(Born; La Côte-St-André, Isère, 11 Dec 1803; Died; Paris,
8 March 1869). French composer. As a boy he learnt the flute, guitar and, from treatises
alone, harmony (he never studied the piano); his first compositions were romances
and small chamber pieces. After two unhappy years as a medical student in Paris (1821-3)
he abandoned the career chosen for him by his father and turned decisively to music,
attending Le Sueur's composition class at the Conservatoire. He entered for the Prix de
Rome four times (1827-30) and finally won. Among the most powerful influences on him were
Shakespeare, whose plays were to inspire three major works, and the actress Harriet
Smithson, whom he idolized, pursued and, after a bizarre courtship, eventually married
(1833). Beethoven's symphonies too made a strong impact, along with Goethe's Faust
and the works of Moore, Scott and Byron. The most important product of this time was his
startlingly original, five-movement Symphonie fantastique (1830).
Berlioz's 15 months in Italy (1831-2) were significant more
for his absorption of warmth, vivacity and local colour than for the official works he
wrote there; he moved out of Rome as often as possible and worked on a sequel to the Symphonie
fantastique (Le retour à la vie, renamed Lélio in 1855) and overtures
to King Lear and Rob Roy, returning to Paris early to promote his music.
Although the 1830s and early 1840s saw a flow of major compositions - Harold en Italie,
Benvenuto Cellini, Grande messe des morts, Roméo et Juliette, Grande symphonie funèbre
et triomphale, Les nuits d'été - his musical career was now essentially a tragic
one. He failed to win much recognition, his works were considered eccentric or 'incorrect'
and he had reluctantly to rely on journalism for a living; from 1834 he wrote chiefly for
the Gazette musicale and the Journal des débats .
As the discouragements of Paris increased, however,
performances and recognition abroad beckoned: between 1842 and 1863 Berlioz spent most of
his time touring, in Germany, Austria, Russia, England and elsewhere. Hailed as an
advanced composer, he also became known as a leading modern conductor. He produced
literary works (notably the Mémoires) and another series of musical masterpieces -
La damnation de Faust, the Te Deum, L'enfance du Christ, the vast epic Les
troyens (1856-8; partly performed, 1863) and Béatrice et Bénédict (1860-62)
- meanwhile enjoying happy if short-lived relationships with Liszt and Wagner. The loss of
his father, his son Louis (1834-67), two wives, two sisters and friends merely accentuated
the weary decline of his last years, marked by his spiritual isolation from Parisian taste
and the new music of Germany alike.
A lofty idealist with a leaping imagination, Berlioz was
subject to violent emotional changes from enthusiasm to misery; only his sharp wit saved
him from morbid self-pity over the disappointments in his private and professional life.
The intensity of the personality is inextricably woven into the music: all his works
reflect something in himself expressed through poetry, literature, religion or drama.
Sincere expression is the key - matching means to expressive ends, often to the point of
mixing forms and media, ignoring pre-set schemes. In Les troyens, his grand opera
on Virgil's Aeneid, for example, aspects of the monumental and the intimate, the
symphonic and the operatic, the decorative and the solemn converge. Similarly his
symphonies, from the explicitly dramatic Symphonie fantastique with its idée
fixe (the theme representing his beloved, changed and distorted in line with the
work's scenario), to the picturesque Harold en Italie with its concerto element, to
the operatic choral symphony cum tone poem RomEacute;o et Juliette, are all
characteristic in their mixture of genres. Of his other orchestral works, the overture Le
carnaval romain stands out as one of the most extrovert and brilliant. Among the
choral works, Faust and L'enfance du Christ combine dramatic action and
philosophic reflection, while the Requiem and Te Deum exploit to the full Berlioz's
most spacious, ceremonial style.
Though Berlioz's compositional style has long been
considered idiosyncratic, it can be seen to rely on an abundance of both technique and
inspiration. Typical are expansive melodies of irregular phrase length, sometimes with a
slight chromatic inflection, and expressive though not tonally adventurous harmonies.
Freely contrapuntal textures predominate, used to a variety of fine effects including
superimposition of separate themes; a striking boldness in rhythmic articulation gives the
music much of its vitality. Berlioz left perhaps his most indelible mark as an
orchestrator, finding innumerable and subtle ways to combine and contrast instruments
(both on stage and off), effectively emancipating the procedure of orchestration for
generations of later composers. As a critic he admired above all Gluck and Beethoven,
expressed doubt about Wagner and fought endlessly against the second-rate.
Operas: Benvenuto Cellini (1838); Les
troyens (1863, 1890); Béatrice et Bénédict (1862).
Orchestral music: Les francs-juges, ov.(1826); Waverley, ov. (1828); Symphonie fantastique (1830); Le roi Lear, ov. (1831); Rob Roy, ov. (1831); Harold en Italie, va, orch (1834); Roméo et Juliette, with v (1839);
Rêverie et caprice, vn, orch / pf (1841); Le carnaval romain, ov. (1844); Le corsaire,
Choral music: La révolution grecque (1826); Chant sacré (1829); Méditation religieuse (1831); Lélio (1832); Sara la
baigneuse (1834); Grande messe des morts (1837); Hymne à la France (1844); La damnation
de Faust (1846); La mort d'Ophélie (1848); Te Deum (1849); L'enfance du Christ (1854).
Vocal music: 9 works for solo v, orch, incl. Les nuits d'été (1841); over 30 songs, 1-4 vv, incl. Elégie en prose (1829).
Other works: fugues, albumleaves, gui accs. for romances; arrs.
Writings: Grand traité d'instrumentation (1834, 2/1855); Les soirées de l'orchestre (1852); A travers chant (1862); Mémoires de Hector Berlioz (1870); reviews, articles.
© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK