Birth: Dec 11, 1803 in La Cote-St.-Andre, Isere, France
Death: Mar 8, 1869 in Paris, France
Hector Berlioz is best known for his large-scale compositions and advanced sense of orchestral color. Born in France in 1803, he never studied the piano and was never able to play more than a few chords. Nevertheless, he learned to read and write music and began composing at age 14. His father insisted that he study medicine, sending the young Berlioz to study in Paris, an idea that horrified the sensitive youth. When Berlioz abandoned medicine, his father cut him off from financial support.
Berlioz wrote a Mass that was successfully performed in June 1825, confirming his ambition to be a composer. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1826. Attending his first Shakespeare play in 1827, he fell passionately in love with actress Harriet Smithson. To catch her attention he organized an all-Berlioz concert, and in 1828 moved into a new apartment across the street from hers. Unfortunately, she moved out within days and went on tour to Holland, which he interpreted as a personal rejection. In 1830 his compositional career shot upward. He sublimated his passion for Harriet in his masterpiece, the Symphonie fantastique, which also showed his growing acquaintance with Beethoven. It is an arch-Romantic work, completely preoccupied with the artist's own emotional life, with a recurring idee fixe that evokes Smithson. Berlioz composed a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, called The Return to Life (the work was renamed Lelio in 1855). Present at the 1832 premiere of Symphonie fantastique was Smithson, who by now had heard she was the subject of two large pieces of music, and they were introduced. Their eventual marriage produced a son, Louis, in 1834. But Smithson's career was soon on a downslide, and alcohol hastened the dissolution of their marriage and her death. Engaged to pianist Camille Moke, Berlioz then set off for a two-year residence in Rome. Barely settled in, he received a letter announcing Camille's engagement to the prosperous piano manufacturer Pleyel, driving Berlioz into a rage. He set out for Paris to kill the Moke family and commit suicide, getting as far as Nice before coming to reason.
Other important works in the Berlioz catalog include the Requiem (1838), a work that exemplifies his monumental musical thinking at its best. He used an orchestra of 190, four additional brass and percussion ensembles, and a 210-voice chorus. For the violin virtuoso Paganini, Berlioz composed Harold in Italy, a symphonic poem with a prominent viola part inspired by Byron. Paganini never performed the work, but gave Berlioz a windfall of 20,000 francs. Berlioz used the money to compose a large-scale "dramatic symphony" on the subject of Romeo et Juliette. Because his compositions called for such large forces, they were expensive to produce and they were often beyond the grasp of his audiences. Better appreciated abroad than at home, around 1840 he began to travel and give concerts in Russia and Germany as a conductor. His major works of the 1840s and 1850s was the vast five-act opera Les Troyens, which was never performed in its entirety in his lifetime. His last major work, a melodic opera called Beatrice et Benedict and based on Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, was a success abroad, but again failed in Paris.
By the middle 1860s Berlioz was in declining health, and in 1869 he died quietly in the arms of his second wife, Marie Recio. His funeral procession was symbolic for a man who was well ahead of his contemporaries all his life: The horses drawing his hearse spooked, ran away, and got to the cemetery well ahead of the mourners.
- Joseph Stevenson (All Music Guide)