Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869) MP

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Birthplace: La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, Rhône-Alpes, France
Death: Died in France
Occupation: French Romantic composer
Managed by: Yigal Burstein / יגאל בורשטיין
Last Updated:

About Louis-Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works; as a conductor, he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. 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.

Life and career

Early years

Hector Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, near Grenoble. His father, a respected provincial physician and scholar, was responsible for much of the young Berlioz's education. His father was an atheist, with a liberal outlook; his mother 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 12, 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.

While yet at age 12, as recalled in his Mémoires, he experienced his first passion for a woman, an 18-year-old next door neighbour named Estelle Fornier (née Dubœuf). Berlioz appears to have been innately Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature, and his weeping at passages by Virgil (by age twelve he had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father's tutelage), Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Student life

Paris

In March 1821, he graduated from high school in Grenoble, and in October, at age 18, Berlioz 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 gives a colorful account in his Mémoires.) 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 Lesueur to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils.

Italy

On 30 December 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. Berlioz later recalled that his, "intention was to write a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant [with the orchestra] while retaining its own character. By placing it among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in Abruzzi, I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron's Childe-Harold."

While in Rome, he stayed at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. He found the city distasteful, writing, "Rome is the most stupid and prosaic city I know; it is no place for anyone with head or heart." He therefore made an effort to leave the city as often as possible, making frequent trips to the surrounding country. During one of these trips, while Berlioz enjoyed an afternoon of sailing, he encountered a group of Carbonari. These were members of a secret society of Italian patriots based in France with the aim of creating a unified Italy.

Berlioz continued to travel throughout his stay in Italy. He visited Pompeii, Naples, Milan, Tivoli, Florence, Turin and Genoa. Italy was important in providing Berlioz with experiences that would be impossible in France. At times, it was as if he himself was actually experiencing the Romantic tales of Byron in person; consorting with brigands, corsairs, and peasants. He returned to Paris in November 1832.

Decade of productivity

Between 1830 and 1840, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works. The foremost of these are the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), 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 a relationship. Despite Berlioz not understanding spoken English and Harriet not knowing any French, on 3 October 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 – a source of initial disappointment, anxiety and eventual pride to his father. Unfortunately for Berlioz, he was soon to discover that living under the same roof as the Beloved was far less appealing than worship from afar. Their marriage proved a disaster as both were prone to violent personality clashes and outbursts of temper.

In 1834, 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 en Italie. Paganini changed his mind about playing the piece himself when he saw the first sketches for the work; he expressed misgivings over its outward lack of complexity. The premiere of the piece was held later that year. After initially rejecting the piece, Paganini, as Berlioz's Mémoires recount, knelt before Berlioz in front of the orchestra after hearing it for the first time and proclaimed him a genius and heir to Beethoven. The next day he sent Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs, the generosity of which left Berlioz uncharacteristically lost for words. 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. One of his most enduring pieces followed Benvenuto Cellini—the Grande messe des morts, first performed at Les Invalides in December of that year. Its gestation was difficult; because it was a state-commissioned work much bureaucracy had to be endured. There was also opposition from Luigi Cherubini, who was at the time the music director of the Paris Conservatoire. Cherubini felt that a government-sponsored commission should naturally be offered to himself rather than the young Berlioz, who was considered an eccentric. Regardless of the animosity between the two composers, Berlioz learned from and admired Cherubini's music, such as the requiem.

Thanks to the money Paganini had given him after hearing Harold, Berlioz was able to pay off Harriet's and his own debts and suspend his work as a critic. This allowed him to focus on writing the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette for voices, chorus and orchestra. Berlioz later identified the "love scene" from this choral symphony, as he called it, as his favourite composition. (He considered his Requiem his best work, however: "If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts".) It was a success both at home and abroad, unlike later great vocal works such as La damnation de Faust and Les Troyens, which were commercial failures. 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. While his career as a critic and writer provided him with a comfortable income, and he had an obvious talent for writing, he came to detest the amount of time spent attending performances to review, as it severely limited his free time to promote his own composition[ and produce more compositions. Despite his prominent position in musical criticism, he did not use his articles to promote his own works.

Mid-life

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, and the original piano piece has often been mistitled as a result). Later that year Berlioz finished composing the song cycle Les nuits d'été for piano and voices (later to be orchestrated). He also entered into a relationship with singer Marie Recio who would become his second wife.

In 1842, Berlioz embarked on a concert tour of Brussels, Belgium from September to October. In December he began a tour in Germany which continued until the middle of next year. Towns visited included Berlin, Hanover, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Weimar, Hechingen, Darmstadt, Dresden, Brunswick, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Mannheim. In Leipzig he met Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, the latter of whom had written an enthusiastic article on the Symphonie fantastique. He also met Heinrich Marschner in Hanover, Wagner in Dresden and Giacomo Meyerbeer in Berlin. Back in Paris, Berlioz began to compose the concert overture Le carnaval romain, based on music from Benvenuto Cellini. The work was finished the following year and was premiered shortly after. Nowadays it is among the most popular of his overtures.

In early 1844, Berlioz's highly influential Treatise on Instrumentation was published for the first time. At this time Berlioz was producing several serialisations for music journals which would eventually be collected into his Mémoires and Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra). 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. Berlioz moved in with a mistress Marie Recio. He continued to provide for Harriet for the rest of her life. He also met Mikhail Glinka (whom he had initially met in Italy and who remained a close friend), who was in Paris between 1844-5 and persuaded Berlioz to embark on one of two tours of Russia. Berlioz's joke "If the Emperor of Russia wants me, then I am up for sale" was taken seriously. The two tours of Russia (the second in 1867) proved so financially successful that they secured Berlioz's finances despite the large amounts of money he was losing in writing unsuccessful compositions. In 1845 he embarked on his first large-scale concert tour of France. He also attended and wrote a report on the inauguration of a statue to Beethoven in Bonn, and began composing La damnation de Faust, incorporating the earlier Huit scènes de Faust. On his return to Paris, the recently completed La damnation de Faust was premiered at the Opéra-Comique, but after two performances, the run was discontinued and the work was a popular failure (perhaps owing to its halfway status between opera and cantata), despite receiving generally favourable critical reviews. This left Berlioz heavily in debt to the tune of 5-6000 francs. Becoming ever more disenchanted with his prospects in France.

In 1847, during a seven-month visit to England, he was appointed conductor at the London Drury Lane Theatre by its then-musical director, the popular French musician Louis Antoine Jullien. He was impressed with its quality when he first heard the orchestra perform at a promenade concert. In London he also learnt that he knew far more English than he had supposed, although still did not understand half of what was said in conversation. He began writing his Mémoires. During his stay in England, the February Revolution broke out in France. Berlioz arrived back in France in 1848, only to be informed that his father had died shortly after his return. He went back to his birthplace to mourn his father along with his sisters. Meanwhile, Harriet's health was declining due to alcohol abuse and she suffered a series of strokes that left her an invalid. Berlioz paid for four servants to look after her on a permanent basis and visited her almost daily. 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. This composer was of course a fictional construct by Berlioz. 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 could never do that!", he recounts in his Mémoires, was one of the comments. Berlioz later incorporated the piece into La fuite en Egypte from L'enfance du Christ. In 1852, Liszt revived Benvenuto Cellini in what was to become the "Weimar version" of the opera, containing modifications made with the approval of Berlioz. The performances were the first since the disastrous premiere of 1838. Berlioz travelled to London in the following year to stage it at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden but withdrew it after one performance owing to the hostile reception. It was during this visit that he witnessed a charity performance involving six thousand five hundred children singing in St Paul's Cathedral. Harriet Smithson died in 1854. L'enfance du Christ was completed later that year and was well-received upon its premiere. Unusually for a late Berlioz work, it appears to have remained popular long after his death. In October, Berlioz married Marie Recio. In a letter written to his son, he said that having lived with her for so long, it was his duty to do so. In early 1855 Le retour à la vie was revised and renamed Lélio. Shortly afterwards, the Te Deum received its premiere with Berlioz conducting. During a short visit to London, Berlioz had a long conversation with Wagner over dinner. A second edition of Treatise on Instrumentation was also published, with a new chapter detailing aspects of conducting.

Later years

In 1864 Berlioz was made Officier de la Légion d'honneur. On August 22, Berlioz heard from a friend that Amélie, who had been suffering from poor health, had died at the age of 26. A week later, while walking in the Montmartre Cemetery, he discovered Amélie's grave: she had been dead for six months. By now, Berlioz was a lonely man. Most of his family and friends had died, including two of his sisters. Events like these became all too common in his later life, as his continued isolation from the musical scene increased as the focus shifted to Germany.

Berlioz met Estelle Fornier – the object of his childhood affections – in Lyon for the first time in 40 years, and began a regular correspondence with her. Berlioz soon realised that he still longed for her, and eventually she had to inform him that as a married woman there was no possibility that they could become closer than friends. By 1865, an initial printing of 1200 copies of his Mémoires was completed. A few copies were distributed amongst his friends, but the bulk were, slightly morbidly, stored in his office at the Paris Conservatoire, to be sold upon his death. He travelled to Vienna in December 1866 to conduct the first complete performance there of La damnation de Faust. In 1867 Berlioz's son Louis, a merchant shipping captain, died of yellow fever in Havana. After learning this, Berlioz burnt a large number of documents and other mementos which he had accumulated during his life, keeping only a conducting baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar given to him by Paganini. He then wrote his will. The intestinal pains had been gradually increasing, and had now spread to his stomach, and whole days were passed in agony. At times he experienced spasms in the street so intense that he could barely move. Later that year he embarked on his second concert tour of Russia, which would also be his last of any kind. The tour was extremely lucrative for him, so much so that Berlioz turned down an offer of 100,000 francs from American Steinway to perform in New York. In Saint Petersburg, Berlioz experienced a special pleasure at performing with the "first-rate" orchestra of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He returned to Paris in 1868, exhausted, with his health damaged due to the Russian winter. He immediately traveled to Nice to recuperate in the Mediterranean climate, but slipped on some rocks by the sea shore, possibly due to a stroke, and had to return to Paris, where he lived as an invalid. In August 1868, he made his last trip to Grenoble where lived his sister and her family. Invited by Mayor Jean Vendre during three days of festivities for the inauguration of a statue of Napoleon, he presided a music festival.

On 8 March 1869, Berlioz died at his Paris home, No.4 rue de Calais, at 30 minutes past midday. He was surrounded by friends at the time. His funeral was held at the recently completed Église de la Trinité on March 11, and he was buried in Montmartre Cemetery with his two wives, who were exhumed and re-buried next to him. His last words were reputed to be "Enfin, on va jouer ma musique ("At last, they are going to play my music").

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Hector Berlioz's Timeline

1803
December 11, 1803
La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, Rhône-Alpes, France
1833
October 3, 1833
Age 29
Paris, France
1834
1834
Age 30
1854
October 1854
Age 50
1869
March 8, 1869
Age 65
France
March 1869
Age 65
Paris, France