Hector Berlioz was born near Grenoble in the Freneh Alps. As a
child he was a voracious reader, particularly of Virgil,
Shakespeare, and Goethe. He never learned to play the piano, and
lessons on the flute lasted just a year. Only on the guitar, a
gift from his father, did he attain a degree of proficiency.
Despite young Berlioz's musical aspirations, parental
expectations of a career in medicine led first to studies at a
medical college in Paris. But the desire to be a composer was too
strong, and to his parents' chagrin he abandoned medicine and went
to the Pans Conservatoire to study composition. Berlioz proved to
be a troublesome student. His ideas were conceived on a grand
scale and were difficult to perform because of the large forces
required. Nevertheless he was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1830 and
his father finally accepted that his son was a composer.
Berlioz's first major piece was the Symphonic fantastique,
one of the most original and revolutionary concepts ever
penned. Like many works from the Romantic period the Symphonie
is "programme music": the second movement describes a ball;
the third, a successor to Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, is
a depiction of nature; and the fourth is a gruesome "March to the
Scaffold." The inspiration for this monumental work was unrequited
love; the main musical idea throughout the work represents the
woman in question, actress Harriet Smithson. Berlioz had seen the
performances of Shakespeare that had made her the darling of the
French capital, but she refused to let him woo her. When she heard
the symphony she had inspired, however, she fell in love with its
author and the two were married.
In 1834, Berlioz was commissioned by Paganini to write
Harold in Italy, another massive work that has a major solo
part for the viola. Paganini was disappointed that the solo role
did not give him more to play and never performed the work, but
lie remained friendly with Berlioz and in 1838 his gift of 20,000
francs enabled the Frenchman to give up music criticism, which he
loathed, to concentrate on composing. More large-scale works
followed, including a Requiem commissioned by the French
government in 1837 that required a monumental 220 players and 200
After all his efforts, Berlioz's first marriage was a failure
and he separated from Harriet in 1844. Undeterred, he married
again, this time Marie Recio, whom he had met in 1 841.
This was also the year he completed the charming song-cycle
Les nuits d'ete (Summer nights) for mezzo-soprano and piano.
In 1856 Berlioz orchestrated the work, in which form it is better
known today. A master of orchestration, Berlioz wrote a pioneering
essay on the subject in 1844. It remains an important reference
for composers today.
In 1856 Berlioz embarked on his grandest work, the opera Les
Troyens (The Trojans), regarded by many as his masterpiece. He
used the operas of Cluck as models, perhaps because of the
Classical rather than Romantic subject matter, and took three
years to complete it. Because of its length, Les Troyens
was divided into two parts to facilitate staging, Acts 1
and 2 becoming La prise de Troie (The capture of Troy) and
Acts 3 to 5 Les Troyens a Carthage (The Trojans in
Berlioz died m 1869 and was buried in Montmartre in Paris.
Curiously, the French did not automatically take him to their
hearts, and for many years his works were more popular in Germany,
England and Russia — the countries he regularly visited on
conducting tours - than in his native land.