Personalities | Louis-Hector Berlioz | Early Romantic | Classical

(Loo-e’ Ek-tôr’ Ber-lyoz’) 1803–69
French composer and critic

Berlioz was the leading French musician of his age. His greatest achievements, and those for which he is best remembered, were with large-scale orchestral and vocal works, although he also wrote in other genres.

He was rooted in classical traditions – his earliest influences included Gluck and the music of the French Revolution – but his interest in new and varied modes of expression and his passionate sense of colour and drama embodied the Romantic ideal.

Although admired today, Berlioz’s talents as a composer were not generally recognized by his contemporaries in France. His idiosyncratic style, embracing irregular rhythms and phrases, contrapuntal textures and imaginative orches­­­t­ration, was not appreciated. In his day he was more successful as a critic, and indeed this was largely how he earned his living. He wrote with wit, trenchantly defending composers he admired, notably Beethoven, while pouring scorn on what he saw as the frivolous musical style of Rossini and other Italian opera composers. His entertaining Mémoires are an important (if often misleading) source of our understanding of his life.

Formative Years

As a boy Berlioz learnt to play the flute and guitar, though conspicuously he had no lessons on the piano. Yet despite his early interest in performing and composing, on his father’s insistence he spent two unhappy years studying medicine in Paris. From 1822, however, he attended composition classes with Jean-François Le Sueur (1760–1837), and in 1826 he enrolled at the Conservatoire. Compositions from these years include a number of romances and a Messe solennelle (1824), material from which he was to incorporate into later works.

In 1827 an important event took place that was to fundamentally affect his personal and professional life. He saw Hamlet performed by a visiting English troupe and, despite his difficulty in understanding the language, was profoundly moved. This marked the beginning of a life-long love of the works of William Shakespeare (to be reflected in many of his works), and the start of a mercurially intense relationship with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who played the part of Ophelia (they married in 1833, but separated nine years later). His Symphonie fantastique (‘Fantastic Symphony’, 1830), a huge, Beethovenian, narrative drama for orchestra, reflects his emotional turmoil at this time: it describes the progression of a violent, opium-induced love affair through five movements, and is unified by the recurrence of a theme, or idée fixe, representing the artist’s obsession.

Symphonie fantastique

The introduction to the first movement recalls the artist’s melancholy and longing. The idée fixe, hinted at early on in the violins, is heard in full when the slow tempo gives way to the allegro. It is a long, asymmetrical melody that dominates the rest of the movement, which is given over to his ‘volcanic’ love and his suffering. The music has a Beethovenian energy, and the exposition is repeated as in a classical symphony, but it is beyond anything that Beethoven would...

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