Known equally as a composer and for his influential treatise
on orchestra, Hector Berlioz was one of the foremost figures of the progressive
movement during the early years of the Romantic period. Born on December 11th,
1803, he did not receive musical instruction during his early childhood like
many of the famous composers of his day. His father, a respected provincial
physician, presided over young Berlioz's education and intended his son to
enter the medical field. Nevertheless, at the age of twelve, Berlioz began
writing small compositions, teaching himself as he went. Quite exceptionally,
he never learned to play the piano but did become quiet proficient on the
guitar, flageolet and flute.
In 1821, at the age of eighteen, Berlioz was sent to study
medicine in Paris. He had no interest in the field of medicine but took
advantage of his residence in the French capital. He attended the Paris Opéra
where he was introduced to the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer
he admired equally with Beethoven. He also regularly visited the library of the
prestigious Paris Conservatoire, studying and making personal copies of scores,
and nearly was thrown out of the library for not being a formal music student
by the Conservatoire's music director Luigi Cherubini. In 1824, with the
encouragement of friends, he abandoned his medical studies to the great
disapproval of his parents and embarked on a career in music. Two years later,
he began attending the Conservatoire to study composition with Jean-François Le Sueur and Anton Reicha.
From his early youth, Berlioz ardently admired literature, a
passion which came through in his compositions. As a child, he enjoyed the
writings of Virgil. While in Paris, he was introduced to the works of William
Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose works would be the
inspiration for later compositions, as well as other prominent literary
figures. Musically, he was introduced to the mighty symphonies of Beethoven,
which formed a lasting impression on the young composer.
The year 1830 was a turning point in Berlioz's career. After
three unsuccessful attempts he won the prestigious Prix de Rome with the cantata Sardanapale.
With the prize came a five year pension, of great importance to the financially
struggling composer, and two years of study in Rome, Italy. The year also saw
the composition of the Symphonie
fantastique, perhaps Berlioz's most well-known and influential work. With
it, Berlioz included a programmatic element within the structure of the symphony
as well as introducing the idée fixe—a
recurring melody with programmatic significance and the precursor to Wagner's leitmotif. In his personal life, Berlioz
also became engaged to Camille Moke. The relationship, however, was an
ill-fated one and nearly destroyed Berlioz's career and life.
On December 30th, 1831, Berlioz left France for
his two-year stay in Rome on condition of his winning the Prix de Rome. He, however, disliked the city calling it "stupid and
prosaic." Consequently, he left the city whenever possible, often escaping into
the nearby countryside. His stay in Rome was interrupted by a letter from the
mother of his fiancée informing him the engagement had been called off and her
daughter was instead to marry the rich son of Ignaz Pleyel, a leading piano
manufacturer. In a fit of rage, Berlioz immediately left for France with the intent
to murder Pleyel, his fiancée and her mother as a means of revenge. He
concocted an intricate plan by which to carry out his revenge, even going so
far as to procure poison as a backup in case the two double-barreled pistols he
had obtained misfired. Fortunately, Berlioz's plan did not come to fruition.
Having set things in motion, by the time he reached Genoa, he realized he had
forgotten the disguise by which he planned to use to gain entry to their home.
This oversight gave Berlioz the opportunity to reconsider his plan and
ultimately came to the conclusion that it was foolish venture. He returned to
Rome to continue his music studies.
Berlioz's most well-known composition and successes lie in
the decade between 1830 and 1840. Upon his return to Paris from Italy, the Symphonie fantastique was given in
concert attended by such illustrious figures in the audience as Victor Hugo,
Alexandre Dumas, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. In 1834,
Paganini approached Berlioz with the commission for a viola concerto. The
result was instead the symphony for viola and orchestra, Harold en Italie, inspired by both Lord Byron's Childe Harold and Berlioz's own travels
there. Paganini originally disliked the composition for the reason that it
lacked complexity and refused to perform it. However, after hearing its
premier, Paganini, according to Berlioz's own account of the incident, knelt
before him and proclaimed him a genius. The following day Paganini sent Berlioz
a gift of 20,000 francs. Following the success of Harold, Berlioz set to work on his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette for voices, chorus and
orchestra, which became an international success. In 1847, the Grande messe des morts, which Berlioz
considered to be his greatest work, was premiered at Les Invalides.
Following the 1830s, Berlioz's successes began to wane. The
compositions of the following decades, such as La damnation de Faust and Les
Troyens, where commercial failures and he became increasingly disgruntled
with the musical tastes of his homeland. Despite the downturn in the success of
his compositions, his reputation and influence as a conductor grew.
Furthermore, in 1844, he published the first edition of his influential Treatise on Instrumentation. During this
time, he also travelled extensively, visiting Germany, England, Austria and
Russia, mainly as a guest conductor. His two tours of Russia turned out to be
highly lucrative, so much so that his profits from them more than outweighed
his losses from unsuccessful compositions.
In the late 1850s, Berlioz's health began to decline. His
career, likewise, had also by this time dwindled, marked more by failures than
successes. Though regarded as one of the great conductors of the time and
ranked with Liszt and Wagner as a leader of the progressive movement, in his
final years Berlioz became disillusioned and gradually retreated from the
musical world. Following his last successful tour of Russia in 1867, he
returned to Paris exhausted and soon after left for Nice to recuperate. An
accident, possibly the result of a stroke, forced him to return to Paris where
he lived the remainder of his life as an invalid. On March 8, 1869, he died at
his home in Paris.
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