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Berlioz

Category: Musician or composer

 

Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a Romantic composer, musician, writer, music critic, singer, conductor and poet born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, near Grenoble. 

In 1850 he became head librarian at the Paris Conservatoire, the only official post he would ever hold. 

He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1839 and in 1864, he was made Officier de la Légion d'honneur.   Commemorations of Berlioz include the 2000-seat Opera Berlioz at the Corum arts centre in Montpellier, Berlioz Point in Antarctica and asteroid 69288 Berlioz.

Beliefs

Berlioz’s father Louis was an agnostic, with a liberal outlook; his mother, Marie-Antoinette, was a devout Roman Catholic.  Thus Berlioz was born into an eclectic mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, but appears to have raised himself, over his life, above religion towards a belief in the spiritual without the dogma of religion.  In a letter which was written shortly before his death, he wrote in regard to religion, "I believe nothing", which can of course be interpreted a number of ways, one of which was that he didn’t need to believe, because he knew.  His Memoires make it very plain that he knew exactly where his inspiration came from.  And Berlioz is one composer who was definitely ‘inspired’ and ‘heard’ celestial music:

Berlioz- Memoires

My head seemed ready to burst with the pressure of my seething thoughts.  No sooner was one piece sketched than another presented itself.  Finding it impossible to write fast enough, I adopted a sort of shorthand…. Every composer knows the anguish and despair occasioned by forgetting ideas which one has not had time to write down and which thus escape forever.


 

He was not only spiritually open to inspiration, he also benefited from pure and enhanced perception during performances of orchestral music.  The critic Louis Engel, described how Berlioz once noticed, amidst an orchestral tutti, a minute pitch difference between two clarinets. Engel offers an explanation of Berlioz's ability to detect such things as in part due to the sheer nervous energy he was experiencing during conducting.

There are also tantalising hints that he understood something of the symbolism behind Biblical stories.  A man who is a non believer does not write works such as Estelle et Némorin and Le passage de la mer Rouge (The Crossing of the Red Sea) – both now lost; – the latter of which convinced Le Sueur [Jean-François Le Sueur, director of the Royal Chapel and professor at the Conservatoire] to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils.  In 1824, he composed the Messe solennelle, and we have La damnation de Faust and the oratorio L'enfance du Christ as well as the quasi-liturgical Te Deum and Grande messe des morts.

There is every reason to believe he had no time for dogma, but there is every reason to believe he knew the value of enacting ritual and ceremony and its ability to invoke intense ecstatic experience.

Career

Composer

The reference section lists the main works of Berlioz.  In addition to those shown he wrote about 40 songs, and 9 other choral works.  His output was limited principally by his financial problems, not his lack of inspiration.  If anything we have probably been denied a great number of works, simply because he did not have the resources to complete them.

Berlioz ‘heard’ his music on a vast scale, he specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians.  The unconventional music of Berlioz irritated the established concert and opera scene. Berlioz often had to arrange for his own performances as well as pay for them himself. This took a heavy toll on him financially and emotionally. The nature of his large works – sometimes involving hundreds of performers – made financial success difficult. His other activities became essential for him to make a living.

Throughout his whole life Berlioz struggled with debts and consequent insecurity.  While his career as a critic and writer provided him with a comfortable income, he came to detest the amount of time he had to spend attending other people’s performances to review, in order to make ends meet.  Every hour writing prevented him composing.  He embarked on ludicrously punishing schedules of concert tours and articles, solely to finance his real passion – his music.

A matinee with Liszt. From the left to the right: Kriehuber, Berlioz, Czerny, Liszt, Ernst. Lithography by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

Conductor

Around 1834, Berlioz decided to conduct most of his own concerts, tired as he was of conductors who did not understand his music. This decision launched what was to eventually become a lucrative and creatively fruitful career in conducting music both by himself and by other leading composers.

As a result, he began to travel to other countries more often. Between 1842 and 1863 he travelled to Germany, England, Austria, Russia and elsewhere, where he conducted operas and orchestral music – both his own and others'.

Despite his talent, Berlioz never held an employed position of conductor during his lifetime, forced to be content with only guest conducting. He conducted mainly during grand tours of various countries, but this had its advantages.  It enabled him to perform his music to a wider audience, and thus increase his influence across Europe – for example, his orchestration was studied by many Russian composers. “even Modest Mussorgsky – often portrayed as uninterested in refined orchestration – revered Berlioz and died with a copy of Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation on his bed.“  During his lifetime, Berlioz was as famous a conductor as he was as a composer. His conducting technique appears to have set the groundwork for the clarity and precision favoured in the French School of conducting right up to the present.

Berlioz conducting - according to his critics

Musician

Berlioz was also an accomplished musician.  As a result of his father's discouragement, he never learned to play the piano, a peculiarity he later described as both beneficial and detrimental, but he was proficient at guitar, flageolet [a woodwind instrument and a member of the fipple flute family] and flute. He could also sing and even worked for a while as a chorus singer at a vaudeville theatre to contribute towards an income.

Writer and critic

Berlioz was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years by writing musical criticism, ‘utilising a bold, vigorous style’, championing friends like Gaspare Spontini, a composer who influenced him through their friendship.  He was also a very accomplished writer of fact and fiction. 

He wrote for many journals, including the Rénovateur and Journal des débats. He was active in the Débats for over thirty years until submitting his last signed article in 1863. Almost from the founding, Berlioz was a key member of the editorial board of the Gazette musicale as well as a contributor, and acted as editor on several occasions. During the middle of the 1830s the Gazette was considered an intellectual journal, strongly supporting the progressive arts and Romanticism in general. 

 Berlioz took full advantage of his times as editor, allowing himself to increase his articles written on music history rather than current events, evidenced by him publishing seven articles on Gluck in the Gazette between June 1834 and January 1835.  He was a prolific contributor.  He wrote over one-hundred articles for the Gazette between 1833 and 1837. In 1835 alone, due to one of his many times of financial difficulty, he wrote four articles for the Monde dramatique, twelve for the Gazette, nineteen for the Débats and thirty-seven for the Rénovateur.

These were not mere scribbles, but in-depth articles and reviews with little duplication, which took considerable time to write.”

Despite his prominent position in musical criticism, he did not use his articles to promote his own works.

The books which Berlioz has become acclaimed for were compiled from his journal articles. Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra) (1852), and the Treatise on Instrumentation, were both serialised originally in the Gazette musicale. The Treatise established his reputation as a master of orchestration. He also wrote an autobiography.  Many parts of the Mémoires (1870) were originally published in the Journal des débats, as well as Le monde illustré. Evenings with the Orchestra is part fact and part fiction, “making the stories it recounts all the funnier due to the ring of truth”.

W. H. Auden
 To succeed in [writing these tales], as Berlioz most brilliantly does, requires a combination of qualities which is very rare, the many-faceted curiosity of the dramatist with the aggressively personal vision of the lyric poet.

Sources of inspiration

Home schooling

Berlioz’s father, Louis Berlioz, was a respected provincial physician and scholar who is widely credited with first experimenting with and recording the use of acupuncture in Europe.  He was responsible for much of the young Berlioz's education. And his subject matter seems to be well chosen; by age twelve, for example, Berlioz had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father's tutelage.  His monumental opera Les Troyens, is based on Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

 

Thus Berlioz benefited from ‘home schooling’ and it appears his musical education was also an extension of this approach.  Berlioz was not a child prodigy, but began studying music at age 12, writing small compositions and arrangements. Berlioz learned harmony from textbooks alone and was not formally trained.

The ‘home schooling’ approach continued throughout his life.  Although Berlioz did attend high school in Grenoble, in September 1821, at age 18, he was sent to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected.  But he continued to teach himself, taking advantage of the institutions to which he now had access in the city, including the Paris Opéra.  He also began to visit the Paris Conservatoire library, despite outright hostility from Luigi Cherubini, the Conservatoire's then music director, who attempted to throw Berlioz out of the library since he was not a formal music student.  Despite his parents' disapproval, in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. A man who knew his destiny.

Love with visualisation and unrequited love

 

A major source of much of Berlioz’s inspiration was love in all its various forms, his attachments were passionate, sincere and deep.  He had five siblings, for example, three of whom did not survive to adulthood. But the other two, Nanci and Adèle, remained close to Berlioz throughout his life.

He also formed lifelong friendships with a number of people.  Berlioz met Franz Liszt at the premiere of one of his works in 1828. This proved to be the beginning of a long friendship. Liszt would later transcribe the entire Symphonie fantastique for piano to enable more people to hear it.  On Berlioz's return to Paris, he met playwright Ernest Legouvé who became a lifelong friend.  In 1844, he met Mikhail Glinka (whom he had initially met in Italy and who remained a close friend), who persuaded Berlioz to tour Russia. Berlioz's joke "If the Emperor of Russia wants me, then I am up for sale" was taken seriously.

So he knew platonic love, but the two forms of other love that appear to be most prevalent were love from afar and unrequited love.  These he carried to extremes. 

While yet at age twelve, as recalled in his Mémoires, he experienced his first passion for a woman, an 18-year-old next-door neighbour named Estelle Fornier (née Dubœuf).  As Wikipedia says “Berlioz appears to have been innately Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature, as well as Shakespeare and Beethoven, and his weeping at passages by Virgil”.

Gustave Courbet - Portrait of Hector Berlioz

On 11 September 1827, he attended a production by a traveling English theatre company at the Odéon theatre with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia and Juliet in the Shakespeare plays Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. He immediately became infatuated with both actress and playwright. Prone to violent impulses, Berlioz began flooding Smithson's hotel room with love letters which both confused and terrified her. His advances led nowhere.

In about 1830, he entered into a relationship with – and subsequently became engaged to – Marie Moke, despite his continued obsession with Harriet Smithson.  He then left to start his studies in Rome.  During his stay in Italy, he received a letter from the mother of his fiancée informing him that she had called off their engagement. Instead her daughter was to marry Camille Pleyel (son of Ignaz Pleyel), a rich piano manufacturer.

Enraged, Berlioz decided to return to Paris and take revenge on Pleyel, his fiancée, and her mother by killing all three of them. He created an elaborate plan, going so far as to purchase a dress, wig and hat with a veil (with which he was to disguise himself as a woman in order to gain entry to their home). He even stole a pair of double-barrelled pistols from the Academy to kill them with, saving a single shot for himself. Planning out his action with great care, Berlioz purchased phials of strychnine and laudanum to use as poisons in the event of a pistol jamming.

Despite this careful planning, Berlioz failed to carry the plot through. By the time he had reached Genoa, he "left his disguise in the side pocket of the carriage". After arriving in Nice (at that time, part of Italy), he reconsidered the entire plan, deciding it to be inappropriate and foolish. He sent a letter to the Academy in Rome, requesting that he be allowed to return. This request was accepted.

Berlioz and Harriet were finally introduced and entered into a relationship. Despite Berlioz not understanding spoken English and Harriet not knowing any French, on 3 October 1833, they got married in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy with Liszt as one of the witnesses. The following year their only child, Louis Berlioz, was born – a source of anxiety and eventual pride to his father. Unfortunately for Berlioz, he was soon to discover that living under the same roof as his beloved was far less appealing than worship from afar. Their marriage turned out a disaster as both were prone to violent personality clashes and outbursts of temper.

It is now worth adding that during the period between 1830 and 1847, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works. The foremost of these are the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) (1837) and Roméo et Juliette (1839).

Late in 1841, Berlioz entered into an intimate relationship with singer Marie Recio who would become his second wife.  In early 1844, and with their marriage a failure, Berlioz and Harriet Smithson separated, the latter having become an alcoholic.  Berlioz moved in with his mistress Marie Recio. He continued to provide for Harriet for the rest of her life.  Harriet's health gradually declined and she suffered a series of strokes that left her an invalid. Berlioz paid for four servants to look after her on a permanent basis and visited her almost daily.  Harriet Smithson died in 1854.  In October 1854, Berlioz married Marie Recio. In a letter written to his son, he said that having lived with her for so long, it was his duty to do so.

Hector Berlioz (1803–69) composing Les Troyens by Lionello Balestrieri.

Last years and death

The onset of an intestinal illness which would plague Berlioz for the rest of his life became apparent towards the end of the 1850s.  During a visit to Baden-Baden, Edouard Bénazet commissioned a new opera from Berlioz, but due to the illness that opera was never written.  Berlioz later remarked that his conducting much improved owing to the considerable pain he was in, allowing him to be "emotionally detached" and "less excitable".

Marie Recio, Berlioz's wife, died unexpectedly of a stroke at the age of 48, on 13 June 1862. Berlioz soon met a young woman named Amélie at Montmartre Cemetery, and though she was only 24, they developed a close relationship despite a 35-year age difference.  In 1863, Amélie requested that they end their relationship, which Berlioz did, to his despair.  On 22 August, 1864, Berlioz heard from a friend that Amélie, who had been suffering from poor health, had died at the age of 26. A week later, while walking in the Montmartre Cemetery, he discovered Amélie's grave: she had been dead for six months.  He wrote:

I am in my 61st year; past hopes, past illusions, past high thoughts and lofty conceptions. My son is almost always far away from me. I am alone. My contempt for the folly and baseness of mankind, my hatred of its atrocious cruelty, have never been so intense. And I say hourly to Death: 'When you will'. Why does he delay?

 

Berlioz met Estelle Fornier – the object of his childhood affections – in Lyon for the first time in 40 years, and began a regular correspondence with her. Berlioz soon realised that he still longed for her, and eventually she had to inform him that as a married woman there was no possibility that they could become closer than friends.

In 1867 Berlioz's son Louis, a merchant shipping captain, died of yellow fever in Havana. After learning this, Berlioz burnt a large number of documents and other mementos which he had accumulated during his life, keeping only a conducting baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar given to him by Paganini. He then wrote his will. The intestinal pains had been gradually increasing, and had now spread to his stomach, and whole days were passed in agony. At times he experienced spasms in the street so intense that he could barely move.  Despite this, later that year he embarked on his second concert tour of Russia, which would also be his last of any kind.  And the extreme irony, as he was dying, was that the tour was extremely lucrative.

He returned to Paris in 1868, exhausted, with his health damaged due to the Russian winter. He immediately travelled to Nice to recuperate in the Mediterranean climate, but slipped on some rocks by the sea shore, possibly due to a stroke, and had to return to Paris, where he lived as an invalid. In August 1868, he made his last trip to Grenoble where he lived with his sister and her family.

On 8 March 1869, Berlioz died at his Paris home, No.4 rue de Calais, at 30 minutes past midday.  He was surrounded by friends at the time. He was buried in Montmartre Cemetery with his two wives, who were exhumed and re-buried next to him. His last words were reputed to be

Enfin, on va jouer ma musique
At last, they are going to play my music

The celestial choir awaited him.

References

 

The comprehensive hberlioz.com site (which has been online since 1997) is an easily available source of information to anyone interested in the composer.

Symphonies

  • Symphonie fantastique (1830)
  • Harold en Italie (1834)
  • Roméo et Juliette (1839)
  • Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840)

Overtures

  • Waverley (1828)
  • Le roi Lear (1831)
  • Rob Roy (1831)
  • Le carnaval romain (1844)
  • Le corsaire (1844)

Other orchestral

  • Romance: Rêverie et caprice Op. 8, for violin and orchestra (1841; 1842)

Operas

  • Les francs-juges (1826; unperformed – survives in fragments)
  • Benvenuto Cellini (1836–38; 1838)
  • La nonne sanglante (1841–47, unfinished)
  • Les Troyens (1856–58; final three acts performed 1863)
  • Béatrice et Bénédict (1860–62; 1862)

Liturgical music

  • Messe solenelle (1824)
  • Grande messe des mortis (Requiem) (1837)
  • Te Deum (1849)

Oratorio

  • L'enfance du Christ (1854)

Concert drama

  • La damnation de Faust (1845–46; 1846)
  • Prix de Rome cantatas
  • La mort d’Orphée (1827)
  • Herminie (1828)
  • La mort de Cléopâtre (1829)
  • Sardanapale (1830)

Observations

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