(11 December 1803, La Côte-Saint-André - 8 March 1869, Paris)
Louis-Hector Berlioz was a Romantic French composer, critic and conductor, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). At the time of his birth, France was at war and so he was home schooled by his father, an enlightened and cultured physician, who gave him his first music lessons as well as in Latin.
Unlike other famous composers of the time, Berlioz was not a child prodigy, at the age of 12 he began studying music and also composed small pieces and arrangements. Although he never learned to play the piano, he did learn to play the flute, flageolet and guitar. He worked out for himself the elements of harmony after reading Jean Philippe Rameau's harmony treatise.
Sent by his father to study medicine, in 1821 he arrived in Paris. He went to different opera performances and, after being exposed to Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris), Berlioz decided to pursue his musical career. In 1822 he gave up studying medicine and focused his entire attention and energy towards the study of composition. His musical vocation had become so clear in his mind that he contrived to be accepted as a pupil of Jean-François Lesueur, professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.
In 1826 Berlioz enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied composition with Anton Reicha and Ferdinand Paër. He persevered, took the obligatory courses at the Conservatoire, and in 1830 won the Prix de Rome with his romantic cantata, The Death of Sardanapalus. That same year he had finished and obtained a performance of his great score, which is also a seminal work in 19th century music, the Symphonie fantastique. The prize consisted of 3 years of study abroad, 2 of which were spent in Rome at the ”Villa Medicis”. However, the years spent in Rome were unproductive comparing to the rich output of the Paris years, which had brought forth an oratorio, numerous cantatas, two dozen songs, a mass, part of an opera, two overtures, a fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest, and eight scenes from Goethe’s Faust, as well as the Symphonie fantastique.
In 1834, encouraged by Niccolò Paganini, Berlioz composed the symphony Harold in Italy for violin and orchestra. The great virtuoso was disappointed by the result, seeing that the violin part did not challenge his skills and because there were too many rests. After Berlioz conducted a concert in 1838, Paganini, enthusiastic about his compositions, considered Berlioz the only creator capable of reviving Beethoven's music. Paganini also sent him 20.000 francs with a letter repeating this judgment. Using the money to free himself from journalistic drudgery, Berlioz composed the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, dedicated to Paganini.
In 1840, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (Grand Funeral and Triumphal Symphony) was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830 and its premiere was held in open air on 28 July at the Place de la Bastille, conducted by Berlioz himself. The piece was difficult to hear owing to the crowds and timpani of the drum corps. This was later remedied by a concert performance a month later, and Wagner voiced his approval of the work. The following year he began but later abandoned the composition of a new opera, La nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun); some fragments survive.
Besides symphonies and vocal-symphonic works, Berlioz wrote operas, which he tried to present to the wide public. Lacking support in France, he sought success in other countries, and with the help of Mendelssohn and Liszt, he held numerous concerts in Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia and England. Berlioz was the first of the virtuoso conductors, having made himself such in order to supply the deficiencies of men who were unable to direct the new music according to the new canon: play what is written. Moreover, the rhythmical difficulties of his scores and the unfamiliar curve of his melodies disconcerted many. The orchestras themselves had to be taught a new precision, vigour, and ensemble, and this was Berlioz’s handiwork. Wagner’s memoirs bear testimony to this “revelation of a new world,” which he experienced at Berlioz’s hands in 1839.
These new ideas of orchestration and instrumentation were produced in the leading treatise, Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (1844). This book paved the way for the later generations and laid the foundation of the aesthetics of expressiveness in music. His creation, diversified in expression, is representative for the french music, as it was Rameau's a century before, and later, Debussy's.
Among Berlioz’s dramatic works, two became internationally known: La Damnation de Faust (1846) and L’Enfance du Christ (1854). Two others began to emerge from neglect after World War I: the massive two-part drama Les Troyens (1855–58), based on Virgil’s story of Dido and Aeneas, and the short, witty comedy Béatrice et Bénédict, written between 1860 and 1862 and based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For all these Berlioz wrote his own librettos. He also wrote a Te Deum (1849; perfomed 1855), which is a fitting counterpart to the Requiem, and between 1843 and 1856 he orchestrated his songs, including the song cycle Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights). Among his best known overtures are Le Roi Lear (1831), Le Carnaval romain (1844), based on material from Benvenuto Cellini, and Le Corsaire (1831–52).
Berlioz's output isn't rich in opus numbers, totaling about 30 works. From his first compositions he proved to have a vast imagination, exuberant passion whilst disregarding the classical models. In the creation of drama and atmosphere, Berlioz excels in scenes of melancholy, introspection, love—gentle or passionate—the contemplation of nature, and the tumult of crowds. His intention throughout is to combine truth with musical sensations, be they powerful or (to quote Shaw again) “wonderful in their tenuity and delicacy, unearthly, unexpected, unaccountable.”
Hector Berlioz's output had a great influence on the further development of Romanticism, and especially on composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.
Here you can find a complete list of the works of Hector Berlioz.