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Cabinet card photo of Hector Berlioz by Franck, Paris, ca. 1855

Hector Berlioz[1] (December 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works; as a conductor, he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians.[2] He also composed around 50 songs.



Early years

Hector Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André[3] in the département of Isère, near Lyon.[4] His father, a respected[5] provincial physician[6] and scholar, was responsible for much of the young Berlioz's education.[5] His father was an atheist,[6] with a liberal outlook;[7] his mother was an orthodox Roman Catholic.[5][6] He had five siblings in all, three of whom did not survive to adulthood.[8] The other two, Nanci and Adèle, remained close to Berlioz throughout his life.[7]

Unlike many other composers of the time, Berlioz was not a child prodigy; he began studying music at age 12, when he began writing small compositions and arrangements. 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.[9] He became proficient at guitar, flageolet, and flute.[10][11] He learned harmony by textbooks alone—he was not formally trained.[10][11] The majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces.[10][12]

Still at age 12, 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).[5][13] Berlioz appears to have been innately Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature,[14] and his weeping at passages by Virgil [7] (by age twelve he had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father's tutelage), Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Student life


Drawing of Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet

In 1821, at age 18, Berlioz was sent to Paris to study medicine,[6][15] a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected.[5][6] (He gives a colorful account in his Mémoires.)[16] He began to take advantage of the institutions he now had access to in the city, including his first visit to the Paris Opéra, where he saw Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer whom he came to admire above all, jointly alongside Ludwig van Beethoven.

He also began to visit the Paris Conservatoire library, seeking out scores of Gluck's operas and making personal copies of parts of them. He recalled in his Mémoires his first encounter with Luigi Cherubini, the Conservatoire's then music director. Cherubini attempted to throw the impetuous Berlioz out of the library since he was not a formal music student at that time.[17][18] Berlioz also heard two operas by Gaspare Spontini, a composer who influenced him through their friendship, and whom he later championed when working as a critic. From then on, he devoted himself to composition. He was encouraged in his endeavors by Jean-François Le Sueur, director of the Royal Chapel and professor at the Conservatoire. In 1823, he wrote his first article—a letter to the journal Le corsaire defending Spontini's La vestale. By now he had composed several works including Estelle et Némorin and Le passage de la mer Rouge (The Crossing of the Red Sea) - both now lost - the latter of which convinced Lesueur to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils.[5]

Despite his parents' disapproval,[14] in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies[6] to pursue a career in music. He composed the Messe solennelle. This work was rehearsed and revised after the rehearsal but not performed until the following year. Berlioz later claimed to have burnt the score,[19] but it was miraculously re-discovered in 1991.[20][21] Later that year or in 1825, he began to compose the opera Les francs-juges, which was completed the following year but went unperformed. The work survives only in fragments;[22] the overture survives and is sometimes played in concert.

In 1826 he began attending the Conservatoire[15] to study composition under Le Sueur and Anton Reicha. He also submitted a fugue to the Prix de Rome, but was eliminated in the primary round. Winning the prize would become an obsession until he finally won it in 1830, with his new cantata every year until he succeeded at his fourth attempt. The reason for this interest in the prize was not just academic recognition. The prize included a five year pension[23]-much needed income for the struggling composer. In 1827 he composed the Waverly overture after Walter Scott's[15] Waverley novels. He also began working as a chorus singer at a vaudeville theatre to contribute towards an income.[6][13] Later that year, he saw his future wife Harriet Smithson at the Odéon theatre playing Ophelia in Hamlet and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, both plays by William Shakespeare. He immediately became infatuated by both actress[14] and playwright.[15] From then on, he began to send Harriet messages, but she considered Berlioz's letters introducing himself to her so overly passionate that she refused his advances.[6]

In 1828 Berlioz heard Beethoven's third and fifth symphonies performed at the Paris Conservatoire - an experience that he found overwhelming.[24] He also read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust for the first time (in French translation), which would become the inspiration for Huit scènes de Faust (his Opus 1), much later re-developed as La damnation de Faust. He also came into contact with Beethoven's string quartets[25] and piano sonatas, and recognised the importance of these immediately. He began to study English so that he could read Shakespeare. Around the same time, he also began to write musical criticism.[6]

He began and finished composition of the Symphonie fantastique in 1830, a work which would bring Berlioz much fame and notoriety. He entered into a relationship with - and subsequently became engaged to - Camille Moke, despite the symphony being inspired by Berlioz's obsession with Harriet Smithson. As his fourth cantata for submittal to the Prix de Rome neared completion, the July Revolution broke out. "I was finishing my cantata when the revolution broke out", he recorded in his Mémoires, "I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering on the wall outside my window. On the 29th I had finished, and was free to go out and roam about Paris 'till morning, pistol in hand".[26] Shortly later, he finally won the prize[27][28] with the cantata Sardanapale. He also arranged the French national anthem La Marseillaise and composed an overture to Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was the first of his pieces to play at the Paris Opéra, but an hour before the performance began, quite ironically, a sudden storm created the worst rain in Paris for 50 years, meaning the performance was almost deserted.[29] Berlioz met Franz Liszt who was also attending the concert. 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.


Lithograph of Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, Vienna, 1845. Berlioz considered this to be a good likeness.

On December 30, 1831, Berlioz left France for Rome, prompted by a clause in the Prix de Rome which required winners to spend two years studying there. Although none of his major works were actually written in Italy, his travels and experiences there would later influence and inspire much of his music. This is most evident in the thematic aspects of his music, particularly Harold en Italie (1834), a work inspired by Byron's Childe Harold. Berlioz later recalled that his, "intention was to write a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant [with the orchestra] while retaining its own character. By placing it among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in Abruzzi, I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron's Childe-Harold."[30]

While in Rome, he stayed at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. He found the city distasteful, writing, "Rome is the most stupid and prosaic city I know; it is no place for anyone with head or heart."[7] He therefore made an effort to leave the city as often as possible, making frequent trips to the surrounding country. During one of these trips, while Berlioz enjoyed an afternoon of sailing, he encountered a group of Carbonari. These were members of a secret society of Italian patriots based in France with the aim of creating a unified Italy.[31]

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).[32] He even stole a pair of double-barrelled pistols from the Academy to kill them with, saving a single shot for himself.[32] Meticulously careful, Berlioz purchased phials of strychnine and laudanum[32] to use as poisons in the event of a pistol jamming.

Despite this careful planning, Berlioz failed to carry through with the plot. By the time he had reached Genoa, he realised he left his disguise in the side pocket of a carriage during his journey. After arriving in Nice (at that time, part of Italy), he reconsidered the entire plan, deciding it to be inappropriate and foolish.[32] He sent a letter to the Academy in Rome, requesting that he be allowed to return. This request was accepted,[13] and he prepared for his trip back.

Before returning to Rome, Berlioz composed the overtures to King Lear in Nice[8] and Rob Roy,[10] and began work on a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, Le retour à la vie (The Return to Life),[33] renamed Lélio in 1855.

Upon his return to Rome, Berlioz posed for a portrait painting by Émile Signol (completed in April 1832), which Berlioz did not consider to be a good likeness of himself.[34]

Berlioz continued to travel throughout his stay in Italy. He visited Pompeii, Naples, Milan, Tivoli, Florence, Turin and Genoa. Italy was important in providing Berlioz with experiences that would be impossible in France. At times, it was as if he himself was actually experiencing the Romantic tales of Byron in person; consorting with brigands, corsairs, and peasants.[7] He returned to Paris in November 1832.

Painting of a young Berlioz by Émile Signol, 1832. Owned by the French Academy, Rome.[34] Also in a reproduction by Paul Siffert, 1907. Owned by Musée Hector Berlioz

Decade of productivity

Between 1830 and 1840, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works.[21] 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).

On Berlioz's return to Paris, a concert including Symphonie fantastique (which had been extensively revised in Italy)[35] and Le retour à la vie was performed, with among others in attendance: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, père, Heinrich Heine, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier, Jules Janin and Harriet Smithson. At this time, Berlioz also met playwright Ernest Legouvé who became a lifelong friend. A few days after the performance, Berlioz and Harriet were finally introduced and entered into a relationship. Despite Berlioz not understanding spoken English and Harriet not knowing any French,[13] on October 3, 1833, they married in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy with Liszt as one of the witnesses.[8] The following year their only child, Louis Berlioz, was born - a source of initial disappointment, anxiety and eventual pride to his father.[7]

In 1834, virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini commissioned Berlioz to compose a viola concerto,[15] intending to premiere it as soloist. This became the symphony for viola and orchestra, Harold en Italie. Paganini changed his mind about playing the piece himself when he saw the first sketches for the work; he expressed misgivings over its outward lack of complexity.[citation needed] The premiere of the piece was held later that year. After initially rejecting the piece, Paganini, as Berlioz's Mémoires recount, knelt before Berlioz in front of the orchestra after hearing it for the first time and proclaimed him a genius and heir to Beethoven.[36][37] The next day he sent Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs,[8][13] the generosity of which left Berlioz uncharacteristically lost for words.[38] Around this time, 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 become a lucrative and creatively fruitful career in conducting music both by himself and other leading composers.

Berlioz composed the opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1836. He was to spend much effort and money in the following decades trying to have it performed successfully. Benvenuto Cellini was premiered at the Paris Opéra on September 10, but was a failure due to a hostile audience.[27][33] One of his most enduring pieces followed Benvenuto Cellini—the Grande messe des morts, first performed at Les Invalides[39] in December of that year.[40] Its gestation was difficult; because it was a state-commissioned work[28][37] much bureaucracy had to be endured. There was also opposition from Luigi Cherubini, who was at the time the music director of the Paris Conservatoire. Cherubini felt that a government-sponsored commission should naturally be offered to himself rather than the young Berlioz, who was considered an eccentric.[5] (It should be noted, however, that regardless of the animosity between the two composers, Berlioz learned from and admired Cherubini's music,[41] such as the requiem.)[42]

Thanks to the money Paganini had given him after hearing Harold, Berlioz was able to pay off Harriet's and his own debts and suspend his work as a critic. This allowed him to focus on writing the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette for voices, chorus and orchestra. Berlioz later identified the "love scene" from this choral symphony, as he called it, as his favourite composition.[citation needed] (He considered his Requiem his best work, however: "If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts".)[43] It was a success both at home and abroad, unlike later great vocal works such as La damnation de Faust and Les Troyens, which were commercial failures. Roméo et Juliette was premiered in a series of three concerts later in 1839 to distinguished audiences, one including Richard Wagner.

The same year Roméo premiered, Berlioz was appointed Conservateur Adjoint (Deputy Librarian) Paris Conservatoire Library. Berlioz supported himself and his family by writing musical criticism for Paris publications, primarily Journal des débats for over thirty years, and also Gazette musicale and Le rénovateur.[10] While his career as a critic and writer[15] provided him with a comfortable income, and he had an obvious talent for writing, he came to detest[21][27][44] the amount of time spent attending performances to review, as it severely limited his free time to promote his own composition[15] and produce more compositions. It should also be noted that despite his prominent position in musical criticism, he did not use his articles to promote his own works.[33]


Painting of Berlioz by Gustave Courbet, 1850. Owned by Musée d’Orsay in Paris (incorrectly shaded scan: colours faded)

After the 1830s, Berlioz found it increasingly difficult to achieve recognition for his music in France. As a result, he began to travel to other countries more often. Between 1842 and 1863 he traveled to Germany, England, Austria, Russia and elsewhere,[10][14] where he conducted operas and orchestral music - both his own and others'. During his lifetime, Berlioz was as famous a conductor as he was as a composer.[45]

In 1840, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale was commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830. Owing to a strict deadline, it was performed only days after it was completed. The performance was held in the open air on July 28, conducted by Berlioz himself, at the Place de la Bastille. The piece was difficult to hear owing to the crowds and timpani of the drum corps. This was later remedied by a concert performance a month later, and Wagner voiced his approval of the work.[37] The following year he began but later abandoned the composition of a new opera, La nonne sanglante; some fragments survive.[46]

In 1841, Berlioz wrote recitatives for a production of Weber's Der Freischütz at the Paris Opéra and also orchestrated Weber's Invitation à la valse to add ballet music to it. Later that year Berlioz finished composing the song cycle Les nuits d'été for piano and voices (later to be orchestrated). He also entered into a relationship with singer Marie Recio who would become his second wife.

In 1842, Berlioz embarked on a concert tour of Brussels, Belgium from September to October. In December he began a tour in Germany which continued until the middle of next year. Towns visited included Berlin, Hanover, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Weimar, Hechingen, Darmstadt, Dresden, Brunswick, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Mannheim. In Leipzig he met Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, the latter of whom had written an enthusiastic article on the Symphonie fantastique. He also met Heinrich Marschner in Hanover, Wagner in Dresden and Giacomo Meyerbeer in Berlin.[46] Back in Paris, Berlioz began to compose the concert overture Le carnaval romain, based on[15] music from Benvenuto Cellini. The work was finished the following year and was premiered shortly after. Nowadays it is among the most popular of his overtures.

In early 1844, Berlioz's highly influential[4][6] Treatise on Instrumentation was published for the first time. At this time Berlioz was producing several serialisations for music journals which would eventually be collected into his Mémoires and Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra).[46] He took a recuperation trip to Nice late that year, during which he composed the concert overture La tour de Nice (The Tower of Nice), later to be revised and renamed Le Corsaire.[46] Berlioz separated from his wife Harriet, who had long since been suffering from alcohol abuse owing to the failure of her acting career,[6] and moved in with Marie Recio. He continued to provide for Harriet for the rest of her life. He also met Mikhail Glinka (whom he had initially met in Italy and who remained a close friend), who was in Paris between 1844-5 and persuaded Berlioz to embark on one of two tours of Russia. Berlioz's joke "If the Emperor of Russia wants me, then I am up for sale" was taken seriously.[8] The two tours of Russia (the second in 1867) proved so financially successful[8] that they secured Berlioz's finances despite the large amounts of money he was losing in writing unsuccessful compositions. In 1845 he embarked on his first large-scale concert tour of France. He also attended and wrote a report on the inauguration of a statue to Beethoven in Bonn,[46] and began composing La damnation de Faust, incorporating the earlier Huit scènes de Faust. On his return to Paris, the recently completed La damnation de Faust was premiered at the Opéra-Comique, but after two performances, the run was discontinued and the work was a popular failure[47] (perhaps owing to its halfway status between opera and cantata), despite receiving generally favourable critical reviews.[48] This left Berlioz heavily in debt[46] to the tune of 5-6000 francs.[48] Becoming ever more disenchanted with his prospects in France, he wrote:

Great success, great profit, great performances, etc. etc. ... France is becoming more and more philistine towards music, and the more I see of foreign lands the less I love my own. Art, in France, is dead; so I must go where it is still to be found. In England apparently there has been a real revolution in the musical consciousness of the nation in the last ten years. We shall see.[7]

In 1847, during a seven-month visit to England, he was appointed conductor at the London Drury Lane Theatre[46] by its then-musical director, the popular French musician Louis Antoine Jullien. He was impressed with its quality when he first heard the orchestra perform at a promenade concert.[49] In London he also learnt that he knew far more English than he had supposed, although still did not understand half of what was said in conversation.[49] He began writing his Mémoires. During his stay in England, the February Revolution broke out in France. Berlioz arrived back in France in 1848, only to be informed that his father had died shortly after his return. He went back to his birthplace to mourn his father along with his sisters.[46] After his return to Paris, Harriet suffered a series of strokes which left her almost paralysed. Berlioz paid for four servants to look after her on a permanent basis and visited her almost daily.[46] He began composition of his Te Deum.

In 1850 he became head librarian at the Paris Conservatoire, the only official post he would ever hold, and a valuable source of income.[46] During this year Berlioz also conducted an experiment on his many vocal critics. He composed a work entitled the Shepherd's Farewell and performed it in two concerts[50] under the guise of it being by a composer named Pierre Ducré. This composer was of course a fictional construct by Berlioz.[51] The trick worked, and the critics praised the work by 'Ducré' and claimed it was an example that Berlioz would do well to follow. "Berlioz could never do that!", he recounts in his Mémoires, was one of the comments.[50] Berlioz later incorporated the piece into La fuite en Egypte from L'enfance du Christ.[52] In 1852, Liszt revived Benvenuto Cellini[33] in what was to become the "Weimar version" of the opera, containing modifications made with the approval of Berlioz.[53] The performances were the first since the disastrous premiere of 1838. Berlioz travelled to London in the following year to stage it at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden but withdrew it after one performance owing to the hostile reception.[7] It was during this visit that he witnessed a charity performance involving six thousand five hundred children singing in St Paul's Cathedral.[54] Harriet Smithson died in 1854. L'enfance du Christ was completed later that year and was well-received upon its premiere. Unusually for a late Berlioz work, it appears to have remained popular long after his death.[47] In October, 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. In early 1855 Le retour à la vie was revised and renamed Lélio. Shortly afterwards, the Te Deum received its premiere with Berlioz conducting. During a short visit to London, Berlioz had a long conversation with Wagner over dinner. A second edition of Treatise on Instrumentation was also published, with a new chapter detailing aspects of conducting.[46]

Photograph of Berlioz by Nadar, January 1857

Les Troyens

In 1856 Berlioz visited Weimar where he attended a performance of Benvenuto Cellini, conducted by Liszt. His time with Liszt also highlighted Berlioz's increasing lack of appreciation for Wagner's music, much to Liszt's annoyance.[55]

Berlioz was convinced by Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein - with whom he had corresponded for some time - that he should begin to compose a new opera. This work would eventually become Les Troyens,[46] a monumental grand opera with a libretto (which he wrote himself) based on Books Two and Four of Virgil's Aeneid. The idea of creating an opera based on the Aeneid had already been in his mind several years,[7] by the time Sayn-Wittgenstein had approached him, and despite a long disillusionment, his creative flame seems to have remained lit. Les Troyens proved to be a very personal work for Berlioz, as it paid homage to his first literary love, whom he still cherished- even after his discoveries of Shakespeare and Goethe.[56] The opera was planned around five acts, similar in size to the grand opera of Meyerbeer. It was composed with the Paris Opéra in mind, a most prestigious venue. Berlioz's chances of securing a production in which his work would receive attention equal to its merits were negligible from the start – a fact he must have been aware of.[7][56] Despite these grim prospects, Berlioz saw the work through to its completion in 1858.

The onset of an intestinal illness which would plague Berlioz for the rest of his life had now become apparent to him.[46] During a visit to Baden-Baden, Edouard Bénazet commissioned a new opera from Berlioz. The opera was never written due to the onset of illness,[46] but two years later Berlioz wrote Béatrice et Bénédict for him instead, which was accepted.[7] In 1860 the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris agreed to stage Les Troyens, only to reject it next year. It was soon picked up again by the Paris Opéra.[46] Béatrice et Bénédict was completed on February 25, 1862.

Marie Recio, Berlioz's wife, died unexpectedly of a stroke on June 13 at the age of 48. Berlioz met a young woman called Amélie[57] at Montmartre Cemetery, and though she was only 24, they developed a close relationship.[46] The first performances of Béatrice et Bénédict were held at Baden-Baden on 9th and August 11. The work had had extensive rehearsals for many months, and despite problems Berlioz found in making the musicians play as delicately as he would like, and even discovering that the orchestra pit was too small before the premiere, the work was a success.[58] Berlioz later remarked that his conducting was much improved owing to the considerable pain he was in on the day, allowing him to be "emotionally detached" and "less excitable".[58] Béatrice was sung by Madame Charton-Demeur. Both she and her husband were staunch supporters of Berlioz's music, and she was present at Berlioz's deathbed. Les Troyens was dropped by the Paris Opéra with the excuse that it was too expensive to stage; it was replaced by Wagner's Tannhäuser.[13] The work was attacked by his opponents for its length and demands, and with memories of the failure of Benvenuto Cellini at the Opéra were still fresh.[7] It was then accepted by the new director of the recently re-built Théâtre-Lyrique. In 1863 Berlioz published his last signed article for the Journal des débats.[46] After resigning, an act which should have raised his spirits given how much he detested his job, his disillusionment became even stronger.[7] He also busied himself judging entrants for the Prix de Rome - arguing successfully for the eventual winner, the 21 year old Jules Massenet.[59] Amélie requested that they end their relationship, which Berlioz did, to his despair.[46] The staging of Les Troyens was fraught with difficulties when performed in a truncated form at the Théâtre-Lyrique. It was eventually premiered on November 4 and ran for 21 performances until December 20. Madame Charton-Demeur sang the role of Didon. It was first performed in Paris without cuts as recently as 2003 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.[60]

Later years

In 1864 Berlioz was made Officier de la Légion d'honneur. On August 22, 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.[46] By now, many of Berlioz's friends and family had died, including both of his sisters. Events like these became all too common in his later life, as his continued isolation from the musical scene increased as the focus shifted to Germany.[11] He wrote:

Last photograph of Berlioz, 1868
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?[11]

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.[46] Berlioz soon realised that he still longed for her, and eventually she had to inform him that there was no possibility that they could become closer than friends.[61] By 1865, an initial printing of 1200 copies of his Mémoires was completed. A few copies were distributed amongst his friends, but the bulk were, slightly morbidly, stored in his office at the Paris Conservatoire, to be sold upon his death.[7] He travelled to Vienna in December 1866 to conduct the first complete performance there of La damnation de Faust. In 1867 Berlioz's son Louis, a merchant shipping captain, died[10] of yellow fever[6] in Havana.[13] After learning this, Berlioz burnt a large number of documents and other mementos which he had accumulated during his life,[46] keeping only a conducting baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar given to him by Paganini.[13] 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.[62] Later that year he embarked on his second concert tour of Russia, which would also be his last of any kind. The tour was extremely lucrative for him, so much so that Berlioz turned down an offer of 100,000 francs from American Steinway to perform in New York.[8] In Saint Petersburg, Berlioz experienced a special pleasure at performing with the "first-rate" orchestra of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.[8] He returned to Paris in 1868, exhausted, with his health damaged due to the Russian winter.[13] He immediately traveled 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.[13]

On March 8, 1869,[3] Berlioz died at his Paris[4] home, No.4 rue de Calais, at 30 minutes past midday. He was surrounded by friends at the time. His funeral was held at the recently completed Église de la Trinité[63] on March 11, and 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"[45][64][65] (They are finally going to play my music). From any other composer, these would be suspected to be apocryphal, but with Berlioz one cannot be so sure.[citation needed]


Berlioz often stated in his letters that he was an atheist. In a letter which was written shortly before his death he wrote in regards to religion, "I believe nothing."[66][67] The Catholic Encyclopedia claims Berlioz as a Catholic but suggest he did not remain faithful to Catholic ideas.[68]

Berlioz as a conductor

Drawing of Berlioz conducting a choir by Gustave Doré, published in Journal pour rire, June 27, 1850

Berlioz's work as a conductor was highly influential[45] and brought him fame across Europe.[10][14] He was considered by Charles Hallé, Hans von Bülow and others to be the greatest conductor of his era.[69] Berlioz initially began conducting due to frustrations over the inability of other conductors - more used to performing older and simpler music - to master his advanced and progressive works,[70] with their extended melodies[45] and rhythmic complexity.[37] He began with more enthusiasm than mastery,[70] and was not formally trained,[70] but through perseverance his skills improved. He was also willing to take advice from others, as evidenced by Spontini criticising his early use of large gestures while conducting.[69] One year later, according to Hallé, his movements were much more economical, enabling him to control more nuance in the music.[69] His expert understanding of the way the sound of each instrument interacts with each other (demonstrated in his Treatise on Instrumentation) was attested to by the critic Louis Engel, who mentions how Berlioz once noticed, amidst an orchestral tutti, a minute pitch difference between two clarinets.[69] 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.[69]

Despite this talent, Berlioz never held an employed position of conductor during his lifetime, forced to be content with only guest conducting. This was almost not the case. In late 1835, he was approached by the management of a new concert hall in Paris, the Gymnase Musical, and offered a position as their musical director.[71] To Berlioz this was an ideal opportunity. Not only would it give him a large annual salary (between 6000 to 12,000 francs),[71] but it would also give him a platform from which to perform his own music, and the music of fellow progressives. Berlioz accepted the offer, and signed the contract for the position.[71] However, a new decree issued by the revolutionary government forced him to change his mind. The obstacle was one of the many restrictions that the revolutionary government had placed on the running of musical establishments, forbidding the performance of vocal music,[71] so they did not compete with the influential Paris Opéra (among other organisations). There were passionate arguments and attempts to circumvent this restriction, but they fell on deaf ears, and the Gymnase Musical became a dance hall instead.[71] This left Berlioz dejected, and would prove to have been a crucial cross-roads in his life, forcing him to work long hours as a critic, which severely impaired his free time available for composition.

From then on, he conducted at many different occasions, but mainly during grand tours of various countries where he was paid handsomely for visiting. In particular, towards the end of his life, he made a lot of money by touring Russia twice, the final visit proving extremely lucrative and also being the final conducting tour before his death. This enabled him not only to perform his music to a wider audience, but also to increase his influence across Europe - for example, his orchestration was studied by many Russian composers. Not just fellow hyper-Romantic Tchaikovsky, but also members of The Five are indebted to these techniques, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, but even Modest Mussorgsky - often portrayed as uninterested in refined orchestration - revered Berlioz[72] and died with a copy of Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation on his bed.[65] Similarly, his conducting technique as described by contemporary sources appears to set the groundwork for the clarity and precision favoured in the French School of conducting right up to the present, exemplified by such figures as Pierre Monteux, Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, Paul Paray, Charles Munch, André Cluytens, Pierre Boulez and Charles Dutoit.


Pencil drawing of Berlioz, by Alphonse Legros, c.1860

Although neglected in France for much of the 19th century, the music of Berlioz has often been cited as extremely influential in the development of the symphonic form,[73] instrumentation,[74] and the depiction in music of programmatic and literary ideas, features central to musical Romanticism. He was considered extremely progressive for his day, and he, Wagner, and Liszt have been called the "Great Trinity of Progress" of 19th century Romanticism.[citation needed] Richard Pohl, the German critic in Schumann's musical journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called Berlioz "the true pathbreaker".[citation needed] Liszt was an enthusiastic performer and supporter, and Wagner himself, after first expressing great reservations about Berlioz, wrote to Liszt saying: "we, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, are three equals, but we must take care not to say so to him."[citation needed] As Wagner here implies, Berlioz himself was indifferent to the idea of what was called "la musique du passé" (music of the past), and clearly influenced both Liszt and Wagner (and other forward-looking composers) although he increasingly began to dislike many of their works.[citation needed] Wagner's remark also suggests the strong ethnocentrism characteristic of European composers of the time on both sides of the Rhine. Berlioz not only influenced Wagner through his orchestration and breaking of conventional forms, but also in his use of the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique which foreshadows the leitmotif.[75][76] Liszt came to see Berlioz not only as a composer to support, but also to learn from, considering Berlioz an ally in his aim for "A renewal of music through its closer union with poetry".[77]

During his centenary in 1903, while receiving attention from all leading musical reference books, he was still not generally accepted as being one of the great composers.[78] Some of his music was still in neglect and his following was smaller than other, mainly German, composers. Even half a century did not change much,[78] and it took until the 1960s for the right questions to be asked about his work, and for it to be viewed in a more balanced and sympathetic light. One of the pivotal events in this fresh ignition of interest in the composer was a performance of Les Troyens by Rafael Kubelík in 1957 at Covent Garden.[79] The music of Berlioz enjoyed a revival during the 1960s and 1970s, due in large part to the efforts of French conductor Charles Munch and of British conductor Sir Colin Davis, who recorded his entire oeuvre, bringing to light a number of Berlioz's lesser-known works. An unusual (but telling) example of the increase of Berlioz's fame in the 60s was an explosion of forged autographs, manuscripts, and letters, evidently created to cater for a much greater interest in the composer.[80] Davis's recording of Les Troyens was the first near-complete recording of that work. The work, which Berlioz never saw staged in its entirety during his life, is now a part of the international repertoire,[60] if still something of a rarity. Les Troyens was the first opera performed at the newly built Opéra Bastille in Paris on March 17, 1990 in a production claimed to be complete, but lacking the ballets.[79]

In 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth, his achievements and status are much more widely recognised,[81] and his music is viewed as both serious and original, rather than an eccentric novelty.[78] Newspaper articles reported his colourful life with zeal, very many festivals dedicated to the composer were held,[82][83] readings of his books[81] and a one-hour French television dramatised biography[84] all helped to create a lot of exposure to the composer's life and music - far more than the previous centenary anniversary. Numerous recording projects were begun or reissued,[85] and broadcasts of his music increased.[82] Prominent Berlioz conductor Colin Davis had already been in the process of recording much of Berlioz's music on the LSO Live label, and has continued this project to this date with a L'enfance du Christ recording issued in 2007. The internet was also a factor in the celebrations, with the comprehensive site (which has been online since 1997) being an easily available source of information to anyone interested in the composer. The 'Berlioz 2003' celebrations, organised by French academic institutions,[81] also had a prominent website, listing events, publications and gatherings[81] the domain of which has now lapsed. There was also a site maintained by the Association nationale Hector Berlioz.[86] A proposal was made to remove his remains to the Panthéon, and while initially encouraged by French President Jacques Chirac,[81][87] it was postponed by him, claimed to be because it was too shortly after Alexandre Dumas was moved there.[88] He may have also been influenced by a political dispute over Berlioz's worthiness as a republican,[65][74] since Berlioz, who regularly met kings and princes, had severely criticized the 1848 Revolution, speaking of the "odious and stupid republic".[citation needed] There were also objections from supporters of Berlioz, some of whom claimed that Berlioz was an anti-establishment figure and would have no interest in such a ceremony, and that he was happy to be buried next to his two wives in the location he has been in for almost 150 years.[74] Since Chirac retired as President, the future of Berlioz's resting place is still unclear.[88]



Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and many of his best compositions are inspired by literary works. For Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz was inspired in part by Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. For La damnation de Faust, Berlioz drew on Goethe's Faust; for Harold en Italie, he drew on Byron's Childe Harold; for Benvenuto Cellini, he drew on Cellini's own autobiography. For Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz turned, of course, to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. For his magnum opus, the monumental opera Les Troyens, Berlioz turned to Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid. In his last opera, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz prepared a libretto based loosely on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. His composition "Tristia" (for orchestra and chorus) drew its inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet.


In 1827, Berlioz watched Irish actress Harriet Smithson at the Odéon theatre playing Ophelia and Juliet in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. This led to two intense infatuations. One was to Smithson, which would result in a disastrous marriage. The other was to Shakespeare, which would become a lifelong love.[15] He followed the rest of the 1827 season closely, until the company moved to the Salle Favart, and began learning the plays from pocket translations on sale.[89] Though the performances were in English, of which Berlioz knew virtually none, he was still able to grasp the grandeur and sublimnity of Shakespeare's language along with the richness of the plays' dramatic design.[90]

The timing for these performances, not just for Berlioz' career but also for French Romanticism in general, could not have been more apt. Berlioz was on the verge of producing his most Romantic works—as were the writers Vigny, Dumas, Gautier and several others in attendance that night. Shakespeare served as a model for French Romanticism,[91] with Hugo extolling Shakespeare as a challenge to French classicism and the model for the new Romantic theater.[90]

Shakespeare for Berlioz represented the summit of poetic utterance, with the bard's veracity of dramatic expression and freedom from formal constraints resounding in the composer's spirit. More profoundly, Shakespeare became a source, by way of its dramatic truth, for Berlioz' fundamental notion of expressive truth;[90] this was how he could call Romeo and Juliet "the supreme drama of my life."[92] He read from the plays constantly, often aloud for anyone who would listen. He quoted from them for the rest of his life and would associate any personal upheaval with its Shakespearian counterpart.[93]

Berlioz was especially taken with Shakespeare's ability to pinpoint the heart of a dramatic conflict and penetrating the secrets of intense love. These secrets, Berlioz suggested in the text of Roméo et Juliette the playwright took with him to heaven. Time and again through the years, Berlioz would distill the favorite image of a play and distill it into musical terms. Roméo et Juliette may have been the first. Later came The Tempest, King Lear, a funeral march for the final scene in Hamlet, the love scene for Les Troyens (which, some claim, Berlioz took from The Merchant of Venice), and Béatrice and Benedict.[94]


Berlioz discovered Goethe's Faust through Gérard de Nerval's translation, published in December 1827. Its impact on Berlioz was, again, profound and immediate, with the Faustian concept of man striking several chords with the composer. He described Shakespeare and Goethe in an 1828 letter as "the silent confidants of my suffering; they hold the key to my life."[95] In any event, Shakespearian tragedy and Faustian mystique became of one type in his mind.[96]

The Romantics

Simultaneous with Berlioz's discovery of Shakespeare was his immersion in the texts of true Romanticism. These included the works of Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. All three inspired Berlioz to compose works based on theirs. He also immersed himself in Chateaubriand, E. T. A. Hoffmann, James Fenimore Cooper and his compatriots Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset and Gérard de Nerval. He later added Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Théophile Gautier to his list of favorites; he also used Gautier's poems as texts for his song cycle Les nuits d'eté'.[97]

Perhaps as a result of this reading and seeing himself as an archetypical tragic hero, Berlioz began to weave personal references into his music. It may in fact have been his love for Shakespeare, shared with the other young artist-heroes of 19th-century France, that drew Berlioz firmly into the brotherhood of Romanticism.



Berlioz writes in his Memoirs,

In an artist's life one thunderclap sometimes follows swiftly on another ... I had just had the successive revelations of Shakespeare and Weber. Now at another point on the horizon I saw the giant form of Beethoven rear up. The shock was almost as great as that of Shakespeare had been. Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry.[98]

He was able to hear Beethoven's works through the performances of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, an orchestra founded by François Antoine Habeneck and his colleagues to promote modern orchestral music. The inaugural concert, on 9 March 1828, featured the French premiere of the Eroica Symphony.[99] Despite protests from French and Italian composers,[100] by the end of the first season Habeneck and the orchestra had also performed the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto as well as other works.[101]

For Berlioz the experience of hearing the Eroica brought the last and greatest revelation of the power of instrumental music as an expressive language, along with the freedom of action with which it could be expressive.[102] He understood at once that the symphony was a dramatic form to an extent that he had not previously realized,[103] and that in Beethoven he saw a way to the dramatic manner in which he desired to compose.

Most tellingly, hearing the Eroica inspired Berlioz to widen his horizons for the first time past opera and other vocal works and consider the expressive power of purely instrumental music.[95] Prior to this, he had defaulted to the dominant view of the Parisian music establishment, as typified by Le Sueur: that the symphony was a lesser form of composition that Mozart and Haydn had already taken as far as possible.[104] Berlioz would go on to find instrumental music to be far more penetrating in expression and articulation than vocal setting.[95] "Now that I have heard that terrifying giant Beethoven", he wrote, "I know exactly where my musical art stands; the question is to take it from there and push it further."[105]

Other composers

Next to those of Beethoven, Berlioz showed deep reverence for the works of Gluck, Mozart, Méhul, Weber and Spontini, as well as respect for some of those of Rossini, Meyerbeer and Verdi.

Curiously perhaps, the adventures in chromaticism of his prominent contemporaries and associates Chopin and Wagner seemed to have had little effect on Berlioz's style.


Musical works

First page of original Symphonie fantastique (1830) manuscript

The five movement Symphonie fantastique, partly due to its fame, is considered by most to be Berlioz's most outstanding work,[106] and the work had a considerable impact when first performed in 1830, but 3 years after the death of Beethoven and 2 years after that of Schubert.[4][5] It is famous for its innovations in the form of the programmatic symphony. The story behind this work relates to Berlioz himself and can be considered somewhat autobiographical.[107]

In addition to the Symphonie fantastique, some other orchestral works of Berlioz currently in the standard orchestral repertoire include his "légende dramatique" La damnation de Faust and "symphonie dramatique" Roméo et Juliette (both large-scale works for mixed voices and orchestra), and his concertante symphony (for viola and orchestra) Harold en Italie, several concert overtures also remain enduringly popular, such as Le Corsaire and Le Carnaval romain. Amongst his more vocally-oriented works, the song cycle Les nuits d'été and the oratorio L'enfance du Christ have retained enduring appeal, as have the quasi-liturgical Te Deum and Grande messe des morts.

The unconventional music of Berlioz irritated the established concert and opera[7] 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[48] and emotionally. The nature of his large works - sometimes involving hundreds of performers[108] - made financial success difficult. His journalistic abilities became essential for him to make a living and he survived as a witty critic,[15] emphasizing the importance of drama and expressiveness in musical entertainment. It was perhaps this expense which prevented Berlioz from composing more opera than he did. His talent in the genre is obvious, but opera is the most expensive of all classical forms, and Berlioz in particular struggled to arrange stagings of his operas, due in part to the unwillingness of conservative Paris opera companies to perform his work.[27]

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Literary works

While Berlioz is best known as a composer, he was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years by writing musical criticism, utilising a bold, vigorous style, at times imperious and sarcastic. He wrote for many journals, including the Rénovateur,[109] Journal des débats and Gazette musicale.[110] He was active in the Débats for over thirty years until submitting his last signed article in 1863.[46] Almost from the founding, Berlioz was a key member of the editorial board of the Gazette as well as a contributor, and acted as editor on several occasions[111] while the owner was otherwise engaged. 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.[111] An example of the amount of work he produced is indicated in his producing over one-hundred articles[111] for the Gazette between 1833 and 1837. This is a conservative estimate, as not all of his submissions were signed.[111] 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.[112] These were not mere scribbles, but in-depth articles and reviews with little duplication,[112] which took considerable time to write.

Berlioz in 1863

Another noteworthy indicator of the importance Berlioz placed on journalistic integrity and even-handedness were the journals which he both did and did not write for. During the middle of the 1830s the Gazette was considered an intellectual journal, strongly supporting the progressive arts and Romanticism in general, and opposing anything which it considers as debasing this.[111] Exemplified in its long-standing criticism of Henri Herz, and his seemingly endless stream of variations on opera themes, but to its credit, it also positively reviewed his music on occasion.[113] Its writers included Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and George Sand.[111] The Gazette wasn't even unanimous in its praise of Berlioz's music, although it always recognised him as an important and serious composer to be respected.[113] An example of another journal of the same time is the Revue musicale, which thrived on personal attacks, many against Berlioz himself from the pen of critic François-Joseph Fétis.[114] At one point, Robert Schumann was motivated to publish a detailed rebuttal of one of Fétis' attacks on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique[35] in his own Neue Zeitschrift für Musik journal.[114] Fétis would later contribute to the debasement of the reputation of the Gazette when this journal failed and was absorbed by the Gazette, he found himself on the editorial board.[114]

The books which Berlioz has become acclaimed for were compiled from his journal articles.[46] Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra) (1852), a scathing satire[115] of provincial musical life in 19th century France, and the Treatise on Instrumentation, a pedagogic work, were both serialised originally in the Gazette musicale.[46] Many parts of the Mémoires (1870) were originally published in the Journal des débats, as well as Le monde illustré.[116] The Mémoires paint a magisterial (if biased) portrait of the Romantic era through the eyes of one of its chief protagonists. Evenings with the Orchestra is more overtly fictional than his other two major books, but its basis in reality is its strength,[115] making the stories it recounts all the funnier due to the ring of truth. W. H. Auden praises it, saying "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."[117] The Treatise established his reputation as a master of orchestration.[10] The work was closely studied by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss and served as the foundation for a subsequent textbook by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who as a music student attended the concerts Berlioz conducted in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.[65]


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External links




Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.

Louis Hector Berlioz (1803-12-111869-03-08) was a French composer, conductor and music critic, widely seen as the greatest representative in music of the French Romantic school.


  • C'est la vraie voix féminine de l'orchestre, voix passionnée et chaste en même temps, déchirante et douce, qui pleure et crie et se lamente, ou chante et prie et rêve, ou éclate en accents joyeux, comme nulle autre pourrait le faire.
    • That is, in fact, the true female voice of the orchestra – a voice at once passionate and chaste, heart-rending, yet soft, which can weep, sigh, and lament, chant, pray, and muse, or burst forth into joyous accents, as none other can do.
    • Grand Traité d'Instrumentation et d'Orchestration Modernes (1844) [1]; Mary Cowden Clarke (trans.) A Treatise upon Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration (London: J. Alfred Novello, 1856) p. 25.
    • Of the violin.
  • L'auteur de ce Prophète a non seulement le bonheur d'avoir du talent, mais aussi le talent d'avoir du bonheur.
    • The author of The Prophet not only has the good luck to have talent, he has also the talent to have good luck.
    • Les soirées de l'orchestre (1852), ch. 5 [2]; Jacques Barzun (trans.) Evenings with the Orchestra (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) p. 62.
  • Le temps est un grand maître, dit-on; le malheur est qu'il soit un maître inhumain qui tue ses élèves.
    • Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.
    • Letter written in November 1856, published in Pierre Citron (ed.) Correspondance générale (Paris: Flammarion, 1989) vol. 5, p. 390; Paul Davies About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) p. 214.
  • Pauvres diables!... D'où sortent ces malheureux êtres ?... À quel Montfaucon vont-ils mourir ?... Que leur octroie la munificence municipale pour nettoyer (ou salir) ainsi le pavé de Paris ?... À quel âge les envoie-t-on à l'équarrissage ?... Que fait-on de leurs os ? (leur peau n'est bonne à rien.)
    • Poor devils! Where do these unfortunate creatures come from? On what butcher's block will they meet their end? What reward does municipal munificence allot them for thus cleaning (or dirtying) the pavements of Paris? At what age are they sent to the glue factory? What becomes of their bones (their skin is good for nothing)?
    • Les Grotesques de la Musique (Paris: A. Bourdilliat, 1859) p. 89; Alastair Bruce (trans.) The Musical Madhouse (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003) pp. 54-56.
    • Of critics
  • Cette face de l’instrumentation est exactement, en musique, ce que le coloris est en peinture.
    • Instrumentation is to music precisely what color is to painting.
    • A travers chants (1862), ch. 1 [3]; Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay (trans.) The Art of Music and Other Essays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) p. 5.
  • Un chanteur ou une cantatrice capable de chanter seize mesures seulement de bonne musique avec une voix naturelle, bien posée, sympathique, et de les chanter sans efforts, sans écarteler la phrase, sans exagérer jusqu'à la charge les accents, sans platitude, sans afféterie, sans mièvreries, sans fautes de français, sans liaisons dangereuses, sans hiatus, sans insolentes modifications du texte, sans transposition, sans hoquets, sans aboiements, sans chevrotements, sans intonations fausses, sans faire boiter le rhythme, sans ridicules ornements, sans nauséabondes appogiatures, de manière enfin que la période écrite par le compositeur devienne compréhensible, et reste tout simplement ce qu'il l'a faite, est un oiseau rare, très-rare, excessivement rare.
    • A singer who is able to sing even sixteen measures of good music in a natural and engaging way, effortlessly and in tune, without distending the phrase, without exaggerating accents to the point of caricature, without platitude, affectation, or coyness, without making grammatical mistakes, without illicit slurs, without hiatus or hiccup, without making insolent changes in the text, without barks or bleats, without sour notes, without crippling the rhythm, without absurd ornaments and nauseating appoggiaturas – in short, a singer able to sing these measures simply and exactly as the composer wrote them – is a rare, very rare, exceedingly rare bird.
    • À travers chants, ch. 8 [4]; Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay (trans.) The Art of Music and Other Essays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) p. 69.

Mémoires (1870)

French quotations are cited from the online edition at; English quotations and page-numbers from Eleanor Holmes, Rachel Holmes and Ernest Newman (trans.) Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865 (New York: Dover, 1966).

  • Je ne puis m'empêcher de rendre grâces au hasard qui m'a mis dans la nécessité de parvenir à composer silencieusement et librement, en me garantissant ainsi de la tyrannie des habitudes des doigts, si dangereuses pour la pensée.
    • I feel grateful to the happy chance which forced me to compose freely and in silence, and has thus delivered me from the tyranny of the fingers, so dangerous to thought.
    • Ch. 4, p. 14
    • On being unable to master the piano.
  • Shakespeare, en tombant ainsi sur moi à l'improviste, me foudroya. Son éclair, en m'ouvrant le ciel de l'art avec un fracas sublime, m'en illumina les plus lointaines profondeurs. Je reconnus la vraie grandeur, la vraie beauté, la vraie vérité dramatiques.
    • This sudden and unexpected revelation of Shakespeare overwhelmed me. The lightning-flash of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me, illuminating its remotest depths in a single flash. I recognised the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and the real dramatic truth.
    • Ch. 18, p. 66
  • Vous me priez de vous dire…S'il est vrai que l'acte de foi de tout ce qui prétend aimer l'art élevé et sérieux soit celui-ci : "Il n'y a pas d'autre Dieu que Bach, et Mendelssohn est son prophète?"
    • You request me to tell you…if it is true that the creed of all who profess to love high and serious art is: "There is no God but Bach, and Mendelssohn is his prophet"?
    • "Premier Voyage en Allemagne", Quatrième lettre, p. 285

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File:Legros - Berlioz (dessin).jpg
Berlioz, by Alphonse Legros

Hector Berlioz (born La Côte-St-André, Isère, 11 December 1803; died Paris, 8 March 1869) was a French composer. He was one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. His music is typical of the Romantic period: full of passion and often based on ideas outside music. He was not particularly good at playing any instrument, but he was brilliant at writing for the orchestra. Some of his most famous works include several orchestral overtures, the Symphonie Fantastique, the opera Les Troyens (The Trojans), the requiem Grande messe des morts and the song cycle Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights). He was very original as a composer, and his music was not fully appreciated until many years after his death.



Childhood and student days

Berlioz was the eldest of six children. One brother and one sister lived to be adults, and Berlioz was always very fond of them both. His father was a doctor. The family lived in the country, north west of Grenoble.

Berlioz only went to school for a short time, when he was ten years old. The rest of his education he had from his father. He liked French and Latin literature and travel books about faraway countries. He learned to play the flute, the flageolet and the guitar. He read a book by Rameau about harmony. He never had a piano. He just imagined the sounds of chords in his head. He was only 12 when he fell in love with a girl called Estelle who was 18. He was teased about it a lot. He started to compose some music.

When he was 17 his father said that he wanted him to be a doctor. Berlioz wanted to study music, but his father made him go to Paris to study medicine. Berlioz was to stay in Paris for the rest of his life. He studied medicine for two years, but he hated it. One day, in an anatomy lesson, he had had enough and jumped out of the window. He started to study music. His father was furious and stopped sending him money. Berlioz was very poor and started writing musical criticism for newspapers. This is how he earned most of his money for the rest of his life. He was also borrowing money from friends.

Berlioz started going to the Opéra. He particularly liked the music of Gluck and went to the library to study Gluck’s scores. At the end of 1822 he found a good teacher. His name was Le Sueur. He made Berlioz stop publishing his music until he had learned to compose properly. In 1826 he was officially a student at the Conservatoire. He continued to study with Le Sueur and with Reicha. He tried four times to win the important music prize called Prix de Rome. The first time he wrote a piece called La Mort d’Orphée (The Death of Orpheus). The judges said it was unplayable, but Berlioz got an orchestra to play it. The second time he wrote a piece called Herminie which had a tune he used later as the main tune for his Symphonie fantastique. The third time he wrote a cantata La mort de Cléopâtre which is a wonderful work but he still did not win the prize. The fourth time he wrote a cantata La mort de Sardanapale, and he won the prize. Nearly all the music for this work is now lost.

Berlioz did not understand any English, but he went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet given by an English theatre company. The actress taking the part of Ophelia was called Harriet Smithson. Berlioz fell passionately in love with her, although he did not know her, and started following her about everywhere. In the end he married her. The marriage was not a success. Berlioz was really in love with Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s play. He found it hard to love Harriet in real life.

Shakespeare’s plays, however, were to be a great inspiration for Berlioz. He wrote many works which are inspired by Shakespeare, including Roméo et Juliette, Béatrice et Bénédict, Roi Lear and several others. He was also inspired at this time by Goethe’s Faust as well as by many other writers including E.T.A. Hoffmann, Scott and Byron. He also discovered the music of Beethoven which helped him to learn how to give shape to large compositions.

Berlioz started to be very busy putting on concerts of his music in Paris. He was quickly becoming known as a very original young composer. Winning the Prix de Rome gave him a steady income for a time, but he was supposed to go to Rome. Berlioz did not want to go to Rome. He said that he had plenty of work in Paris. The real reason why did not want to go was probably because he was in love with a 19- year-old girl called Camille Moke. .

The 1830s

Berlioz spent 15 months in Rome. On his way there he visited his parents who seemed to have forgiven him for not studying medicine. They could now be proud because their son was so successful. In Italy Berlioz did not write much music. He did not like Italian music or Italian art, but he was inspired by the countryside, the sun, the sea, the people he met: sailors, peasants, sculptors, travellers. He did not like the city of Rome, although he did like Florence. He hated the Villa Medici, the house where he had to stay. When he travelled about he wrote some music. When he heard the news that Camille now loved another man he became so furious that he left Rome in order to return to Paris to kill them both. However, when he got as far as Nice he calmed down and changed his mind. He returned to Rome.

At the end of his time in Italy he returned to Paris, visiting his parents on the way. He started organizing concerts of his music. This is when he got to know Harriet Smithson. They had a strange courtship and he married her in 1833. The next year they had a son. The marriage was never easy. Their personalities were different, they were poor, and they did not speak one another’s language. In 1842 they separated and Harriet died in great poverty in 1854.

Although a few people thought that Berlioz was an original composer, many others thought his music was very strange. He hardly earned any money from composing. Most of the money he earned came from musical journalism, which is something he hated. When his works were performed, he usually conducted them himself. He wrote a work for viola and orchestra called Harold en Italie. Paganini had asked him to write it for him to play, but when Paganini saw the music he did not like it because it was not “showy” enough for the viola. Some years later Paganini heard the work and decided he liked it, so he paid Berlioz 20.000 Francs. This was a lot of money, and it made it possible for Berlioz to spend time writing a big new work: Roméo et Juliette. When this was first performed some critics thought that Berlioz did not understand Shakespeare probably. However, Richard Wagner, who was in the audience at the first performance, was very impressed. Berlioz tried to be successful as an opera composer, but people did not understand his original music. He wrote a Grand symphonie funèbre et triomphale, originally written for a military band. Les nuits d’étés is a very moving song-cycle.

Later life

[[File:|thumb|left|Berlioz in 1863]] During the 1840s and 1850s Berlioz spent much of his time travelling abroad. He went to Germany, Austria, Russia and England. He was becoming more famous abroad than at home in France, although he still continued to go back to Paris. The Germans loved his music and were impressed by his conducting. He rarely conducted anything except his own music. In 1946 he composed one of his finest works: La Damnation de Faust which was performed in the Opéra-Comique. The opera house was half empty. It was a great disappointment to him. Berlioz continued to tour to other countries where people appreciated him. He had great success in St Petersburg, in Berlin where he performed to the King of Prussia, and in London, where he never got paid for the concerts that Jullien conducted because Jullien had no money left. However, he had other successes in London and the English liked him very much.

In 1854 Harriet Smithson died and seven months later Berlioz married Marie Recio, a singer he had known for 12 years. Her Spanish mother came to live with them, and she looked after Berlioz very kindly in his last years when he was ill. Berlioz’ son Louis had become a captain in the navy and travelled all over the world. This was something Berlioz had always dreamt of doing since his childhood when he used to read travel books. Berlioz was terribly sad in 1867 when he heard that Louis had died in Havana of yellow fever.

Berlioz had always had a passion for the Latin poet Virgil. In 1856 he spent a long time writing a long opera in five acts called Les Troyens (The Trojans). He knew it would be almost impossible to find anyone who would put on a performance. It only became possible in 1863 after he had divided the work into two parts. After that it was 30 years before the opera was performed again. It contains some of his best music. The storm scene is especially famous and often performed separately as an orchestral piece.

As he got older he became obsessed with death. He had lost two wives, and his two sisters had also died. He started to walk in cemeteries. He wrote his Memoires (autobiography) which is extremely interesting and well written. It has been translated into many languages including English.

In 1863 he wrote to Estelle, the girl he had loved when he was a child. She was now a widow of 67 and he was 60. He visited her in Lyons and loved her again. He wrote regularly to her for the rest of his life, and stayed with her three times in Grenoble where she lived with her son. She gradually understood him better, and she gave him much happiness during his last years.

A final journey to St Petersburg was too much for Berlioz. He became ill. He went to Nice on the way home, where he twice collapsed while walking by the sea. He went back to Paris where he was cared for by his mother-in-law. He died on 11 March 1869 and was buried in the Cimitière Montmartre.

Berlioz’s reputation

Berlioz is a clear example of a “prophet who is without honour in his own country”: not many people in France realized he was a great composer, but in other countries he was welcomed as one of the great composers and conductors of his day. Many of his works are difficult to describe. His Symphonie fantastique is not quite a symphony, his Harold en Italie is not quite a concerto. His Requiem is not a normal, religious requiem, Roméo et Juliette is a mixture of all sorts of things. He wrote five operas, which are all very different in style. His songs are tender and lovely, influenced by the French romance. His overtures are very popular at orchestral concerts. His music is very original and, although he wrote a book on orchestration, the sounds he composed were so personal that no one could imitate him. He was not good at playing any instrument, but could imagine all the sounds in his head. Many of his melodies stretch themselves over an unusual number of bars. A lot of his orchestral music is programme music: it is often inspired by books or wild stories in his imagination.


  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Berlioz Mémoires; edition Garnier-Flammarion, Paris 1969

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