Cartoon of french composer Hector Berlioz published in 'Wiener theaterzeitung' in 1846
Cartoon of french composer Hector Berlioz published in 'Wiener theaterzeitung' in 1846 © Getty

Hector Berlioz : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of the Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz: romantic at heart and determined, he who composed the famous Symphonie Fantastique has all the characteristics of a quintessential novel character.

Hector Berlioz, a relatively unknown composer during his lifetime and yet one of the most creative and innovative of his generation. Born 11 December 1803 near Côté-Saint-André, in Isère, it was not before the age of 20 that he fully embraced the idea of a musical career, far later than his illustrious contemporaries including Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Chopin.

This is by no means indicative of a lack of genius or ambition by Berlioz, quite the contrary: he exerted a profound influence through the originality and spectacular character of his works. This is a look at the life of an extraordinary character, as fascinated as he was fascinating, hotheaded and extremely demanding.

Denied a piano

Like any good father figure of his time, Louis Berlioz took the education of his son Hector into his own hands. He taught him history, literature, geography, and due to the great interest shown by the young boy in the flageolet [a small whistle flute], the father even dedicates several hours to his son's musical education...

The young Hector began therefore learning the flageolet, flute, and guitar, but he was forbidden from learning the piano: "He had no intention of making an aritst of me ; and I dare say he thought that if I learnt the piano I should devote myself too passionately to it, and become more basorbed in music than he wished or intended me to be", explained Berlioz years later in his Mémoires, not forgetting to add (modestly) that had it not been for this, he may well have "turned into a formidable pianist in company with forty thousand others...".

Le piano est l'instrument de prédilection des compositeurs romantiques, contemporains de Berlioz. Ici Frédéric Chopin représenté en 1829, dans le salon d'un prince polonais.
Le piano est l'instrument de prédilection des compositeurs romantiques, contemporains de Berlioz. Ici Frédéric Chopin représenté en 1829, dans le salon d'un prince polonais. © Getty

Berlioz the bookworm

Hector Berlioz was initially destined to become a doctor, following his father's footsteps. His family sent him to Paris in 1821 to pursue a "serious" education. However, the young scoundrel quickly began skipping his anatomy lessons, spending all of his time in another place of study: the Conservatoire library.

It was here, and on occasion at the opera, that Berlioz discovered the great art of composition. He was notably inspired by an "instinctive passion" for the lyrical works by Gluck; he also encountered the students of Jean-François Lesueur, his future professor of composition. 

Les opéra de Gluck (1714-1787) - ici un extrait de la partition originale d'Alceste - ont beaucoup inspiré Berlioz, avant qu'il ne découvre Weber et Beethoven.
Les opéra de Gluck (1714-1787) - ici un extrait de la partition originale d'Alceste - ont beaucoup inspiré Berlioz, avant qu'il ne découvre Weber et Beethoven.  © Getty

Contradictions and frustrations

In 1838, Berlioz was named assistant curator of the very library in which he had spent so much of his time. A worthy employment ? Not really... at this point, he was supposed to be a famous and talented composer, winner of the famous Prix de Rome and lauded following the first performance of his Symphonie fantastique in 1830. A role as assistant was not therefore what he had expected.

Berlioz sought recognition and approval from his peers and institions his entire life. However, when such recognition was finally received, it was not enough. Saint-Saëns would later describe the composer as "a paradox in human form". When Berlioz was eventually honoured with the Légion d'Honneur in 1864, he replied "A fig for your Cross! Give me my money!"

Caricature de Berlioz, par Paul Gustave Dore, publiée en 1850.
Caricature de Berlioz, par Paul Gustave Dore, publiée en 1850. © Getty

Tough times

Money. A delicate subject, far removed from the romantic ideal of our Berlioz! And yet, financial issues regularly conditioned his everyday life. Ever since rebelling against his parent's professional ambitions, the composer continuously struggled to make ends meet, due in no small way to the fact that he lived off (and would only ever live off) his work as a composer.

He was firstly a chorister at the Théâtre des Nouveautés before accepting in 1830 the role of music critic. "To 'feuilletonnise' [editor's note: feuilleton meaning a serial publication] in order to live [...] is the height of humiliation", he regretfully noted in his Mémoires. Though he seemingly looked down upon his work with the press, in his possession nonetheless was the perfect broadcasting tool. Through his well-written, and often dreaded, articles, Berlioz was able to make himself and his opinions heard.

Vue de la petite maison où vécut le couple Berlioz-Smithson,  dans la rue Saint Vincent du Vieux Montmartre, à Paris.
Vue de la petite maison où vécut le couple Berlioz-Smithson, dans la rue Saint Vincent du Vieux Montmartre, à Paris.  © AFP  /  Carte postale Collection privee ©The Holbarn Archive/Leemage

Rome : le prize yes, the city no

As a student at the conservatoire, the young Berlioz's sole aspiration was to win the famous Prix de Rome. Why such an obsession? Prestige, firstly, but also as means of proving to his family that he was ultimately right to have chosen composition. Finally, the financial aspect was obviously not to be ignored, offering "the artist a yearly pension of three thousand francs for five years" (Berlioz, Mémoires).

He was eventually awarded the coveted Prix de Rome, after his fifth attempt. Was Berlioz satisied? Not entirely. Required to spend two years at the French Academy in Rome, in Villa Medicis, the composer had no desire to leave Paris and fell into a state of depression upon arriving in the Italian capital.

Billet de banque français a l'effigie de Berlioz devant la Villa Medicis de Rome - émis de 1974 a 1978, en remplacement du 10 francs Voltaire.
Billet de banque français a l'effigie de Berlioz devant la Villa Medicis de Rome - émis de 1974 a 1978, en remplacement du 10 francs Voltaire.  © AFP  /  Gusman/Leemage

He stuck to his guns

When Berlioz had an idea, it was impossible to talk him out of it. For example, he decided he missed Paris too much. He therefore left Rome before the official date given by the Villa Médicis. Equally, he wanted the premiere of his Damnation de Faust to be with great pomp and circumstance. Not a problem for the composer, who decided to rent the Opéra-Comique and took care of everything, from the very first rehearsal to the opening of the concert.

This obsessive behaviour can also be found in his music. For example, in the famous Symphonie fantastique (1830), Berlioz brings forth an obsessive and recurring theme, returning in each movement, from which neither the composer nor the listener can escape. 

Berlioz and the eternal feminine

In the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz's recurring theme is representative of a woman, deeply loved but unattainable. This muse that inspired the composer so was none other than Harriet Smithson, a Shakespearian actress he married in 1833, after several years of courting.

Was Harriet Smithson Berlioz's true love? Not exactly... The actress was unquestionably a great source of inspiration for the composer, but his eternal feminine (in reference to Goethe's romantic expression) was Estelle Fornier. Upon meeting her at the age of 12, Berlioz already felt an "electric shock". Almost fifty years later, instead of forgetting her, the composer bequeathed to her an annual income, in memory of the love he felt for her his entire life.

Portrait de l'actrice irlandaise Harriet Smithson (1800 - 1854). Berlioz l'aperçoit pour la première fois en 1827, alors qu'elle interprète le rôle d'Ophelia dans Hamlet.
Portrait de l'actrice irlandaise Harriet Smithson (1800 - 1854). Berlioz l'aperçoit pour la première fois en 1827, alors qu'elle interprète le rôle d'Ophelia dans Hamlet.  © Getty

An excellent writer

Like every good romantic musician, Berlioz found much of his inspiration through literature. Goethe and Shakespeare soon became his spiritual and artistic masters. " Comme tout bon musicien romantique, Berlioz puise beaucoup de ses inspirations dans la littérature. Goethe et Shakespeare sont ainsi ses maîtres spirituels et artistiques. « I recognised the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth", wrote Berlioz after attending a performance of Hamlet for the first time.

Berlioz was a passionate writer, and possessed a well-developed style of writing. Alongside the thirty years as a music critic, he also penned several varied and more liberal writings: a prolific correspondence, a Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration (1844), amusing and theatrical Soirées de l'orchestre, and his romanticised Mémoires, published after his death.

Signature de Berlioz à la fin de l'une de ses lettres adressées à son ami le compositeur Franz Liszt, 1850.
Signature de Berlioz à la fin de l'une de ses lettres adressées à son ami le compositeur Franz Liszt, 1850.  © Getty

Gloire posthume

Hector Berlioz died in Paris, on 8 March 1869, with a surprisingly modest funeral, surprising given that the composer's life and work was nothing but spectacular and grandiose. Symphonies, religious music and lyrical works: Berlioz took an interest in works for large ensembles, revolutionising the classical orchestra by adding new instruments and new methods of expression.

It is this innovative and original spirit that conductors have since rediscovered throughout the 20th century. Time worked its magic and Berlioz finally earned his place in the Pantheon of great composers, as he had so greatly hoped.

Statue de Hector Berlioz érigée en 1890 dans sa commune natale, La Côte-Saint-André.
Statue de Hector Berlioz érigée en 1890 dans sa commune natale, La Côte-Saint-André.  © AFP  /  Franck GUIZIOU

The rediscovered Mass

"This second performance convinced me of the inferiority of my Mass, and, reserving the Resurrexit, which seemed to me better than the rest, I burnt it". Berlioz certainly had a dramatic side... The mass in question, one of his first works and one he claimed in his Mémoires to have burned, was in fact found intact in 1992. 

The work was found in Antwerp by organist and choral conductor Frnas Moor. At the bottom of the page was an inscription stating: "The score of this Mass, entirely in Berlioz’s hand, was given to me in memory of the old friendship which unites us.", signed Antoine Bessems. Proof therefore that it was indeed an original manuscript, since Bessems was a member of the violinists conducted by Berlios during the second performance of the mass in 1827

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