz made frequent trips to Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Russia and England as he believed that a much greater degree of curiosity and innovation in music was taking place abroad than in France. In Germany he met Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wagner. Berlioz was generally well received – a new and original French voice was emerging at the forefront of European artistry. It was on tour in these cities, Vienna, Breslau and Prague, that he composed hisLa damnation de Faust, but disappointingly, it was premiered back in Paris, where he was not appreciated to the same degree. He wrote about the outcome: ‘Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference’.
Berlioz was celebrated to a much larger degree posthumously. Although he belongs to a strong tradition, he is an isolated figure, since the music on which he based his style is relatively obscure and much of his expertise comes from his wild imagination. The Russians were great enthusiasts of Berlioz, particularly Balakirev, but the greatest resurgence of Berlioz was in the second half of the twentieth century, assisted by recordings ofLes Troyens by Barzun in the 1950s.
Berlioz had a striking ability to take his vivid impressions of scenes, emotions and thoughts and transmute them into a high artistic form. Shakespeare and Goethe were massive sources of inspiration for his works. He started to learn English to be able to read Shakespeare. Goethe’s writings inspired him to writeLa damnation de Faust and Byron influenced his Harold en Italie. Berlioz composed hisRomeo and Juliet in the late 1830s and although he was condemned by critics for misunderstanding Shakespeare, Wagner who was in the audience, hailed it a ‘revelation’. In a 1928 letter, he declared Goethe and Shakespeare to be "the silent confidants of my suffering; they hold the key to my life''.
On the 11th of September 1827, Berlioz attended Hamlet at the Odéon and saw Irish actress Harriet Smithson for the first time, whom he fell in love with. He gained a lot of creative inspiration from his love, or rather his obsession, with Harriet, having never actually met her in person. His passion for her was vividly conveyed into the programmaticSymphonie Fantastique, one of his most famous masterpieces which he composed in 1830. The five movement symphony, which is a landmark in its innovations in programmatic writing, was also partly influenced by Thomas de Quincey’sConfessions of an Opium-Eater. A recurring theme, orideé fixe which personifies Harriet, unifies the five movements.