Composer, Conductor, Critic. One of music's great innovators and the outstanding French composer of his era. He was the quintessential Romantic in both his art and his turbulent life. Louis-Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, France, the son of a physician. As a youth he had guitar and flute lessons and taught himself harmony from textbooks, but when his parents sent him to Paris in 1821 it was to become a doctor. The unenthusiastic medical student pursued music on the side. He spent so much time examining scores at the Paris Conservatory library that the director, Luigi Cherubini, tried to have him barred because he was not enrolled there. More sympathetic was professor Jean Francois Lesueur, who accepted him as a private pupil in 1824. Lesueur saw something special in Berlioz, telling him, "You will not become a doctor or druggist, but a great composer, for you have genius". This was enough for Berlioz to abandon medicine, against his parents' wishes. His first large composition, the "Messe solennelle" ("Solemn Mass"), was performed in 1825, and from 1826 to 1830 he attended the Conservatory, alarming Cherubini and much of the faculty with his unorthodox ideas. As a young man Berlioz cut a colorful figure with his wild hair and impulsive manners. Already a musical perfectionist, he would disrupt concerts from his seat in the gallery by berating the musicians if he felt their playing was below his standards. In September 1827 he had a life-changing experience when he saw an English theatre company perform "Hamlet" in Paris. It marked his introduction to Shakespeare, which he described as "a voice out of the burning bush, amid the stormclouds, the thunder and the lightning of a poetry that was new to me". And for him it was embodied in the actress who played Ophelia, the Irish-born Harriet Smithson. Wildly smitten, Berlioz stalked her at the theatre and sent such violent love letters that she thought he was deranged. She left Paris without meeting him. This unrequited passion, and later (untrue) rumors that Smithson was having an affair with her manager, inspired Berlioz to compose the "Symphonie fantastique" (1830). Its premiere on the heels of the July Revolution established Berlioz as the musical leader of French Romanticism. The same year Berlioz won the Conservatory's top prize, the Prix de Rome, and was obliged to go to Italy for further study. He was unhappy there, not least because he had to leave behind his new fiancee, pianist Marie Moke, who he promised to marry on his return. In 1831 he learned that Moke had broken their engagement to marry piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel. Berlioz escaped from Rome in a blind fury, armed with two pistols, bottles of poison, and a maid's outfit as a disguise, determined to kill the newlyweds and himself. He got as far as southern France - with a half-hearted suicide attempt along the way - before realizing how ridiculous the situation was. He spent a month in the resort city of Nice calmly writing his "Rob Roy" and "King Lear" overtures, then returned to Rome. The Italian sojourn was not a total loss: he met Felix Mendelssohn, a future friend, and gathered personal impressions that would subsequently enrich his art. The Marie Moke episode would be channeled into a sequel of the "Symphonie fantastique", "Lélio, or the Return to Life" (1832). Back in Paris in 1832, Berlioz arranged a concert of the "Symphonie fantastique" and "Lélio" which Harriet Smithson attended. They were soon introduced, and after a bizarre courtship - the couple hardly knew each other's language - were married in 1833. They had one son, Louis. From 1834 to 1863 Berlioz was chief music critic of the major French newspaper "Journal des Débats" and was also a regular contributor to the "Revue et Gazette musicale". Although he referred to writing criticism as "a dog's life, either biting or licking", he proved to be brilliant at it, a natural gadfly who championed new music and attacked mediocrity with urbane style and devastating wit. Some of his choicest journalism was reworked into his book "Evenings with the Orchestra" (1854). Many in the Parisian musical establishment felt the sting of Berlioz's pen and they fought back by hindering his prospects there. The failure of his opera "Benvenuto Cellini" (1838), in part through sabotage, closed the doors of the Paris Opera to him for good; he was routinely passed over for important conducting posts in the French capital and professorships at the Conservatory (though he became its head librarian in 1850). As for his music, it was considered weird and self-indulgent and he usually had to finance performances of it himself. He enjoyed bracing successes with his "Harold in Italy" symphony (1834), the monumental "Requiem" (1837), the gorgeous "Romeo and Juliet" symphony (1839), and the "Funeral and Triumphal Symphony" (1840), but the daring "The Damnation of Faust" (1846) was a poorly-attended fiasco that nearly bankrupted him. By the 1840s Berlioz's "outsider" status in French art was entrenched and he sought to promote his compositions through conducting tours of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia, and England. The enthusiasm and honors he received in those places - including an offer to become Imperial Kapellmeister of Vienna in 1846 - only increased his sense of creative isolation as a Frenchman. ("The more I see of foreign lands, the less I love my own", he wrote to a friend. "Please forgive me..."). His personal life didn't give him much respite either. The outlandish behavior of his early adulthood gave way to a studied reserve in his maturity, but he was always prone to drastic mood swings, to the point that some modern historians have characterized him as a manic-depressive. His marriage to Harriet was doomed almost from the start. Bitter about the end of her acting career, she became an alcoholic; they separated in 1841, though Berlioz continued to visit and support her. After Harriet's death in 1854 he married his longtime mistress, Marie Recio, a pretty but mediocre singer who (to his horror) insisted on participating in his concerts; her shrewish tongue complicated relations with some of his colleagues, notably Richard Wagner. The triumphant premieres of his oratorio "The Childhood of Christ" (1854) and the "Te Deum" (1855), along with his 1856 election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, suggested that the tide was turning in Berlioz's favor and gave him the confidence to tackle his magnum opus: "Les Troyens" ("The Trojans"), a five-act grand opera based on Virgil's "The Aeneid". The score was finished in 1858 but he encountered interminable delays in having it produced. In the interim he accepted a commission from Germany for a comic opera, "Beatrice and Benedict", adapted from Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"; it inaugurated the new theatre in Baden-Baden in 1862. Berlioz never heard "Les Troyens" in its entirety. In a bitter compromise he allowed the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris to put on the last three acts under the title "The Trojans at Carthage" in 1863, and it enjoyed a respectable first run of 21 performances. (The five-act version would not be performed until 1890). Observing the public's interest in his mutilated masterpiece, a friend tried to reassure Berlioz with the words "They are coming". "Yes", he replied, "but I am going". Afflicted with an intestinal ailment that may have been cancerous, and burned out from three decades of creative struggle, he gave up composing and journalism. The deaths of his second wife in 1862 and his son Louis in 1867 darkened his last years and in a fit of despair he destroyed nearly all the prizes and mementoes of his career. He settled plenty of scores in his classic "Memoirs" (completed 1865, published in 1870), and took regular walks through Montmartre Cemetery, where he ruminated over his approaching end. His last energies went into a final concert tour of Russia during the Winter of 1867-1868, after which he was virtually bedridden in Paris. He died there at 65. His funeral was tinged with ironies the critic in him would have appreciated. One of the eulogies was delivered by a former foe, Professor Antoine Elwart of the Conservatory; years earlier Berlioz had chided him, "If you are going to be there and make a speech, then I'd just as soon not die". Music by another enemy, the long-dead Cherubini, was played. As the procession made its way through the streets of Montmartre, the horses pulling the hearse suddenly bolted ahead and brought the composer's coffin alone through the gates of the cemetery. Berlioz was the first full-blooded Romantic in music. He once wrote, "To render my works properly requires a combination of extreme precision and irresistible verve, a regulated vehemence, a dreamy tenderness, and an almost morbid melancholy". Berlioz's musical idols were Beethoven, Gluck, Weber, and Spontini, while he also took cues from Francois-Joseph Gossec and his teacher Lesueur; but his real inspirations came from literature and personal experience. The astonishingly original "Symphonie fantastique", subtitled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist", opened the door to a new era in its explicit autobiographical program and the imaginative resources of sound that brought it to life. It was the godfather of the tone poems of Liszt (who attended the premiere and was a longtime friend), and in its use of a recurring theme - the "idée fixe" representing Berlioz's beloved Harriet - it anticipated cyclical structure and the Wagnerian leitmotif. Berlioz had no qualms about smashing forms or mixing genres, causing conservatives to brand him a heretic. There is a direct line from the spoken word monodrama of "Lélio" to Schoenberg's "Pierrot lunaire"; "Harold in Italy" is both a symphony and a viola concerto (originally commissioned by Paganini, who then refused to play it). The Requiem, featuring four offstage brass bands and 16 kettledrums, is dramatic rather than liturgical. "Romeo and Juliet" is a "dramatic symphony", and Berlioz called "The Damnation of Faust" a "concert opera". The later works are less adventurous though no less personally motivated, as he reached back towards happier days for subjects. "Les Troyens" was the consummation of his boyhood love for Virgil's poetry, before it was supplanted by Shakespeare; the genesis of "Beatrice and Benedict" dated back to the early 1830s, when he was fresh from Italy and thinking about setting "Much Ado About Nothing". He wrote the librettos for his last two operas, and his considerable literary gifts are evident in the "Memoirs" and his collected journalism. Berlioz's other compositions include the concert overtures "Les francs-juges" (1826), "Waverly" (1828), "Le corsaire" (1844), and the popular "Roman Carnival" (1844), adapted from "Benvenuto Cellini"; the exquisite song cycle "Les nuits d'été" ("Summer Nights, 1841) on poems by Gautier; the "Reverie and Caprice" for violin and orchestra (1841); stirring arrangements of Weber's "Invitation to the Dance" (1841) and the Hungarian "Rákóczi March", the latter incorporated into "The Damnation of Faust"; "Tristia" (1852), a trio of three short pieces for chorus and orchestra; and some 30 songs. Berlioz was too singular an artist to inspire disciples or imitators. He was not a tunesmith in the traditional sense; charges that his music "lacked melody" dogged him from the start of his career and are still a stumbling block in his acceptance by mainstream audiences. While several of his works are now firmly established in the repertory he remains something of an acquired taste. Nevertheless, his impact on music of the 1800s was seminal. His genius as an orchestrator has never been disputed and he could well be credited as the creator of the modern symphony orchestra. No real instrumentalist himself, he was free from what he called "the tyranny of fingers" and able to write in purely orchestral terms. Many of his works require huge musical forces, not merely for volume but because he was tireless in his pursuit of new effects through different combinations of instruments. He was the first to write for the newly invented saxophone (1844); introduced the harp, English horn, cornet, bass brass (the ophicleide, forerunner of the tuba), and bass clarinet as permanent members of the ensemble; and greatly expanded the percussion section, including the use of orchestral pianos. As a theorist his "Treatise on Instrumentation" (1844, revised 1855) is the most important 19th Century text of its kind. Liszt, Verdi, Gounod, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, the "Mighty Five" Russians, Mahler, Elgar, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel all learned from it, and it was the basis for Rimsky-Korsakov's famous book on the subject. To better realize his intentions he turned to conducting on a regular basis after 1834, and pioneered again with his insistence on clarity, steady tempi, and fidelity to the original scores; he often rehearsed his orchestras in sections for greater precision. Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hans von Bulow were among the many who acknowledged his primacy on the podium. In his lifetime Berlioz was better appreciated outside his homeland than within it, and his ghost continues to hover uneasily over the powers that be in France. Indicative of this is an ongoing controversy over his burial place. In 1969 the French government proposed moving his remains to the Pantheon to rest among the giants of his nation's culture; nothing came of it. Instead Berlioz fans raised funds to replace his badly weathered tomb with a new one of black granite, which was dedicated in 1970. The Pantheon idea was revived for the Berlioz Bicentennial in 2003, but opponents successfully argued that he was an anti-establishment figure whose dying wish was to be buried with his two wives in Montmartre.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards