Overview

Hector Berlioz

(1803—1869) composer and conductor


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(b La Côte‐St André, Grenoble, 1803; d Paris, 1869).

Fr. composer, cond., and critic. His life, especially as related by himself in his marvellous Memoirs, reads like a novel. Son of a provincial doctor, he showed early liking for mus., learning the fl. and flageolet, and later the guitar, but never the pf. Intended for a medical career, in 1821 went to Paris medical sch. In 1822 applied for mus. lessons and began to compose an opera. In 1823 he became a private pupil of Le Sueur and in 1824 comp. his Messe solennelle. This was perf. in Paris 1825 and 1827. Berlioz said he destroyed the score, but in fact he gave it to his friend Antoine Bessems in 1835 and this was found in Antwerp in 1991 by Frans Moors, an organist, and received its f. modern. ps. 1993 in Paris, Bremen, and London, all cond. John Eliot Gardiner.

In 1826 entered Paris Cons. to study with Reicha and Le Sueur, 1826–8. In 1827 saw Kemble's co. in Hamlet at the Odéon and was stricken ‘like a thunderbolt’ with a passion both for Shakespeare and for the Irish actress who played Ophelia, Harriet Smithson. In the first 5 months of 1830, comp. the Symphonie fantastique, sub‐titled ‘Episodes in the life of an artist’ and dealing autobiographically with his passion for Miss Smithson. It was perf. on 5 Dec. In Dec. 1832 at last met Miss Smithson and married her 10 months later. Over the next decade some of his greatest works were comp., incl. Harold in Italy, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, the dramatic sym. Roméo et Juliette, the Grand' Messe des morts (Requiem), and the opera Benvenuto Cellini. Though some of these works were commissions (and Paganini gave him 20,000 francs for Harold in Italy, although he never played the va. solo), Berlioz supplemented his income by writing mus. criticism, a chore he detested but accomplished brilliantly. In 1841 his marriage broke up and he formed a liaison with the singer Marie Recio. They toured Ger. in 1843, and in the ensuing years he travelled frequently, visiting Russia and also paying 4 visits to London. Dramatic cantata La Damnation de Faust was a failure in Paris, 1846, and Te Deum, comp. 1849–50, was not perf. until 1855. From 1856 to 1858 engaged on enormous opera Les Troyens, for which he wrote the lib., basing it on Virgil's Aeneid. This work, Berlioz's masterpiece, was on too large a scale and efforts to have it staged at the Opéra failed. Eventually, having divided it into 2 parts, La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage, he saw the 2nd part prod. at the Théâtre‐Lyrique, Paris, in Nov. 1863. It was withdrawn after 22 perfs., a failure which broke Berlioz's spirit. In 1860–2 completed his last work, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare. For nearly 100 years after his death, Berlioz's true qualities were obscured by his image as the ‘Romantic artist’ par excellence. His extravagances in his scores, no longer very remarkable but ahead of their time, diverted critical attention, even among his admirers, from the classical purity of his melody and the Beethovenian grandeur of his command of dramatic contrasts. Today, the opera Les Troyens, the Grand' Messe des morts and the Nuits d'été (forerunner of Mahler's song‐cycles with orch.) are recognized for their poetry and originality. Prin. comps.:

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Subjects: music.


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