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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz, photo 1 For someone who was not formally trained in music, Hector Berlioz has had an enormous influence on its development and some of his pieces seem revolutionary in comparison with other composers of the period. Perhaps it was this unusual musical training which gave him the freedom to express himself in an eccentric way, and his romantic nature gave him plenty of inner turnmoil to express. As a boy in the Grenoble region, he learned to play the flute and the guitar, but despite his interest in music his father insisted that he study Medicine in Paris. Although Medicine was not to prove his forte, in Paris the young Berlioz had access to a range of musical activities and resources. He went to the Paris Opera and discovered the library of the Paris Conservatory, where he studied books on musical topics such as Harmony even though he was not enrolled as a formal student.

Hector Berlioz - Requiem and Te Deum double-CD cover He came across the music of Beethoven and he studied the scores of Gluck's operas after being impressed with their staging at the opera house. He started taking music lessons and with some encouragement from his tutors he finally gave up his medical studies (and his father's financial support) to attend the Conservatory as a composition student in 1826 at the age of 23. Thereafter his development seemed to be meteoric and only 4 years later in 1830 he composed his Symphonie Fantastique, a work which shook the musical world of the time. This was only 6 years after the publication of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and 3 years after Beethoven's death, yet the Symphonie Fantastique seems years ahead of its time in comparison.

Hector Berlioz, photo 2 That same year Berlioz also won the Prix de Rome after several unsuccessful attempts and, as required by the prize, he left for Italy in 1831 for 2 years of further study. He stayed in Rome but visited other cities and regions and the country was later to influence his "Harold in Italy", a work for viola and orchestra commissioned by Paganini. At first Paganini seemed luke-warm about the work and it was premiered without the great violinist, but Paganini later played the work and gave Berlioz the sum of 20,000 francs. The composer used this to pay off his debts and fund his subsequent career, though he was still to subsidise the income from his compositions with other jobs as a music critic and as deputy librarian (and later head librarian) at the same Paris Conservatory where he had previously studied.

Hector Berlioz, photo 3 Berlioz found his career as a composer stagnating to some extent in France, and he embarked on concert tours as a conductor visiting many countries in Europe and Russia. Since he did not play the piano Berlioz was denied one of the sources of income which other composers relied on, but his conducting tours helped to bring him a reasonable income. One of his conducting tours included a Festival of his music at Weimar organised by Liszt. Indeed Berlioz seemed to find greater favour with Austrian and German composers than with those in his native France. He also wrote two influential books, one on conducting and one on orchestration, as well as his own memoirs whose publication shortly after his death gave an insight into what drove the composer. Berlioz died in 1869 in Paris. Though his career may not have totally fulfilled its earlier promise, he nevertheless had influenced many composers of the Romantic period (e.g. Liszt and Wagner) with his fresh ideas, his approach to orchestration and his skills as a conductor.

Hector Berlioz's Inspirations

Hector Berlioz - The Best of Berlioz CD cover Berlioz was a true Romantic and frequently chose topics for his musical works which meant something to him personally and in some cases he identified with the characters or circumstances portrayed by the works. He was passionate about many things, and drew inspiration from works of literature and the theatre. He wrote "The Trojans" (Les Troyens) based on Virgil's Aeneid, "The Damnation of Faust" (an operatic work) based on the story of Faust who forms a pact with the devil, and a number of pieces inspired by Shakespeare's plays (Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear & Hamlet). He had some famously stormy love relationships and Berlioz also used music to work out his love life, pouring his emotional thoughts and fantasies into his creations.

Hector Berlioz, portrait The Symphonie Fantastique (subtitled "Episodes in the Life of an Artist") is an autobiographical account of his obsessive thoughts for the actress Harriet Smithson who Berlioz had seen playing the part of Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (he was later to compose a work based on the fictional character). His overpowering love for the actress is mirrorred in the Symphony by a theme which occurs in all the movements (a new musical device called an "idée fixe"), and his imagination gets more and more extreme as the Symphony progresses with the 5 movements as follows: "Reveries - Passions", "A Ball", "Scene in the Fields", "March to the Scaffold" and "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath". In the 5th movement Berlioz also makes significant use of a Gregorian chant known as the Dies Irae (or Day of Wrath). Later Berlioz and Smithson married but the marriage broke down.

Many of his other relationships appeared to be equally tempestuous, and as a boy Berlioz was prone to having intense crushes on women he admired. As a young man in Italy, when one of the subjects of an obsessive attraction was rumoured to be having an affair, he plotted to return to France and murder the lovers. Berlioz finally recognised the folly of his plot and decided to stay in Italy. After his first marriage had collapsed, Berlioz was later to marry a former mistress Marie Recio.

Hector Berlioz's major works

Berlioz wrote 4 major orchestral works which should be categorised as Symphonies, even though they aren't numbered like those of other composers. In part this is because they are not abstract works but dramatic programmatic works (telling a tangible story). Berlioz therefore set a precedent for later programmatic composers such as Richard Strauss.

    Hector Berlioz - Great Orchestral Works double-CD cover
  • Symphonie Fantastique - a huge symphony in 5 movements
  • Harold in Italy - essentially a concerto for Viola and Orchestra commissioned by Paginini and inspired by a poem by Byron
  • Romeo and Juliet - a choral symphony based on Shakespeare's play with a libretto by Émile Deschamps
  • Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (Grand Funeral and Triumphal Symphony) - commissioned by the French Government and first performed during a parade to commemmorate the 1830 French Revolution
  • Opera: Benvenuto Cellini - inspired by his stay in Italy
  • Opera: Les Troyens (The Trojans) - a full performance lasts 4 to 5 hours, though the "Royal Hunt and Storm" is sometimes performed as a concert piece
  • Opera: Beatrice and Benedict - based on Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" with some spoken scenes
  • Concert Overtures: Waverley, King Lear, Rob Roy, Le Carnaval Romain, Le Corsaire, and The Flight into Egypt
  • Funeral March - composed for the final scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet but not expanded into a larger work
  • A large scale arrangement of La Marseillaise
  • Cantatas: The Death of Orpheus, Herminie, The Death of Cleopatra, and The Death of Sardanapale - all written as entries for the Prixe de Rome with Sardanapale finally winning the prize, and the composer reused some of his cantata music in later works
  • Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) - requiring huge orchestral forces, which certainly confirmed the composer's reputation for orchestral extravagance long before Wagner and Mahler
  • Hector Berlioz, portrait 2
  • Te Deum - for large orchestra and organ
  • The Damnation of Faust - can be staged as an opera or as a oratorio for orchestra, large chorus and 4 solo voices based on Goethe's dramatic poem Faust, and includes an arrangement of the Hungarian Folk-Song "Rákóczi March"; a recent production for ENO was directed by Terry Gilliam
  • The Childhood of Christ - another choral work (Berlioz wasn't particularly religious, but looked to the dramatic elements of the story)
  • The Death of Ophelia - for voice and orchestra based on the Shakespearean character
  • Les Nuits d'été (Summer Nights) - song cycle
  • Many other choral works and individual songs

Hector Berlioz - Recommendations

Sir Colin Davis seems to be a great proponent of Berlioz's music and there are many such recordings by the conductor with some of these being live recordings.

    Hector Berlioz - Complete Orchestral Works 6-CD box-set cover
  • Berlioz: Great Orchestral Works, conducted by Colin Davis (2 CDs including the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy, Symphonie funèbre et triomphale and the overtures Le corsaire & Le carnaval romain)- Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The Best of Hector Berlioz (excerpts from many of his major works ) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Berlioz: Complete Orchestral Works, the LSO conducted by Colin Davis (a box set of 6 CDs) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Symphonie Fantastique and The Death of Cleopatra, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Symphonie Fantastique, the London Symphony conducted by Colin Davis - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Berlioz: Overtures, conducted by Colin Davis (9 concert and other overtures) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Berlioz: Requiem & Te Deum, the LSO and chorus and Wandsworth School Boys Choir conducted by Colin Davis (on 2 CDs) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Berlioz: Les Troyens (The Trojans), the LSO conducted by Colin Davis (a box set of 4 CDs) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • The Damnation of Faust, the LSO conducted by Colin Davis - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com