Berlioz - An Appreciated Musical Genius
Louis Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803, in La
Cote-Saint-Andre, a very small town in the east of France, fairly
close to Grenoble, and a little further from Lyon. His father was a
very respected doctor, an openly declared atheist and also a music
lover. His mother was a Catholic. He was brought up under strict
Catholicism as a boy, but soon left the Church and claimed agnosticism
for the rest of his life. He started musical education when he was
13. He took flute (flageolet), vocal and guitar lessons. He did not
study the piano as a child. In fact, his first compositions were for
piano, flute and guitar. For his first 20 years or so, his father was
the main influence in his life.
In 1821, his father enrolled him in a medical school in Paris.
After about a year of study there, he became very excited with the
study of music. He attended operas in Paris, which fueled his love
for music, and he soon abandoned medical school and enrolled in the
Conservatoire under Jean- Francois le Suer. He wrote his Missa
Solemnis, but at the time, he did not have enough money for it to be
performed, so it was performed a year later. His father agreed to
keep his allowance unless he failed in music, at which time he would
need to choose another field. But a year later, he cut it off anyway.
His mother cursed him for choosing the evil life of an artist.
In 1827, Berlioz became a chorus singer at a vaudeville theater,
as he was a very good sight singer. He did not publicize this, as it
was mostly to make ends meet. He saw a production of Romeo and Juliet
in September of 1827 and fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet
Smithson, but she thought he was a mad man. She became an important
part of his life and music. That same year his father restored his
allowance because he admired his son's determination and worried about
him. In 1828 he took English lesson so he could read Shakespeare. He
wrote a few articles on music but soon lost interest because of the
restrictions of journalism, and he found it to be boring.
Finally in 1830, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome. During 1829-1830
he wrote his Symphonie Fantastique, which he finished during the
revolution of 1830. He got his symphony performed on December 5,
1830. It was subtitled "Episode in the Life of an Artist" and was
performed in the Paris Conservatoire under the direction of Francois
Antoine Habenack. To the score, he attached his program notes, with
descriptions of every part of the song, which helped to get a better
idea of how the song should sound. It was, indeed, a wonder
performance. After the concert, Franz Liszt, who he met the day
before, was very excited about Berlioz's music and took him out to
dinner. They soon became good friends.
He soon met Camille Mokke, who was out to prove her current
admirer wrong by winning Berlioz over. She did, but he should have
regretted it. The next year, he was to go to Rome for his obligation
of winning the Prix de Rome. He stopped in Italy for a month to visit
home. Now, of course, both of his parents were proud of their
successful son. He soon left Rome to find Camille, who he had not
heard from in a month as she was strutting around Paris. On his way,
he got a letter in Florence from Camille's mom that informed him that
Camille would be marrying someone else. Camille had fallen in love
with a rich, older piano player, and Berlioz was still a young
musician. He left for Paris with plans of a murder/suicide, but
during the long trip, he cooled off a little and returned back to
He returned back to Paris in November 1832 and moved into an
apartment that had just recently been occupied by Harriet Smithson.
When Berlioz learned of this, his feelings immediately came flowing
back to him. He gave a concert of Symphonie Fantastique and its
sequel, Lelio in December. He invited Harriet to sit in a box and she
attended. Her career wasn't going so well and she was in financial
hardship so she decided to meet Berlioz. She saw him as a way out of
debt, so on October 3, 1833, they were married. In December, he gave
a performance of King Lear, after which Paganini gave him great
praise, and they developed a friendship. Berlioz wrote a piece for
him and turned it into Harold in Italy.
In 1834, they had a son, Louis. Harriet's acting career failed,
and her beauty and health were fading fast. She soon began drinking
and was turning into a shrew. Berlioz could not deal with her
anymore, and moved out and took a mistress named Marie Recio, and
opera singer. The next few years after that, he traveled a lot with
success in Germany, Russia and London. He began his memoirs in 1848
and a year after that his father died. Between 1848 and 1855, he
traveled more with mixed results. In 1854, Harriet died.
In 1855, Berlioz was appreciated and recognized as a great
composer. His great works were affecting other composers and his
Treatise on Instrumentation was becoming a standard textbook. In
1862, however, Marie died of a heart attack, and in 1867, his son died
of yellow fever. In January of 1869, Berlioz became very sick and was
bedridden. He died two months later. He is buried in Paris today,
with a square bearing his name with an overlooking statue.