The Kennedy Center

Hector Berlioz


French composer Hector Berlioz was born December 11, 1803 in La Côte-St-André, Isêre, the son of a physician. Although his father encouraged Hector’s early musical inclinations with flute and guitar lessons, as well as preliminary study of the pianoforte, it was assumed that the son would follow his father’s medical profession. After two years of medical school Hector rejected a medical career in favor of musical composition, and attended the Paris Conservatory, where he studied composition with Le Sueur.

Berlioz life was an endless series of great successes and great failures. He won the Prix de Rome only after his fourth attempt. His personality was eccentric, hyper-romantic, and given to sometimes bizarre self-promotion. Although he enjoyed the friendship of many of the successful composers of his day, he was regarded as unconventional, often outre. His compositions followed no conventional style, and he often borrowed heavily from earlier compositions in the creation of new ones. However, his musical creations represent a gifted and skilled sense of musical textures and harmonies. In spite of, or perhaps because of his incomplete musical education his compositions tended to be often radical departures from the orchestral and melodic styles of his day. He loved bold sounds, irregular phrase lengths, and his music tended to be expressive of his own extravagant emotional ideation.

He married several times, had one son, and many romantic affairs. He was continually in financial difficulties, although later research reveals that he was more comfortably situated than his “Memoirs” led one to believe. His principle income until the death of his father provided a comfortable inheritance derived from his journalistic work for the Journal des Débats and the Gazette Musicale.

Although he composed prodigiously, in many musical forms, he is best remembered for his unique Symphonic Fantastique, a “symphony” in five movement based on the french translation of De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He wrote several operas, of which only the overtures, Benvenuto Celini, Roman Carnival, Le Troyens are still heard today. Choral works include Romeo and Juliet, L’Enfance du Christ, Damnation of Faust, and Requiem.. Harold In Italy, is a quasi-viola concerto cum symphony, based on Byron’s Childe Harold, and inspired by Berlioz’ eighteen month visit to Italy in 1834. The principle viola represents the hero expressing his dreams during his wanderings in Abruzzi, where Berlioz had spent much of his time in Italy.

Berlioz later years found him often ill with vague “nervous complaints”, which may have been psycho-somatic reactions to the ups and downs of his musical and personal life. He died in Paris,on March 8, 1869, after a year of severe debilitation.

September 2002
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