Hector Berlioz

The French composer, conductor and music critic Hector Berlioz – the author of the Symphonie fantastique (1830), the choral symphony Romeo and Juliet (1839), the dramatic work The Curse of Faust (1846) and many other works exceptional in their conception and artistic realisation – was among the most brilliant and original figures in the art of the 19th century. His work reflects his ardent romantic nature and his ever searching spirit, intent on new paths in music.

Berlioz created programmatic-romantic symphonic music, introduced the motif (idée fixe) by characterizing characters, images, events in the work, enriched the expressive and sonic possibilities of the orchestration through new approaches to orchestration and the introduction of new musical instruments. He uses  unusually large orchestras for their works,and some concerts are conducted by thousands of musicians. The underlined dramatic expressiveness in his works explain the contradictory attitude of his contemporaries towards his work. His musical language is striking for its sensitivity and pictorial imagery. The composer César Franck very accurately describes Berlioz’s oeuvre as composed of masterpieces, given the uniqueness of his works – unlike many composers, Berlioz almost never repeats himself, even though each work bears the imprint of his individual compositional style.

Berlioz’s birthplace was a village near Grenoble in the French Alps. In his early years he acquired a knowledge of music, composing for local chamber groups, learning to play the flute and virtuoso guitar. In 1821 his father sent him to Paris to study medicine and for a year he rigorously attended the courses. But he also took every opportunity to go to the Paris Opera, where he got acquainted, score in hand, with the entire repertoire, especially the works of the great opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. He became a student of Jean-François Lesueur, professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, despite his family’s opposition. But Berlioz followed his own path in music, and in 1830 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome. Since then, his masterpiece Symphonie Fantastique has been associated with his great love for the famous at that time in Paris Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. In 1833 the composer married her, but his marriage lasted only a few years. The house in Montmartre in which they lived was frequented by young Romantic poets and musicians, including Alfred de Vigny and Chopin. The composer’s only child, Louis, was also born there. It was there that he composed his Requiem.Great Mass of the Dead (1837), the symphonies Harold in Italy (1834) and Romeo and Juliet (1839), and the opera Benvenuto Cellini (staged in Paris, 1838). In his Memoirs, the composer shares how productive his Paris years were, when he composed oratorios, numerous cantatas, two dozen songs, masses, an opera movement, two overtures, a fantasy based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and eight scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Symphonie fantastique.

His sojourn in Italy in connection with the Prix de Rome was the creative inspiration for his last works: the large-scale opera Les Troyens, which the composer never saw staged except for its second act (first staged in its entirety abroad, December 1890 in Karlsruhe, in German; the premiere in the original French language was in 1906 in Brussels) and Beatrice and Benedick (commenced in 1833, completed and staged in 1862).

After 1840 Berlioz’s life consisted of a series of concert tours in Europe as a conductor. He had the opportunity to meet and interact with artists of various nationalities, including Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and the other composers of the ‘Mighty  Five’. His last concerts were in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1867, when he was very ill. In addition, Berlioz was very depressed by the deaths in his family. His first wife Harriet Smithson, from whom he was separated but to whom he still felt deep affection, died in 1854. His second wife, Maria Recio, whom he had married as a widower, died suddenly in 1862. His son Louis, who was a sea captain, was fatally struck down by yellow fever in Havana at the age of 33. On 8 March 1869 the composer passed away.

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