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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Hector Berlioz

Louis-Hector Berlioz was born in La Cote-St-Andre, in the French Alps, on December 11, 1803. His father, a prosperous physician with a love for music, invited many music masters to settle in the town so the boy would be exposed to a rich musical environment. He learned the basics of composition as well as to play the flute and guitar.

Sent to Paris in 1821 to study medicine, Berlioz spent his spare time studying music. He began to study composition with the composer Jean-Francois Le Sueur and he swapped disciplines mid-course and started his formal music studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1826.

The young Berlioz

After attending a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet on September 11, 1827, Berlioz fell in love with a pretty Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia. At the time he was a little known composer but he pursued Harriet with numerous love letters, all of which went unanswered. When she left Paris they had still not met but despite this, Berlioz wrote his Symphonie fantastique in 1830 as a way to express his unrequited passion. In December 1832 he gave a concert of Symphonie fantastique to which he invited Harriet to attend, which she did and heard the work that she'd inspired for the first time. By now the actress' career was failing and she was in financial hardship; Harriet saw the besotted Hector as a way out of debt so on October 3, 1833, they were married.

First page of original Symphonie fantastique (1830) manuscript

Before their engagement, upon hearing that Smithson was seeing another man, Belioz concocted a ridiculously impractical and elaborate revenge plan. He disguised himself in drag (as a lady's maid), and travelled to Harriet's place of residence with two pistols and a vial of poison, planning to shoot Harriet and the other man, then poison himself. He abandoned this plan halfway through the journey and never carried out his revenge.

Portrait of Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) by Dubufe, Claude-Marie 

Berlioz and Smithson had one child together, Louis Berlioz, who was born on August 14, 1834. While the marriage was happy for several years, they separated nine years later.

In order to have a regular income, Berlioz became a journalist and developed into a major critic. In 1832 he began a 30-year spell as music critic for the Journal des débats and started writing for the Gazette musicale in 1834.

Berlioz's 1843 book on modern instrumentation and orchestration Treatise on Instrumentation became a standard reference work.

His other musical works include 'Harold in Italy' (1834), 'Requiem' (1837), 'Benvenuto Cellini' (1838), 'Romeo and Juliet' (1839), 'The Damnation of Faust' (1846) and 'The Childhood of Christ' (1854).

After 1840 Belioz  began to make concert tours outside France, conducting many of his works in Germany, Belgium, England, and Russia. His penchant for the monumental is illustrated by a Paris concert given under his direction in 1844, which amassed 1,022 performers, including 36 double basses for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, 24 French horns for Weber's Der Freischütz overture, and 25 harps for Rossini's Prayer of Moses.

Berlioz in 1857

His mental and physical health declined rapidly in the late 1860s and Berlioz died a rather disconsolate figure on March 8, 1869.

Sources Songfacts,, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia © 1998 The Learning Company, Inc

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