Hector Berlioz - Biography

Hector Berlioz 
1803, La Cote-Saint-Andre
1869, Paris
One of the first French romantic composers and a daring creator of new orchestral sounds

Hector Berlioz Biography

Portrait of Berlioz by Signol, 1832
Portrait of Berlioz by Signol, 1832

Louis Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer best known for the Symphonie Fantastique, first performed in 1830, and for his Requiem of 1837, with its tremendous resources that include four antiphonal brass choirs.



Berlioz was born in France at La Côte St. André, between Lyon and Grenoble. His father was a physician and young Hector was sent to Paris to study medicine as well. Berlioz was horrified by the process of dissection and, to the surprise of his parents, he abandoned his career path in medicine to study music. He then attended the Paris Conservatoire studying opera and composition. (Kamien 241)

He became identified early on with the French romantic movement. Among his friends were writers such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Honoré de Balzac. Later, Théophile Gautier would write:

'Hector Berlioz seems to me to form with Hugo and Delacroix, the Trinity of Romantic Art'

Berlioz is said to have been innately romantic, experiencing emotions deeply from early childhood. This manifested itself in his weeping at passages of Virgil as a child, and later in a series of love affairs. At twenty-three, his at first unrequited love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Henrietta Constance Smithson was the inspiration for his Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz's letters were considered so overly passionate by Smithson that she initially refused his advances. The symphony which these emotions are said to inspire was received as starting and vivid. The autobiographic nature of this piece of program music was also considered sensational at the time. In the same year as the symphony's premiere, 1830, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome. After his return to Paris from his two years study in Rome, he finally married Smithson when she had finally attended a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. She quickly realized that it was his depiction of his passionate letters to her. However, after only a few years the relationship quickly fell apart. (Kamien 242)

An engagement with Marie Moke, after Smithson had rejected him at first, was broken off when Moke's mother married her off to the pianist and piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel. Berlioz, residing in Rome at the time under a Prix de Rome scholarship, planned to ride back to Paris dressed as a chambermaid, kill Moke, her mother and her fiancé, and commit suicide. He got as far as Nice before giving up the idea.

During his lifetime, Berlioz was more famous as a conductor than a composer; he regularly toured Germany and England where he conducted operas and symphonic music, both his own and music composed by others. He met virtuoso and composer Nicolo Paganini a few times and, according to Berlioz's memoirs, Paganini offered him 20,000 francs after he saw Harold in Italy performed live as the money was intended as a reward for writing a viola piece for the violin virtuoso to perform as his own.

Hector Berlioz is buried in the Cimetiere de Montmartre with his two wives, Harriet Smithson (died 1854) and Marie Recio (died 1862)


The music of Berlioz enjoyed a revival during the 1960s and 1970s, due in large part to the efforts of British conductor Colin Davis, who recorded his entire oeuvre, bringing a number of Berlioz's lesser-known works to the light. Davis's recording of Les Troyens was the first complete recording of that work. The work, which Berlioz never saw staged in its entirety during his life, is now revived regularly.

In 2003, the bicentennary of his birth, a proposal was made to remove his remains to the Panthéon but it was blocked by President Jacques Chirac in a political dispute over Berlioz's worthiness as a symbol of the glory of France in comparison as such figures as Andre Malraux, Jean Jaures and Alexandre Dumas. In his land of birth, Berlioz still remains something of the neglected prophet.

Musical influence

Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and many of his best compositions are inspired by literary works. For The Damnation of Faust, Berlioz drew on Goethe's Faust, for Harold in Italy, he drew on Byron's Childe Harold, and for Benvenuto Cellini he drew on Cellini's own autobiography. For Romeo et Juliette he turned to Shakespeare's tragedy of the similar name. For his magnum opus, the monumental opera Les Troyens, Berlioz turned to Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid. For his last opera, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz prepared a libretto based loosely on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Apart from the many literary influences, Berlioz also championed Beethoven who was at the time unknown in France. The performance of the 'Eroica' symphony in Paris seems to have been a turning point for Berlioz's compositions. Next to Beethoven, Berlioz worshipped Gluck, Weber and Spontini.

Works of music and literature

Photograph by Karl Reutlinger, 1864
Photograph by Karl Reutlinger, 1864

Musical works

In addition to the Symphonie Fantastique, other works of his currently in the standard orchestral repertoire are his 'légende dramatique' La Damnation de Faust and 'symphonie dramatique' Romeo et Juliette (both large scale works for mixed voices and orchestra), and the song cycle Les Nuits d'Été (originally for voice and piano, later with an orchestral accompaniment).

The unconventional musical of Berlioz irritated the established concert and opera scene. Berlioz had to arrange for his own performances as well as pay for them himself. This took a heavy toll on him financially and emotionally. He had about twelve hundred loyal attendants to his performances who guaranteed ticket sales, but the nature of his large works involving hundreds of performers made financial success difficult. His journalistic abilities became essential for him to make a living and he survived as a witty critic emphasizing the importance of drama and expressivity in musical entertainment. (Kamien 243)

Literary works

While Berlioz is best known as a composer, he was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years writing musical criticism. He wrote in a bold, vigorous style, at times imperious and sarcastic. Evenings With the Orchestra (1852) is a scathing satire of provincial musical life in 19th century France. Berlioz's Memoirs (1870) paints a magisterial portrait of the Romantic era through the eyes of one of its chief protagonists.

A pedagogic work, The Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, established his reputation as a master of orchestration. The work was closely studied by Mahler and Strauss and served as the foundation for a subsequent textbook by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who as a music student attended the concerts Berlioz conducted in Moscow and St Petersburg. Music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote:

Before the visits of Berlioz, there was no Russian music. His was the paradigm that inspired the genre. Tchaikovsky raided the Symphonie Fantastique like a tuck-shop for his third symphony. Mussorgsky died with a copy of the Berlioz Treatise on his bed. 1 (http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/031210-NL-Berlioz.html)


  • Mémoires, Hector Berlioz; Flammarion; (first edition: 1991) ISBN 2082125394


Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. Mcgraw-Hill College; 3rd edition (August 1, 1997) ISBN 0070365210

External links

This biography is published under the GNU Licence

© 2000-2024 8notes.com