Berlioz - An Appreciated Musical Genius


Louis Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803, in La 
Cote-Saint-Andre, a very small town in the east of France, fairly 
close to Grenoble, and a little further from Lyon. His father was a 
very respected doctor, an openly declared atheist and also a music 
lover. His mother was a Catholic. He was brought up under strict 
Catholicism as a boy, but soon left the Church and claimed agnosticism 
for the rest of his life. He started musical education when he was 
13. He took flute (flageolet), vocal and guitar lessons. He did not 
study the piano as a child. In fact, his first compositions were for 
piano, flute and guitar. For his first 20 years or so, his father was 
the main influence in his life.

 In 1821, his father enrolled him in a medical school in Paris. 
After about a year of study there, he became very excited with the 
study of music. He attended operas in Paris, which fueled his love 
for music, and he soon abandoned medical school and enrolled in the 
Conservatoire under Jean- Francois le Suer. He wrote his Missa 
Solemnis, but at the time, he did not have enough money for it to be 
performed, so it was performed a year later. His father agreed to 
keep his allowance unless he failed in music, at which time he would 
need to choose another field. But a year later, he cut it off anyway. 
His mother cursed him for choosing the evil life of an artist. 

 In 1827, Berlioz became a chorus singer at a vaudeville theater, 
as he was a very good sight singer. He did not publicize this, as it 
was mostly to make ends meet. He saw a production of Romeo and Juliet 
in September of 1827 and fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet 
Smithson, but she thought he was a mad man. She became an important 
part of his life and music. That same year his father restored his 
allowance because he admired his son's determination and worried about 
him. In 1828 he took English lesson so he could read Shakespeare. He 
wrote a few articles on music but soon lost interest because of the 
restrictions of journalism, and he found it to be boring. 

 Finally in 1830, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome. During 1829-1830 
he wrote his Symphonie Fantastique, which he finished during the 
revolution of 1830. He got his symphony performed on December 5, 
1830. It was subtitled "Episode in the Life of an Artist" and was 
performed in the Paris Conservatoire under the direction of Francois 
Antoine Habenack. To the score, he attached his program notes, with 
descriptions of every part of the song, which helped to get a better 
idea of how the song should sound. It was, indeed, a wonder 
performance. After the concert, Franz Liszt, who he met the day 
before, was very excited about Berlioz's music and took him out to 
dinner. They soon became good friends.

 He soon met Camille Mokke, who was out to prove her current 
admirer wrong by winning Berlioz over. She did, but he should have 
regretted it. The next year, he was to go to Rome for his obligation 
of winning the Prix de Rome. He stopped in Italy for a month to visit 
home. Now, of course, both of his parents were proud of their 
successful son. He soon left Rome to find Camille, who he had not 
heard from in a month as she was strutting around Paris. On his way, 
he got a letter in Florence from Camille's mom that informed him that 
Camille would be marrying someone else. Camille had fallen in love 
with a rich, older piano player, and Berlioz was still a young 
musician. He left for Paris with plans of a murder/suicide, but 
during the long trip, he cooled off a little and returned back to 

 He returned back to Paris in November 1832 and moved into an 
apartment that had just recently been occupied by Harriet Smithson. 
When Berlioz learned of this, his feelings immediately came flowing 
back to him. He gave a concert of Symphonie Fantastique and its 
sequel, Lelio in December. He invited Harriet to sit in a box and she 
attended. Her career wasn't going so well and she was in financial 
hardship so she decided to meet Berlioz. She saw him as a way out of 
debt, so on October 3, 1833, they were married. In December, he gave 
a performance of King Lear, after which Paganini gave him great 
praise, and they developed a friendship. Berlioz wrote a piece for 
him and turned it into Harold in Italy.

 In 1834, they had a son, Louis. Harriet's acting career failed, 
and her beauty and health were fading fast. She soon began drinking 
and was turning into a shrew. Berlioz could not deal with her 
anymore, and moved out and took a mistress named Marie Recio, and 
opera singer. The next few years after that, he traveled a lot with 
success in Germany, Russia and London. He began his memoirs in 1848 
and a year after that his father died. Between 1848 and 1855, he 
traveled more with mixed results. In 1854, Harriet died. 

 In 1855, Berlioz was appreciated and recognized as a great 
composer. His great works were affecting other composers and his 
Treatise on Instrumentation was becoming a standard textbook. In 
1862, however, Marie died of a heart attack, and in 1867, his son died 
of yellow fever. In January of 1869, Berlioz became very sick and was 

bedridden. He died two months later. He is buried in Paris today, 
with a square bearing his name with an overlooking statue.


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