Hector Berlioz

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

Louis Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer best known for the Symphonie fantastique, first performed in 1830, and for his Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem) of 1837, with its tremendous resources that include four antiphonal brass choirs. He wrote 50 songs for voice and piano, but unheard of at the time, he often composed without a piano (instead, a guitar).


[edit] Biography

Berlioz, by Alphonse Legros
Berlioz, by Alphonse Legros

Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, between Lyon and Grenoble. His father was a physician, and young Hector was sent to Paris to study medicine at the age of eighteen. Berlioz was horrified by the process of dissection, and, despite his father's disapproval, he abandoned his career path in medicine to study music a year later. He then attended the Paris Conservatoire, at twenty-two to study opera and composition.

He became identified early on with the French Romantic movement. Among his friends were writers such as Alexandre Dumas, père, Victor Hugo, and Honoré de Balzac. Later, Théophile Gautier wrote, "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 his love affairs. At the age of 23, his unrequited (at first) love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Constance Smithson was the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique. They were married in 1833 with Franz Liszt and Heinrich Heine as witnesses. They divorced nine years later. In 1830, the same year as the symphony's premiere, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome.

Berlioz's letters were considered so overly passionate by Smithson that she initially refused his advances. The symphony which these emotions are said to have inspired was received as startling and vivid. The autobiographical nature of this piece of program music was also considered sensational at the time, a mere 3 years after Beethoven's death. After his return to Paris from his two years study in Rome, he finally married Smithson when she had 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)

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. Virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini commissioned Berlioz to compose a viola concerto, intending to premiere it as soloist. This became the symphony for viola and orchestra, Harold in Italy. However, Paganini changed his mind when he saw the first sketches for the work. Although he did not premiere the piece, Berlioz's memoirs recount that once Paganini heard it, he knelt before Berlioz and declared his genius, and the next day offered him 20,000 francs. With this money, Berlioz was able to quit for a while his work as a critic to focus on writing the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette for voices, chorus and orchestra, whose "love scene" remained Berlioz' favourite piece of his own.

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

[edit] Legacy

Although neglected in France for much of the nineteenth century, the music of Berlioz has often been cited as extremely influential in the development of the symphonic form, instrumentation, and the depiction in music of programmatic ideas, features central to musical romanticism. He was considered extremely modern for his day, and he, Wagner, and Liszt are sometimes considered the great trinity of progressive 19th century romanticism. Richard Pohl, the German critic in Schumann's old paper, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik called Berlioz "the true pathbreaker", Liszt was an enthusiastic performer and supporter, and Wagner himself, after first expressing great reservations about Berlioz, wrote to Liszt saying: "we, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, are three equals, but we must take care not to say so to him." As Wagner here implies, Berlioz himself was indifferent to the idea of what was called the "La Musique de la Passé", and clearly influenced both Liszt and Wagner (and other forward looking composers) although he was never an admirer of their works. Wagner's remark also suggests the strong ethnocentrism characteristic of European composers of the time on both sides of the Rhine.

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 to light a number of Berlioz's lesser-known works. Davis's recording of Les Troyens was the first near-complete recording of that work. The work, which Berlioz never saw staged in its entirety during his life, is now a part of the international repertoire, if still something of a rarity.

In 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz's 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 a republican, since Berlioz, who regularly met kings and princes, had severely criticized the 1848 revolution, speaking of the "odious and stupid republic". Also, Berlioz had wished to remain buried close to his wife, and removing his remains would not have respected this will. In the land of his birth, Berlioz still remains something of a neglected prophet.

A movement of Carnival of the Animals composed in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saëns, L'Éléphant, uses a theme from Hector Berlioz's Danse des sylphes played on a double bass.

[edit] Musical influence

Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and many of his best compositions are inspired by literary works. For Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz was inspired in part by Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. For La damnation de Faust, Berlioz drew on Goethe's Faust; for Harold in Italy, he drew on Byron's Childe Harold; for Benvenuto Cellini, he drew on Cellini's own autobiography. For Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz turned, of course, to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. 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 those of Beethoven, Berlioz showed deep reverence for the works of Gluck, Mozart, Étienne Méhul, Carl Maria von Weber and Gaspare Spontini, as well as respect for those of Rossini, Meyerbeer and Verdi.

Curiously perhaps, the adventures in chromaticism of his prominent contemporaries and associates Frederic Chopin and Richard Wagner seemed to have little effect on Berlioz's style.

[edit] Works of music and literature

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

[edit] Musical works

See also: Category:Compositions by Hector Berlioz

The Symphonie Fantastique is considered his most astounding work, consisting of five movements. It is famous for the innovation of the program symphony. The story behind this work relates to Berlioz himself. "A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination, in...lovesick dispair, has poisoned himself with opium. The drug, too weak to kill, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by strange visions...The beloved one herself becomes for him a melody, a recurrent theme that haunts him everywhere".

In addition to the Symphonie Fantastique, some other works of Berlioz currently in the standard orchestral repertoire include his "légende dramatique" La damnation de Faust and "symphonie dramatique" Roméo et Juliette (symphony) (both large-scale works for mixed voices and orchestra), the song cycle Les nuits d'été (originally for voice and piano, later with an orchestral accompaniment), and his concertante symphony (for viola and orchestra) Harold in Italy, the quasi-liturgical Te Deum, as well as his oratorio L'Enfance du Christ.

The unconventional music 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 a core audience of about 1,200 loyal attendees, but the nature of his large works—sometimes 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)

[edit] 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 Gustav Mahler and Richard 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. Berlioz was known as 'the man who wrote for 1000 musicians' so he also anticipated the development of gargantuan orchestral forces, although he never sought to use such forces merely for cheap effects or noisiness- he was the first to treat the orchestra idiomatically and systematically, although he himself was not an instrumental player. According to The Great Conductors, by Harold Schonberg, "No composer before (Berlioz), and in all likelihood none after, not even Mahler, had such a vision of pure sound and how to go about obtaining it. He reveled in new tonal combinations, in the potentiality of every instrument, in a kind of super-music played by a super orchestra," although he himself was not a skilled instrumental executant. His work as a conductor was also extremely influential, his clarity and precision evidently exercising influence over the French School of conducting right up to the present, exemplified by such figures as Pierre Monteux, D. E. Inghelbrecht, Charles Münch, André Cluytens, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Dutoit.

[edit] Media

[edit] Publications

  • Mémoires, Hector Berlioz; Flammarion; (first edition: 1991) ISBN 2-08-212539-4
  • The memoirs of Hector Berlioz; Everyman Publishers (second revised edition: 2002) David Cairns (ed.) ISBN 1-85715-231-X
  • Louis Jullien, musique,spectacle et folie au XIXe siècle; Editions Atlantica 2006 Michel Faul ISBN 2-35165-038-7(especially chapter 6)

[edit] References

Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. Mcgraw-Hill College; 3rd edition (August 1, 1997) ISBN 0-07-036521-0

[edit] External links

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NAME Berlioz, Hector
DATE OF BIRTH 1803-12-11
PLACE OF BIRTH La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
DATE OF DEATH 1869-03-08
18th century - 19th century
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