On December 11, 1803, Hector Berlioz was born. Berlioz was not an enormously productive composer, but those of his works that are still played are among the most popular in the classical repertoire.
Berlioz’s father was a doctor. He was relatively progressive for his time, and one of the first European doctors to take acupuncture seriously. Berlioz was schooled at home by his father, and unlike many composers, was not a child prodigy. He had relatively little music education as a child—some basic instruction on the recorder, and a few flute and guitar lessons. He didn’t study the piano, and never learned to play it well, which he claimed: "saved [him] from the tyranny of keyboard habits, so dangerous to thought, and from the lure of conventional harmonies.”
In 1821, Berlioz received his baccalaureate, roughly the equivalent of a modern high school diploma, and entered the School of Medicine at the University of Paris. He hated medical school, especially the work of dissecting bodies. But he loved living in Paris, taking great pleasure in his exposure to music and the arts. He began attending the opera regularly and was particularly fond of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. The more he attended the opera, the more Berlioz was convinced that he was meant to be a composer.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm, Berlioz graduated from medical school in 1824 and promptly declared that he was done with medicine. His father refused to fund his musical education, and Berlioz struggled financially for several years.
Berlioz’s great romantic obsession entered his life in 1826 when he attended some Shakespeare plays being performed by an English touring company. He fell hard for the leading lady, Harriet Smithson, and attempted to introduce himself on several occasions; she was uninterested. He eventually moved on and became engaged to a young pianist, Marie Moke, in 1830.
But he hadn’t forgotten about Smithson, who was the subject of his first great success as a composer. The Symphonie fantastique was unlike most symphonies. It was program music—that is, music with a plot—telling the story of an artist whose obsessive love has led him to poison himself with opium (and Berlioz may have been under the influence himself while writing the piece). The piece was clearly inspired by Berlioz’s own love-from-afar for Smithson, and it ends with the artist, in an opium-inspired fever dream, seeing himself hung at the scaffold, then seeing his true love as one of the revelers at a witches’ sabbath.
The Symphonie fantastique is one of the few pieces of classical music to have a sequel. Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, (Lélio, or the Return to Life ), which premiered in 1832, finds the artist waking from his dreams, and features a narrator who offers dramatic recitations on the role of art in our lives; it is rarely performed today. You’ll find it on tracks 15-27 of this collection.
A few months after announcing his engagement, while studying in Rome, Berlioz learned that Moke had broken off their relationship for another man. He began to plan a murder, and possibly suicide, going so far as to buy poisons and pistols before abandoning the idea. In the aftermath of that failed relationship, Berlioz decided to take another shot at impressing Smithson, inviting her to a concert of his music. She was impressed by the large number of artistic celebrities in attendance and finally agreed to meet Berlioz. They were married less than a year later, though her own career was in decline at that point, and it is unclear to what extent her decision to marry might have been motivated by her own financial difficulties.
Berlioz continued to premiere new music. Harold in Italy was well received in 1834. It was another unorthodox symphony, featuring a large solo part for the viola, but not quite a full-fledged viola concerto. Berlioz’s 1837 Requiem was not a large success when it premiered, but Berlioz was fond of it. He later said that if he “were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I would crave mercy” for the Requiem.
Throughout his early career, Berlioz supplemented his income as a composer by working as a music critic for magazines and newspapers in Paris. He didn’t enjoy that work at all. But he was able to give it up after receiving a generous gift of 20,000 francs from composer-violinist Niccolo Paganini; that was enough money for Berlioz to pay off all of his (and Harriet’s) debts and focus on composition.
He had one of his greatest successes in 1839, with the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, a massive work for chorus, solo singers, and orchestra. Berlioz and his co-librettist altered the story significantly from Shakespeare’s original.
In 1841, Berlioz began publishing a series of articles on the art and craft of orchestration. Even his fiercest critics had always acknowledged that Berlioz was a master of instrumental effects; the articles were collected in 1843 as his Treatise on Instrumentation.
Berlioz spent much of the 1840s touring and conducting throughout Europe. His music was often better received outside France than it was at home, and he welcomed the opportunity to get away from his marriage, which had become increasingly strained. His major composition of the decade was, again, hard to define formally. La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust) was somewhere in between an opera and a cantata; Berlioz called it a “dramatic legend.” It was another piece for large forces—orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and four solo singers—and while the critics were kind, the public wasn’t impressed.
In 1848, Harriet suffered a series of strokes that left her in need of constant nursing care. Whatever the problems might have been in their marriage, Berlioz stepped up to his responsibility, paying for her care, and visiting her almost every day when he was at home in Paris. His romantic life did not come to a halt, though, and when Harriet died in 1854, Berlioz fairly quickly married his longtime mistress, the singer Marie Recio.
His 1854 oratorio L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) was greatly praised, even by the Paris critics who had so often received his music poorly. They thought it showed a gentler side of Berlioz, less modern and discordant than usual.
In 1858, Berlioz completed his largest work yet, an opera based on The Aeneid. Les Troyens (The Trojans) was a five-hour, five-act opera, and Berlioz couldn’t find an opera company willing to produce so massive a piece. A small Paris opera company finally agreed in 1863 to produce the last three acts, and during its run of 22 performances, the management kept trimming the production, cutting one aria after another. Berlioz was so demoralized by the experience that he never wrote any more music. Les Troyens didn’t receive a full production until 1890, more than twenty years after Berlioz's death.
Berlioz’s second wife, Marie, died in 1862; in 1867, his beloved son, Louis, died in Havana of yellow fever. That news, combined with the stress of an already-planned concert tour to Russia, left Berlioz noticeably unwell when he returned to Paris. His health never fully recovered, and he died on March 8, 1869.