Hector Berlioz

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Symphony Fantastique, and The Royal Hunt and Storm scene from the Opera Les Troyens


Berlioz had a passionate and idealistic personality, one given to incandescent enthusiasms and uncompromising struggles. Through most of this career he stood in opposition to Paris' entrenched musical establishments, which looked on his innovations in harmony, form, and instrumentation with suspicion or outright indignation. The judgment that Berlioz was a wild-eyed radical contained a certain element of truth.  He disliked the relatively safe, orderly music of his French contemporaries, preferring to use whatever risky effect most vividly expressed the passions behind his compositions. Berlioz's works were not, however, the rantings of a musical barbarian, as his critics claimed, but the authentic and imaginative expression of a composer with a highly developed sense of drama.



1.     Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, Reveries, passions

2.     Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, Scene aux champs

3.     Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, Marche au supplice

4.     Symphony Fantastique, Songe d'une nuit de sabbat

5.     Berlioz Les Troyens, Royal Hunt and Storm

6.     Berlioz: Early Career

7.     Guide: Symphonie Fantastique and the Idee Fixe

8.     Guide: Exceptional Use of Instrumental Color

9.     Guide: Symphonie Fantastique  Movements I-III

10.Guide: Symphonie Fantastique  Movements IV-V

11. Listener’s Guide: Struggle for Recognition

12.   Guide: Les Troyens: Royal Hunt and Storm

13.   Listener’s Guide: An Uncompromising Romantic

14.   Listener’s Guide to: Orchestral Suite No. 3

Hector Berlioz and the Romantic Movement 

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Paris became the home of Europe’s musical vanguard. Although the social climate of the French capital was growing ever more conservative, in reaction to the revolutionary upheavals of previous decades, Paris nevertheless nurtured, or at least tolerated, the most innovative musicians of the day. These were advocates of a new, radical kind of Romanticism in which poetry, drama and virtuosity replaced the old Classical-period values of poise, elegance and formal balance. As it happened, most of the major figures on the Parisian musical scene at this time were foreigners: Chopin, a refugee from Poland; Liszt, who had come from Hungary via Vienna; and, for a time, Wagner, a German. The one significant French composer associated with the radical wing of the Romantic movement during the first half of the nineteenth century was Hector Berlioz.Berlioz’s Romantic temperament showed itself in both his life and his music. The composer was a passionate and idealistic personality, one given to incandescent enthusiasms and uncompromising struggles. Through most of his career he stood in opposition to Paris’ entrenched musical establishment, which looked on his innovations in harmony, form and instrumentation with suspicion or outright indignation. The judgment that Berlioz was a wild-eyed radical contained a certain element of truth. Berlioz disdained the relatively safe, orderly music of his French contemporaries, preferring to risk whatever effect most vividly expressed the passions behind his compositions. His works were not, however, the rantings of a musical barbarian, as his critics claimed, but the authentic and imaginative expression of a composer with a highly developed sense of drama. Drama, in fact, lay at the heart of everything Berlioz composed. He had no interest in the Classical ideal of “abstract” composition, and he never produced a sonata, string quartet or any other self-contained work. Rather, each one of his compositions, including his purely instrumental pieces, expressed a literary idea, often in highly vivid terms. This feature of Berlioz’s output, even more than his innovations in harmony and orchestration, placed the composer’s music in the Romantic vanguard. Berlioz’s lonely crusade on behalf of his music, and against the benighted opinions of Paris’ cultural bureaucracy, took on the quality of a heroic struggle — so much so that the composer came to embody as vividly as Beethoven had the Romantic ideal of the artist-as-hero. Heroism was a recurring theme in Berlioz’s music, also: the sculptor-adventurer Benvenuto Cellini, the Scottish patriot Rob Roy and the Trojan warrior Aeneas each occupy an important place in the composer’s output. (So, too, does the Romantic era’s great anti-hero, Faust.) Berlioz’s penchant for heroic and passionate expression led him to work on a large scale. Almost uniquely among the great composers, he produced no solo or chamber music. Symphonie fantastique was extremely ambitious in terms of its length and the large orchestra it requires when Berlioz wrote it in 1830, but the composer exceeded its dimensions with works like Roméo et Juliette, the Requiem and Te Deum, and above all his opera Les Troyens. Like Beethoven before him, and, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler afterwards, Berlioz often extended the boundaries of what seemed possible with respect to sonority and compositional scale, and in this, too, he reflected the Romantic spirit.Two other facets of Berlioz’s life and work resonate with major preoccupations of nineteenth-century Romanticism. One is the element of the supernatural, which finds expression in  Symphonie fantastique, the large-scale cantata La damnation de Faust and the storm scene in Les Troyens. The other is the ideal of overwhelming romantic love, which plays a central role in Roméo et Juliette, Les Troyens and Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz was hardly alone among nineteenth-century composers in giving voice to these ideas. But only Wagner made them such an explicit and central focus of his art, and no one treated them in a more individual manner.  

Berlioz’s Life and Career 

Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, a town situated near the foothills of the French Alps. As a boy he did not attend school but studied at home under the guidance of his father, a physician, who instructed his son in Latin, classical literature, geography and natural science. Berlioz also took lessons in playing the flute and guitar. Almost alone among major composers of the past several centuries, he never learned to play the keyboard. Berlioz’s father did not encourage his son’s musical inclinations, but he was unable to suppress Hector’s interest in the art. When he was twelve or thirteen, Berlioz happened upon a pair of treatises on harmony. Studying these entirely on his own, he composed a number of songs and pieces of chamber music. These were, of course, juvenile efforts, but they impressed the neighbors who heard them.Berlioz’s father was determined that his son should follow him into the medical profession, and to that end sent him, at age seventeen, to school in Paris. For two years, Hector struggled to fulfill his parent’s wish, fighting an extreme antipathy towards biological science all the while. But Paris had revealed a new world to the young man from the provinces. Before arriving in the French capital, Berlioz had never heard an orchestra or an opera, never encountered the work of any important composer. These experiences now were open to him, and he embraced them eagerly. He attended performances at the Paris Opéra and studied scores at the library of the Conservatoire. This, as he later wrote, “was the death-blow to my medical career.” Berlioz abandoned his studies and soon undertook lessons with a composition teacher from the Conservatoire. After several years of private study, he gained admission to the school. His resolve to devote himself to music caused a break with his father and years of financial hardship, but Berlioz never questioned his decision.While glad to devote himself to the art that had so captivated him, Berlioz soon discovered objectionable aspects of the French musical establishment. The conservative tastes of the Conservatoire’s faculty dismayed him, and he managed to upset his instructors with audacious harmonies and melodic gestures. From the start, Berlioz showed little interest in conforming to the rules of textbook harmony, though he knew those rules well. His independence thrice cost him the Prix de Rome, the Conservatoire’s prize for composition students, which entailed a three-year residency at a villa near Rome. Only when he deliberately suppressed his individual manner and forced himself to write a piece in the style prescribed by the school’s faculty did he finally win the competition. He came to regret the compromise. Berlioz found the routine at the prize-winner’s villa as stifling as the conservatory had been, and he left Italy after completing just one year of his residency.Returning to Paris, Berlioz set about trying to earn a living as a composer very much outside the musical establishment of the French capital. Paris was then — and, to a considerable extent, remains still — a city with a highly institutionalized musical life. Two organizations, the Conservatoire and the Opéra, formed the twin pillars of Parisian music, and the officials who presided over them were wary of Berlioz. They regarded the composer as a renegade, a musically uncouth wild man interested chiefly in novelty and shocking effects, and they consequently kept him at arm’s length. Berlioz never received an appointment to the Conservatoire faculty, despite his expertise as a composer, orchestrator and, later, a conductor. (For a time he worked as the school’s librarian.) And the Opéra, after the tepid success of his early Benvenuto Cellini, allowed him only such minor tasks as scoring recitatives for operas by eighteenth-century composers. As a result, Berlioz was forced to present his works independently to the Parisian public. During the 1830's and 1840's, he regularly organized concerts featuring his music, renting a hall, hiring performers, overseeing rehearsals and tending to all the logistical and financial details. It was a time-consuming activity that drained both his energy and his slender material resources. (The concerts rarely turned a profit.) And it failed to convince the musically conservative French public of the excellence of Berlioz’s work.  

Berlioz’s Oeuvre

 Despite these and other chores, Berlioz found the time and energy to compose. The success of Symphonie fantastique, which he had written before embarking on his Italian sojourn, led to a commission from the famed virtuoso Nicolb Paganini for a viola concerto. Berlioz composed instead Harold en Italie, a program symphony with prominent viola solos. Paganini did not play the work, which lacked the element of virtuoso display he wanted, but the generous fee he bestowed on Berlioz enabled the composer to spend a year creating a large “dramatic symphony” with voices and orchestra, Roméo et Juliette. This was neither the first nor the last of Berlioz’s compositions based on Shakespeare. Others included a concert overture inspired by King Lear; a “Funeral March” and cantata for voice and orchestra reflecting the death of Ophelia in Hamlet; and Beatrice and Benedict, an operatic setting of Much Ado About Nothing.Although Berlioz was not overtly religious, two of his grandest works were written for the Church: the Requiem Mass and a setting of the Te Deum. In contrast to the imposing sonorities these pieces call forth, the Christmas oratorio L’enfance du Christ offered a more intimate variety of sacred music. These and other compositions illustrate Berlioz’s tendency to work on a large musical canvass. He could, however, write in shorter forms. His concert overtures, especially, are brief but brilliant evocations of particular scenes or literary ideas. Notwithstanding the failure of his early Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz retained operatic ambitions throughout his career. The huge dramatic cantata La damnation de Faust has decidedly theatrical passages in it, but Berlioz’s banishment from the circle of composers favored at the Paris Opéra dissuaded him from attempting another work for the theater until late in his career. When he finally did return to operatic composition, he created two very dissimilar works. Béatrice et Bénédict is a refined comedy centered on the bantering couple in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It is Berlioz’s lightest work. By contrast, Les Troyens brings to the stage a tragedy on an epic scale. Berlioz hesitated to write this work, fearing that he would never see it produced. He was partially correct. Only half of the great opera was brought to the stage during his lifetime, and even this was mangled by cuts and amendments that infuriated the composer. 

Success and Disillusion

 Berlioz struggled vainly throughout his career for success in Paris. For years he supported himself as the Conservatoire’s librarian and as a music critic. Eventually, however, his music began to achieve recognition abroad. In Weimar, Liszt organized a week-long festival of Berlioz’s compositions. Russia, England and other parts of Germany and central Europe also acknowledged the power and originality of his music, and the composer spent more and more time conducting performances foreign cities.Berlioz’s success abroad surely mitigated his sense of failure in Paris, but the latter eventually caused him to grow disillusioned and bitter. The major French musical institutions continued to shun him, and he had to supplement his income by writing criticism until nearly the end of his life. After his long effort to attain a production of Les Troyens ended unhappily, Berlioz abandoned composition during the last five years of his life. He published his Mémoires (probably the most lively and fascinating autobiography by any musician), conducted occasional performances of his music abroad and lived out his days a proud, lonely prophet without meaningful honor in his own country.  

Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14

 The sources of Berlioz’s inspiration were, for the most part, well-known literary works: Shakespeare, classical epics and the Romantic writers of his own era (Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo and James Fennimore Cooper among them). His compositions include works based on the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing; Goethe’s Faust, Byron’s Childe Harold, Scott’s Waverly and Rob Roy; and Virgil’s Aeneid (from which sprang his epic opera Les Troyens). But Berlioz was not content to be merely a reader of the type of fantasy and heroism that were so central to the spirit of nineteenth-century Romanticism, nor even to translate this into music. Rather, lived a life that seems the very embodiment of Romantic impulses. Passion and reverie ruled him, and they led to the creation of his most famous composition, Symphonie fantastique, a work based on a dream-like scenario whose protagonist clearly is the composer himself. Berlioz composed this work as a fanciful elaboration of his love for an English actress, Harriet Smithson. The composer first encountered her at a performance of Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia, given in Paris in 1827. He was instantly smitten. Young and penniless, Berlioz tried for several years without success to attract her attention. Finally, despairing of winning the object of his affection, he put his heartache to creative use. In 1830 he set about writing what he described as a “grand symphony (Episode from an Artist’s Life) in which the development of my infernal passion is to be depicted.” Symphonie fantastique carried the idea of the program symphony, a symphonic composition that entails a dramatic structure expressed through music, to a new level of vividness. . As Berlioz outlined it to a friend, the work’s programwent as follows:I imagine that an artist ... sees for the first time a woman who embodies the ideal of beauty and fascination that his heart has long been seeking; he falls desperately in love with her. As the result of an odd whim, whenever the image of the loved one appears ... it is accompanied by a musical thought. ... That is the reason for the appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the chief melody of the first Allegro.   Finding himself one day in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping.... This pastorale immerses him in delightful reverie.   He goes to a ball, but ... his idée fixe returns to trouble him, and the beloved melody makes his heart pound during a brilliant waltz. [Berlioz later reversed the order of these second and third movements.]   In a fit of despair he poisons himself with opium; but instead of killing him, the narcotic induces a horrible vision. ... He believes he has killed his beloved, has been condemned to death, and witnesses his own execution. March to the scaffold. ...   He sees himself surrounded by ... sorcerers and devils, come together to celebrate the sabbath. ... At last the melody arrives. ... The ceremony begins. The bells ring, ... a chorus sings the plainchant sequence of the dead (Dies irae). ... Then finally the sabbath round-dance begins to whirl; in its most violent outburst it mingles with the Dies irae, and the dream is over (No. 5). In its programmatic structure, intense subjectivity and expression of obsessive passion, death and the supernatural, Symphonie fantastique is a quintessential Romantic work of art. Moreover, the use of the idée fixe, a theme that reappears in different forms throughout the composition, was one that would be taken up and developed further by Liszt and other latter-day Romantic composers.The connection between Symphonie fantastique and Berlioz’s real-life passion for Harriet Smithson forms a remarkable coda to the genesis of this work. After composing the symphony, Berlioz left for Italy to take up residence in the villa maintained for winners of the Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome contest. Upon his return to Paris, in 1832, he sought to establish himself on the musical scene by presenting a concert of his music. The program for this event consisted of Symphonie fantastique and a sequel that Berlioz had composed to it, Lélio, or the Return to Life. Through a strange coincidence of circumstance, Harriet Smithson was brought to the concert be an English journalist. She had not known that Berlioz had organized the event, nor the nature of the music to be performed. But as the performance proceeded, she began to realize that she herself was the heroine of the drama related by the music. We need not imagine her reaction; Berlioz did that for us. In his Memoirs he writes that “the passionate character of the work, its ardent, exalted melodies, its protestations of love, its sudden outbursts of violence and the sensation of hearing an orchestra of that size close by could not fail to make an impression — an impression as profound as it was totally unexpected — on her nervous system and poetic imagination ... and at the end [she] returned home like a sleepwalker, with no clear idea of what was happening.”Berlioz’s earlier efforts to attract Harriet Smithson’s attention had failed ignominiously, but not this one. She could not now refuse him an audience, and during the course of the next year the composer courted her despite her ambivalent reactions and the opposition of both their families. At last, in the summer of 1833, they married, but their union did not bring enduring happiness to either. The couple passed their first years together in dire poverty, their communication was hampered by imperfect understanding of each other’s language, and Harriet grew despondent after medical complications forced her to abandon her career as an actress. In daily life she proved a far cry from Ophelia or Juliet, and the over-worked, care-worn Berlioz must have seemed to her a pale shadow of the fiery composer who had dramatized his passion for her in Symphonie fantastique. Eventually the couple separated. Berlioz continued to support Harriet until her death in 1854. Even then, he arranged her funeral and visited her grave daily in the weeks following her passing. 

Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens  

Berlioz had first read Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid during his boyhood studies of literature, and it affected him deeply from his first encounter with it. It remained a touchstone for him throughout his career, joining Shakespeare and Goethe’s Faust at the summit of his literary pantheon. The composer had long contemplated writing an opera on Virgil’s epic, but the difficulties inherent in this task long prevented him. It was not until 1856, and a strongly worded challenge from Franz Liszt’s mistress, Princess Carolyn Sayn-Wittgenstein, that he set to work on it. Berlioz created his own libretto, adapting it from two distinct episodes in The Aeneid: the fall of Troy and the sojourn of the refugee Trojan hero Aeneas in Carthage, where he falls tragically in love with the Carthagian Queen Dido. The music, which took some two years to write, drew on all the experience its author had gained during more than thirty years of composing, conducting and studying.Berlioz knew that it would be nearly impossible to secure a satisfactory production of Les Troyens. Conceived and executed on scale of unprecedented grandeur, it posed tremendous challenges of musical endurance and stagecraft. The composer’s misgivings were not unjustified. He waged a long campaign to get the work performed at the Opéra, but to no avail. Finally, and reluctantly, he accepted an offer from a smaller company, the Théâtre-Lyrique, to mount the second half of the work, “The Trojans at Carthage.” This gambit brought bitter disappointment. The theater’s management insisted on excisions and changes which so mutilated the work that Berlioz was glad when its run was cut short.One portion of Les Troyens that was deleted after the opening night was the pantomime ballet called “Royal Hunt and Storm,” intended to serve as an entr’acte between two of the opera’s later acts. This interlude portrays Queen Dido, Aeneas and a hunting party coming upon a grotto in a forest. Woodland nymphs dart among the shrubbery and bathe in a pool, but they scatter with the arrival of the hunters. A storm comes up, and Dido and Aeneas take shelter in a cave. As the tempest rages, nymphs and satyrs dance with abandon. All this gave Berlioz an opportunity for a miniature tone poem combining nature music, hunting calls and the suggestion of a bacchanal.  

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