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Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

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Published by Paul Muljadi

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Published by: Paul Muljadi on Dec 11, 2012
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Hector Berlioz
by Paul Muljadi
Hector Berlioz
Crop of a carte de visite photo of Hector Berlioz by Franck, Paris, ca. 1855 
Hector Berlioz
[ɛktɔʁ bɛʁˈljoːz]; 11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French
Romantic composer, best known for his compositions
Symphonie fantastique 
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.He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner,Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.
Life and career
Early years
Hector Berlioz was born in France at
La Côte-Saint-André
in the
, near Grenoble. His father, a respected provincial physician andcholar, was responsible for much of the young Berlioz's education. His father, Louis-Joseph Berlioz, was an atheist, with a liberal outlook; his mother, Marie-Antoinette, was an orthodox Roman Catholic
. He had five siblings in all, three of whom did not survive to adulthood. The other two, Nanci and Adèle, remained
close to Berlioz throughout his life.Berlioz was not a child prodigy, unlike some other famous composers of the time; he began studying music at age 12, when he began writing smallcompositions and arrangements. As a result of his father's discouragement, he never learned to play the piano, a peculiarity he later described as bothbeneficial and detrimental. He became proficient at guitar, flageolet and flute
. He learned harmony by textbooks alone—he was not formally trained. The
majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces.While yet at age 12, as recalled in his
, he experienced his first passion for a woman, an 18-year-old next door neighbour named Estelle Fornier
(née Dubœuf). Berlioz appears to have been innately
Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature,and his weeping at passages by Virgil (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 March 1821, he graduated from high school in Grenoble, and in October, at age 18, Berlioz was sent to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had nointerest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected. (He gives a colorful account in his
.) He began to take advantageof 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
his first encounter with Luigi Cherubini, the Conservatoire's then music director. Cherubini attempted to throw the impetuous Berlioz out of thelibrary since he was not a formal music student at that time. Berlioz also heard two operas by Gaspare Spontini, a composer who influenced him through theirfriendship, and whom he later championed when working as a critic. From then on, he devoted himself to composition. He was encouraged in his endeavorsby
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
Le passage de la mer Rouge 
Crossing of the Red Sea) – both now lost – the latter of which convinced Lesueur to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils.
Despite his parents' disapproval, in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. He composed the
Messe solennelle 
. Thiswork was rehearsed and revised after the rehearsal but not performed until the following year. Berlioz later claimed to have burnt the score, but it was re-discovered in 1991. Later that year or in 1825, he began to compose the opera
Les francs-juges 
, which was completed the following year but wentunperformed. The work survives only in fragments; the overture has been much recorded and is sometimes played in concert.In 1826 he began attending the Conservatoire to study composition under
Jean-François Le Sueur 
and Anton Reicha. He also submitted a fugue to the Prixde 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 everyyear 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 yearpension-much needed income for the struggling composer. In 1827 he composed the
overture after Walter Scott's
novels. He also beganworking as a chorus singer at a vaudeville theatre to contribute towards an income. Later that year, he attended a production by a traveling English theaterompany at the
Odéon theatre
with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia and Juliet in the Shakespeare plays
Romeo and Juliet 
.He immediately became infatuated by both actress and playwright. Prone to violent impulses, Berlioz began flooding her hotel room with love letters whichboth confused and terrified her. Predictably, his advances on her went nowhere.In 1828 Berlioz heard Beethoven's third and fifth symphonies performed at the Paris Conservatoire
– an experience that he found overwhelming. He also read
ohann Wolfgang von Goethe's
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 and piano sonatas, and recognised theimportance of these immediately. He began to study English so that he could read Shakespeare. Around the same time, he also began to write musicalcriticism.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 brokeut", he recorded in his
, "I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering onhe 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". Shortly later, he finally wonhe prize with the cantata
. 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 theworst rain in Paris for 50 years, meaning the performance was almost deserted. Berlioz met Franz Liszt who was also attending the concert. This proved to bethe beginning of a long friendship. Liszt would later transcribe the entire
Symphonie fantastiqu
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.
n 30 December 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 ismost evident in the thematic aspects of his music, particularly
Harold en Italie 
(1834), a work inspired by Lord Byron's
Childe Harold 
. Berlioz later recalled thathis, "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] whileretaining 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 melancholyreamer in the manner of Byron's Childe-Harold."hile 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; itis no place for anyone with head or heart." He therefore made an effort to leave the city as often as possible, making frequent trips to the surroundingountry. During one of these trips, while Berlioz enjoyed an afternoon of sailing, he encountered a group of Carbonari. These were members of a secretociety of Italian patriots based in France with the aim of creating a unified Italy.
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

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