Home » Uncategorized » Hector Berlioz and the Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz and the Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 –March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, near Grenoble. His father, Louis-Joseph Berlioz, a respected provincial physician and scholar, was responsible for much of the young Berlioz’s education. The father was an atheist, with a liberal outlook, but the mother, Marie-Antoinette, was an orthodox Roman Catholic. He had five siblings in all, three of whom did not survive to adulthood. The other two, Nanci and Adèle, remained close to Berlioz throughout his life.

Berlioz was not a child prodigy, unlike some other famous composers of the time. He began studying music at age twelve, when he began writing small compositions and arrangements. As a result of his father’s discouragement, he never learned to play the piano, a peculiarity he later described as both beneficial and detrimental. He became proficient at guitar, flageolet and flute. He learned harmony by textbooks alone—he was not formally trained. The majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces. Also by age twelve he had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father’s tutelage.

In March 1821, Berlioz left high school in Grenoble, and in October, at age 18, he was sent to Paris to study medicine] a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected. He began to take advantage of the institutions he now had access to in the city, including his first visit to the Paris Opéra, where he saw Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer whom he came to admire above all, jointly alongside Ludwig van Beethoven. He also began to visit the Paris Conservatoire library, seeking out scores of Gluck’s operas and making personal copies of parts of them. He recalled in his Mémoires his first encounter with Luigi Cherubini, the Conservatoire’s then music director. Cherubini attempted to throw the impetuous Berlioz out of the library since he was not a formal music student at that time.

Berlioz also heard two operas by Gaspare Spontini, a composer who influenced him through their friendship, and whom he later championed when working as a critic. From then on, he devoted himself to composition. He was encouraged in his endeavors by Jean-François Le Sueur, director of the Royal Chapel and professor at the Conservatoire. In 1823, he wrote his first article—a letter to the journal Le corsaire defending Spontini’s La vestale. By now he had composed several works including Estelle et Némorin and Le passage de la mer Rouge (The Crossing of the Red Sea) – both now lost – the latter of which convinced Le Sueur to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils. Despite his parents’ disapproval, in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. He composed the Messe solennelle. Later that year or in 1825, he began to compose the opera Les francs-juges, which was completed the following year but went unperformed. The work survives only in fragments; the overture has been much recorded and is sometimes played in concert.

In 1826 Berlioz began attending the Conservatoire to study composition under Jean-François Le Sueur and Anton Reicha. He also submitted a fugue to the Prix de Rome, but was eliminated in the primary round. Winning the prize would become an obsession until he finally won it in 1830, writing a new cantata every year until he succeeded at his fourth attempt. The reason for this interest in the prize was not just academic recognition. The prize included a five year pension–much needed income for the struggling composer. In 1827 he composed the Waverly overture after Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. He also began working as a chorus singer at a vaudeville theatre to contribute towards an income. Later that year, he attended a production by a traveling English theater company at the Odéon theatre with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia and Juliet in the Shakespeare plays Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

In 1828 Berlioz heard Beethoven’s third and fifth symphonies performed at the Paris Conservatoire – an experience that he found overwhelming. He also read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust for the first time (in French translation), which would become the inspiration for Huit scènes de Faust (his Opus 1), much later re-developed as La damnation de Faust. He also came into contact with Beethoven’s string quartets and piano sonatas, and around the same time, he also began to write musical criticism. He began and finished composition of the Symphonie fantastique in 1830, a work which would bring Berlioz much fame and notoriety. He entered into a relationship with – and subsequently became engaged to – Marie Moke, despite the symphony being inspired by Berlioz’s obsession with Harriet Smithson.

As his fourth cantata for submittal to the Prix de Rome neared completion, the July Revolution broke out. Shortly later, he finally won the prize with the cantata Sardanapale. He also arranged the French national anthem La Marseillaise and composed an overture to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was the first of his pieces to play at the Paris Opéra. Berlioz met Franz Liszt who was also attending the concert. This proved to be the beginning of a long friendship. Liszt would later transcribe the entire Symphonie fantastique for piano to enable more people to hear it. On December 30, 1831, Berlioz left France for Rome, prompted by a clause in the Prix de Rome which required winners to spend two years studying there. Although none of his major works were actually written in Italy, his travels and experiences there would later influence and inspire much of his music. This is most evident in the thematic aspects of his music, particularly Harold en Italie (1834), a work inspired by Lord Byron’s Childe Harold.

While in Rome, he stayed at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. He found the city distasteful. During his stay in Italy, he received a letter from the mother of his fiancée informing him that she had called off their engagement. Enraged, Berlioz decided to return to Paris and take revenge. After arriving in Nice (at that time, part of Italy), he reconsidered his plan and sent a letter to the Academy in Rome, requesting that he be allowed to return. Before returning to Rome, Berlioz composed the overtures to King Lear in Nice and Rob Roy, and began work on a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, Le retour à la vie (The Return to Life), renamed Lélio in 1855. Berlioz continued to travel throughout his stay in Italy. He visited Pompeii, Naples, Milan, Tivoli, Florence, Turin and Genoa. He returned to Paris in November 1832.

Between 1830 and 1840, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works. These include the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) (1837) and Roméo et Juliette (1839). On Berlioz’s return to Paris, a concert including Symphonie fantastique (which had been extensively revised in Italy) and Le retour à la vie was performed, with among others in attendance: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Heinrich Heine, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier, Jules Janin and Harriet Smithson. At this time, Berlioz also met playwright Ernest Legouvé who became a lifelong friend. A few days after the performance, Berlioz and Harriet were finally introduced and entered into an engagement. Despite Berlioz not understanding spoken English and Harriet not knowing any French, on October 3, 1833, they married in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy with Liszt as one of the witnesses. The following year their only child, Louis Berlioz, was born In 1834. Around this time, Berlioz decided to conduct most of his own concerts, tired as he was of conductors who did not understand his music. This decision launched what was to become a lucrative and creatively fruitful career in conducting music both by himself and other leading composers.

Berlioz composed the opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1836. He was to spend much effort and money in the following decades trying to have it performed successfully. Benvenuto Cellini was premiered at the Paris Opéra on September 10, but was a failure due to a hostile audience. Roméo et Juliette was premiered in a series of three concerts later in 1839 to distinguished audiences, one including Richard Wagner. The same year Roméo premiered, Berlioz was appointed Conservateur Adjoint (Deputy Librarian) Paris Conservatoire Library. Berlioz supported himself and his family by writing musical criticism for Paris publications, primarily Journal des débats for over thirty years, and also Gazette musicale and Le rénovateur. He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1839.

In 1840, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale was commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830. The following year he began but later abandoned the composition of a new opera, La nonne sanglante; some fragments survive. In 1841, Berlioz wrote recitatives for a production of Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Paris Opéra and also orchestrated Weber’s Invitation to the Dance to add ballet music to it (he titled the ballet L’Invitation à la valse). Later that year Berlioz finished composing the song cycle Les nuits d’été for piano and voices (later to be orchestrated). After the 1830s, Berlioz found it increasingly difficult to achieve recognition for his music in France. As a result, he began to travel to other countries more often. Between 1842 and 1863 he traveled to Belgium, Germany, England, Austria, Russia and elsewhere, where he conducted operas and orchestral music – both his own and others’. During his lifetime, Berlioz was as famous a conductor as he was as a composer.

Back in Paris, Berlioz began to compose the concert overture Le carnaval romain, based on music from Benvenuto Cellini. In early 1844, Berlioz’s highly influential Treatise on Instrumentation was published for the first time. He took a recuperation trip to Nice late that year, during which he composed the concert overture La tour de Nice (The Tower of Nice), later to be revised and renamed Le Corsaire. With their marriage a failure, Berlioz and Harriet Smithson separated, the latter having become an alcoholic due to the collapse of her acting career. He entered into a relationship with singer Marie Recio who would become his second wife. In 1845 he embarked on his first large-scale concert tour of France. On his return to Paris, the recently completed La damnation de Faust was premiered at the Opéra-Comique.

In 1847, during a seven-month visit to England, he was appointed conductor at the London Drury Lane Theatre. Berlioz arrived back in France in 1848. He began composition of his Te Deum. In 1850 he became head librarian at the Paris Conservatoire, the only official post he would ever hold, and a valuable source of income. During this year Berlioz also conducted an experiment on his many vocal critics. He composed a work entitled the Shepherd’s Farewell and performed it in two concerts under the guise of it being by a composer named Pierre Ducré. The trick worked, and the critics praised the work by ‘Ducré’ and claimed it was an example that Berlioz would do well to follow. Berlioz later incorporated the piece into La fuite en Egypte from L’enfance du Christ which was completed in 1854 and was well-received upon its premiere In 1856 Berlioz visited Weimar and was convinced by Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein – with whom he had corresponded for some time – that he should begin to compose a new opera. This work would eventually become Les Troyens, a monumental grand opera with a libretto (which he wrote himself) based on Books Two and Four of Virgil’s Aeneid. Berlioz saw the work through to its completion in 1858.

The onset of an intestinal illness which would plague Berlioz for the rest of his life had now become apparent to him. During a visit to Baden-Baden, Edouard Bénazet commissioned a new opera from Berlioz, but due to the illness that opera was never written. Two years later, however, Berlioz instead began work on Béatrice et Bénédict, which Bénazet accepted. It was completed on February 25, 1862. Marie Recio, Berlioz’s wife, died unexpectedly of a stroke at the age of 48, on June 13, 1862. In 1864 Berlioz was made Officier de la Légion d’honneur. He travelled to Vienna in December 1866 to conduct the first complete performance there of La damnation de Faust. Later that year he embarked on his second concert tour of Russia, which would also be his last of any kind. On March 8, 1869, Berlioz died at his Paris home.

The five movement Symphonie fantastique, partly due to its fame, is considered by most to be Berlioz’s most outstanding work. In addition to the Symphonie fantastique, some other orchestral works of Berlioz currently in the standard orchestral repertoire include his “légende dramatique” La damnation de Faust and “symphonie dramatique” Roméo et Juliette (both large-scale works for mixed voices and orchestra), and his concertante symphony (for viola and orchestra) Harold en Italie, several concert overtures also remain enduringly popular, such as Le Corsaire and Le Carnaval romain. Amongst his more vocally oriented works, the song cycle Les nuits d’été and the oratorio L’enfance du Christ have retained enduring appeal, as have the quasi-liturgical Te Deum and Grande messe des morts. Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.

My collection contains the following works by Berlioz.

Beatrice and Benedict: Overture.
Benvenuto Cellini (1836): Overture.
Damnation of Faust (1846): Rakoczy March, and Dance of the Spirits (Ballet de sylphes).
Harold in Italy, op. 16: Symphony with viola obligato.
King Lear concert Overture, op. 4 (1831).
Le Corsaire Rouge overture (orig. Le Tour de Nice, 1844).
The Roman Carnival/Le Carnaval Romain, op. 9 (1844) from Benvenuto Cellini (1836).
Romeo and Juliet dramatic symphony, op. 17 (1839): Romeo’s Reverie and Fete at the Capulets, Queen Mab Scerzo, and Love Scene.
Symphonie Fantastique (1830).
The Trojans at Carthage: Royal Hunt and Storm.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s