Episodes in the life of an artist: The astonishing life and works of Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz died 150 years ago: on March 8, 1869. He is a composer whose life and whose music are tangled together in a complex web of passion. Prone to falling desperately in love, whether with women or with literature, Berlioz found inspiration all around him. Here, we pay tribute to Berlioz by looking at five favorite works, the stories that surround them in his Memoirs, and their place in his unpredictable, unconventional life.

“…I lived in a daze…”

“The moment I beheld her I felt an electric shock; I loved her. From then on I lived in a daze. I hoped for nothing, and yet my heart felt weighed down by an immense sadness. I lay awake whole nights disconsolate.”

Portrait of the Irish actress Harriett Constance Smithson (1800-1854) *oil on canvas *
The Irish actress Harriet Smithson (1800-1854)

You might imagine that Berlioz wrote these passionate words about his wife, the actress Harriet Smithson. But no: Berlioz fell head over heels in love on more than one occasion. Here, he’s describing the very first time, when he was 12 years old, and the woman of his dreams is one Estelle Duboeuf—who was 18.

The music below is the very opening of Berlioz’s most famous work, the Symphonie fantastique, subtitled “Episode in the life of an artist.” Berlioz wrote this theme to depict an artist falling suddenly, painfully in love. He himself had recently fallen desperately in love with Harriet Smithson, whom he had seen on stage in two Shakespeare plays, but not yet met.

But this passionate opening melody in fact dates back to Berlioz’s teenage years. As an early compositional experiment, he had composed songs to some poems by the French poet Florian, and this violin melody was written for one of those songs: “It seemed to me exactly right for expressing the overpowering sadness of a young heart first caught in the toils of a hopeless love,” he later wrote. The name of Florian’s volume of poetry? Estelle.

Berlioz was the hopeless romantic par excellence. Except that he wasn’t all that hopeless. Some years after first seeing Smithson on stage, Berlioz and she did indeed marry, although they separated six years later. An even less likely turn of events came towards the end of Berlioz’s life. Aged 60, he renewed contact with Estelle, by now a widow. From then on, he visited his first love every year until his own health gave way.

“…seized with a nervous shuddering…”

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia (Jean-Baptiste Wicar, 1790-1793)

Berlioz had an unconventional but inspirational education, mostly at the hands of his doctor father. There was a little musical tuition in the early years—he learned the flute, the guitar, and the flageolet, a recorder-like wind instrument—but perhaps more important, at first at least, was his literary education. The young Hector’s father introduced him to the classics, making him read such writers as Horace and Virgil. It was Virgil’s Aeneid that made the greatest impression, as he recounted in his Memoirs:

“When I reached the scene in which Dido expires on the funeral pyre… and I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen… my lips trembled and the words came with difficulty, indistinctly. At last… as Dido “sought light from heaven and moaned at finding it”—I was seized with a nervous shuddering and stopped dead. I could not have read another word.”

The intensity of this experience stayed with this sensitive young student. He would later write his biggest work of all, the opera Les Troyens, after Virgil’s epic poem. It was a labor of love, which he did not live to see performed complete. But in the final, fifth act, Berlioz at last set Dido’s death to music.

“…the poetic and the sublime…”

Like many of his generation, Berlioz enjoyed reading Lord Byron’s chronicle of his daring adventures in Italy and elsewhere, which he published in the wildly successful narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Berlioz was not, however, particularly pleased when he won a free trip Italy. He was victorious in the Prix de Rome, a prestigious composition competition, on his fourth attempt in 1830, and as the winner he was obligated to spend some time in the Italian capital. But he didn’t want to go. He tried to get out of it, but was forced into it, “alone and somewhat dejected.”

He became rather more enthusiastic on his first sight of the Eternal City. It was another coup de foudre moment, much like falling in love. “At once everything took on an aura of the poetic and the sublime.”

Trevi Fountain, Rome
Trevi Fountain, Rome

Berlioz’s time in Italy would prove inspirational after all, and he recalled it specifically a few years later when he was asked to write a viola concerto for the great virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. He decided to write him a work entitled Harold in Italy, inspired (only loosely) by Byron’s famed poem, in which the viola would represent Harold, a character immersed in the beauty of his Italian surroundings. In the breezy “Pilgrims’ March,” Harold joins a group of pilgrims.

As far as Paganini was concerned, Harold was somewhat too immersed in his surroundings: he complained that it wasn’t virtuosic enough for him, and never performed it. However, Paganini heard it performed some years later, and was so taken with it that he kissed Berlioz’s hand on stage—and, at long last, paid him handsomely for writing the thing.

“…a strange and deep impression…”

Berlioz was a man of intense passions, but audiences in his home city of Paris were seldom so passionate about his music. He remained underappreciated in France, although his reputation grew impressively abroad. A large part of his life was therefore spent on the road: there was a restlessness about his life.

The Opéra Comique in Paris where the 1846 premiere of
La Damnation de Faust met with little enthusiasm

Perhaps that restlessness was what drew him towards Goethe’s play Faust, another literary work that fired up his creative imagination:

“Faust made a strange and deep impression on me… I could not put it down, I read it incessantly, at meals, at the theatre, in the street.”

A fast worker, Berlioz immediately set eight extracts to music, and published them as Eight Scenes from Faust without even having heard them performed. He later regretted his decision and burned all the copies he could find, yet later still he re-used many of the ideas in his huge dramatic work La Damnation de Faust, which is not quite an opera, but rather four large scenes recounting the legend of Faust. Typically for Berlioz, it was written in the white heat of inspiration, during his travels around Europe—including some time in Hungary, where he decided to set his opening scene, which culminates with the brilliant Hungarian March, below.

As in Faust, Berlioz’s grand plans seldom turned out quite as he hoped. “To have written it was nothing: it had to be performed,” he recounted in the Memoirs—so he arranged a performance, at great personal expense, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. It was a huge flop. “I was ruined,” he wrote.

So he decided to head off for Russia, where the first two acts of Faust, as well as many other Berlioz works, were warmly received.

… Amen

Berlioz wrote his Requiem or Grande Messe des morts in 1837. It is for an orchestra of ludicrous proportions: he specifies that there should be 108 string players, 210 singers (or double or triple that, if there is room), and four spatially arranged choirs of brass—as well as the rest of the main orchestra, which includes 16 timpani.

The forces as a whole produce a thrilling noise, but some of the most brilliant effects come through Berlioz’s brilliant use of thinner textures, and having his enormous orchestra play very quietly—as in the hypnotic closing pages.

Berlioz himself faded away towards the end of his life. Desperately ill, he became less and less mobile, and was devastated by the death of his son in June 1867. He managed a few more concerts after then, but towards the end he was “a walking shadow,” according to David Cairns, his biographer and the translator of his spectacularly entertaining Memoirs. Berlioz died in 1869, convinced that his music would be forgotten.

Frontispice of Mémoires
Mémoires (published 1870)

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the full force of his achievements was truly recognized. But today, 150 years after his death, we can see that he was not just one of the 19th century’s most ambitious musicians, but also one of its most original. And, perhaps, the most passionate of all.

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