Hector Berlioz

Once described as the Victor Hugo of music, Hector Berlioz holds a place in the pantheon of French culture and is known for his unconventional creativity. Though rooted in Classical traditions, Berlioz’s works represent the blossoming of the Romantic period.

Born in 1803, Berlioz was the eldest of six children of Louis-Joseph Berlioz, a respected doctor, and Marie-Antoinette. At a young age, Berlioz’s interest in literature and geography developed his sensitivity to the arts and sparked a desire to travel later in life. His first musical studies began on the flageolet and soon after, the flute and guitar, but surprisingly he never learned to play the piano. He began to compose as a young teenager after discovering the writings of Rameau and Catel.

Despite his wishes to pursue a career in music, Berlioz’s parents sent him to Paris at age 17 to study medicine; however the endless opportunities and cultural inspirations living in the city led him to abandon the medical field after a two years. He studied composition under Le Sueur and a successful performance of one of his first surviving large works, Messe solennelle, in 1825 gave the composer the resolve to continue onward in his music career, causing a strained relationship with his parents and financial hardship.

Indeed Berlioz’s music was in no way contrived as he thoroughly documented his muses throughout his life. Early on, the writings of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Goethe along with the music of Gluck and Beethoven played a huge role among many others. His first experience with Shakespeare at an 1827 production of Hamlet also started an intense interest in the actress Harriet Smithson, most famously represented as the idée fixe in his 1830 Symphonie Fantastique.

Entering the conservatory in 1926, Berlioz began to submit his works into competitions, but it was not until his fourth attempt for the Prix de Rome in 1930 that he won. Securing the prize took years of restraining his individual style and though most of his early compositions did not survive, their themes and melodies live on in his later works. The award earned Berlioz the respect of his parents and alleviated some of his financial burden, but it also required him to move to Italy for 15 months. During his time there, he travelled the country and being the well-read man he was, found plenty of artistic inspiration.

In 1833, he married Smithson and despite an unstable courtship the first six years of their marriage were relatively peaceful. Throughout his life, Berlioz earned his living as a critic, though he despised writing. He also launched a conducting career in 1835 after an unsatisfactory performance of his music which motivated him to conduct his works himself. He rode a continuous roller coaster emotionally, financially and spiritually and the reception of his compositions was just as varied. Due to his departures from musical conventions, Berlioz’s music was viewed as “eccentric” and “incorrect”; however, the sometimes harsh feedback and difficulty to find support did not stop him from staying true to his identity and allowing his life experiences to fuel his artistic decisions.

One source of support came from Franz Liszt, to whom Berlioz dedicated his work La damnation de Faust and in return, Liszt’s Faust Symphony was dedicated to Berlioz. Less support was found for Les Troyens, a long-anticipated project based on Virgil’s Aeneid. The five-act grand opera was so long that Berlioz was forced to separate it into two parts. Further cuts were made when a production was finally secured, leaving the composer in bitter disappointment.

Though they had separated in 1842, Berlioz held Smithson in high regards up until her death in 1854. Seven months later he married Marie Recio, who died suddenly in 1862. Losing his father in 1848, and his two surviving sisters in 1850 and 1860, along with his ever increasing struggle with neuralgia, Berlioz became very down-trodden by the 1860s. By 1864, he had retired from writing and composing, but continued to conduct until 1867. By this point, his total disillusionment with a world so far from his idealist views and the death of his only son left him complete despair the last two years of his life. His mother-in-law cared for him until his death in 1969. Aside from his surviving works, Berlioz’s legacy lives on through his writings and memoirs, which leave a detailed account of his inspirations, woes, humor, and longings.

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