108 Facts About Berlioz


Louis-Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer and conductor.

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Berlioz's output includes orchestral works such as the Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, choral pieces including the Requiem and L'Enfance du Christ, his three operas Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict, and works of hybrid genres such as the "dramatic symphony" Romeo et Juliette and the "dramatic legend" La Damnation de Faust.

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Elder son of a provincial doctor, Berlioz was expected to follow his father into medicine, and he attended a Parisian medical college before defying his family by taking up music as a profession.

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Berlioz briefly moderated his style sufficiently to win France's premier music prize – the Prix de Rome – in 1830, but he learned little from the academics of the Paris Conservatoire.

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At the age of twenty-four Berlioz fell in love with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, and he pursued her obsessively until she finally accepted him seven years later.

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Berlioz completed three operas, the first of which, Benvenuto Cellini, was an outright failure.

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Berlioz was highly regarded in Germany, Britain and Russia both as a composer and as a conductor.

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Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803, the eldest child of Louis Berlioz, a physician, and his wife, Marie-Antoinette Josephine, nee Marmion.

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Berlioz's birthplace was the family home in the commune of La Cote-Saint-Andre in the departement of Isere, in south-eastern France.

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Berlioz's parents had five more children, three of whom died in infancy; their surviving daughters, Nanci and Adele, remained close to Berlioz throughout their lives.

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Berlioz's father, a respected local figure, was a progressively minded doctor credited as the first European to practise and write about acupuncture.

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Berlioz was an agnostic with a liberal outlook; his wife was a strict Roman Catholic of less flexible views.

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Berlioz recalled in his Memoires that he enjoyed geography, especially books about travel, to which his mind would sometimes wander when he was supposed to be studying Latin; the classics nonetheless made an impression on him, and he was moved to tears by Virgil's account of the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas.

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Berlioz's father gave him basic instruction on the flageolet, and he later took flute and guitar lessons with local teachers.

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Berlioz never studied the piano, and throughout his life played haltingly at best.

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Berlioz later contended that this was an advantage because it "saved me from the tyranny of keyboard habits, so dangerous to thought, and from the lure of conventional harmonies".

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Berlioz was teased for what was seen as a boyish crush, but something of his early passion for Estelle endured all his life.

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Berlioz poured some of his unrequited feelings into his early attempts at composition.

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Berlioz wrote several chamber works as a youth, subsequently destroying the manuscripts, but one theme that remained in his mind reappeared later as the A-flat second subject of the overture to Les Francs-juges.

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In March 1821 Berlioz passed the baccalaureat examination at the University of Grenoble – it is not certain whether at the first or second attempt – and in late September, aged seventeen, he moved to Paris.

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Berlioz had to fight hard to overcome his revulsion at dissecting bodies, but in deference to his father's wishes, he forced himself to continue his medical studies.

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Berlioz went to other works at the Opera and the Opera-Comique; at the former, three weeks after his arrival, he saw Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, which thrilled him.

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Berlioz was particularly inspired by Gluck's use of the orchestra to carry the drama along.

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Dominance of Italian opera in Paris, against which Berlioz later campaigned, was still in the future, and at the opera houses he heard and absorbed the works of Etienne Mehul and Francois-Adrien Boieldieu, other operas written in the French style by foreign composers, particularly Gaspare Spontini, and above all five operas by Gluck.

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Berlioz began to visit the Paris Conservatoire library in between his medical studies, seeking out scores of Gluck's operas and making copies of parts of them.

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Berlioz contended that all Rossini's operas put together could not stand comparison with even a few bars of those of Gluck, Spontini or Le Sueur.

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In 1824 Berlioz graduated from medical school, after which he abandoned medicine, to the strong disapproval of his parents.

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Berlioz's father suggested law as an alternative profession and refused to countenance music as a career.

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Berlioz reduced and sometimes withheld his son's allowance, and Berlioz went through some years of financial hardship.

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Berlioz conceived a passion for Kemble's leading lady, Harriet Smithson – his biographer Hugh Macdonald calls it "emotional derangement" – and obsessively pursued her, without success, for several years.

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Berlioz heard Beethoven's third, fifth and seventh symphonies performed at the Conservatoire, and read Goethe's Faust in Gerard de Nerval's translation.

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Berlioz was largely apolitical, and neither supported nor opposed the July Revolution of 1830, but when it broke out he found himself in the middle of it.

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Berlioz's feelings were reciprocated, and the couple planned to be married.

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Shortly after the concert Berlioz set off for Italy: under the terms of the Prix de Rome, winners studied for two years at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome.

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Berlioz made an elaborate plan to kill them both, and acquired poisons, pistols and a disguise for the purpose.

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Berlioz stayed for a few weeks in Nice and wrote his King Lear overture.

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Berlioz visited many parts of it during his residency in Rome.

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Berlioz himself wrote that Harold in Italy drew on "the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in Abruzzi".

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Berlioz left Rome in May 1832 and arrived in Paris in November.

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On 9 December 1832 Berlioz presented a concert of his works at the Conservatoire.

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Berlioz presented a ruinously unsuccessful season, first at the Theatre-Italien and then at lesser venues, and by March 1833 she was deep in debt.

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Berlioz told him that he could not write a brilliantly virtuoso work, and began composing what he called a symphony with viola obbligato, Harold in Italy.

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Until the end of 1835 Berlioz had a modest stipend as a laureate of the Prix de Rome.

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Berlioz wrote for L'Europe litteraire, Le Renovateur, and from 1834 for the Gazette musicale and the Journal des debats.

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Berlioz was the first, but not the last, prominent French composer to double as a reviewer: among his successors were Faure, Messager, Dukas and Debussy.

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Berlioz extravagantly praised Beethoven's symphonies, and Gluck's and Weber's operas, and scrupulously refrained from promoting his own compositions.

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Berlioz's journalism consisted mainly of music criticism, some of which he collected and published, such as Evenings in the Orchestra, but more technical articles, such as those that formed the basis of his Treatise on Instrumentation.

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Berlioz secured a commission from the French government for his Requiem – the Grande messe des morts – first performed at Les Invalides in December 1837.

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One of Berlioz's main aims in the 1830s was "battering down the doors of the Opera".

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Berlioz worked on his opera Benvenuto Cellini from 1834 until 1837, continually distracted by his increasing activities as a critic and as a promoter of his own symphonic concerts.

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Berlioz said that the failure of the piece meant that the doors of the Opera were closed to him for the rest of his career – which they were, except for a commission to arrange a Weber score in 1841.

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Shortly after the failure of the opera, Berlioz had a great success as composer-conductor of a concert at which Harold in Italy was given again.

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Paganini's gift enabled Berlioz to pay off Harriet's and his own debts, give up music criticism for the time being, and concentrate on composition.

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Berlioz wrote the "dramatic symphony" Romeo et Juliette for voices, chorus and orchestra.

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At the close of the decade Berlioz achieved official recognition in the form of appointment as deputy librarian of the Conservatoire and as an officer of the Legion of Honour.

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The former was an undemanding post, but not highly paid, and Berlioz remained in need of a reliable income to allow him the leisure for composition.

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The following year the Opera commissioned Berlioz to adapt Weber's Der Freischutz to meet the house's rigid requirements: he wrote recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue and orchestrated Weber's Invitation to the Dance to provide the obligatory ballet music.

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Berlioz worked on a projected opera, La Nonne sanglante, to a libretto by Eugene Scribe, but made little progress.

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Berlioz struggled to make money from his concerts in Paris, and learning of the large sums made by promoters from performances of his music in other countries, he resolved to try conducting abroad.

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Berlioz began in Brussels, giving two concerts in September 1842.

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Berlioz maintained two households: Harriet remained in Montmartre and he moved in with Recio at her flat in central Paris.

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Berlioz presented it in Paris in December 1846, but it played to half-empty houses, despite excellent reviews, some from critics not usually well disposed to his music.

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Berlioz wrote a Te Deum, completed in 1849 but not published until 1855, and some short pieces.

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Berlioz's most substantial work between The Damnation and his epic Les Troyens was a "sacred trilogy", L'Enfance du Christ, which he began in 1850.

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Berlioz returned to London in 1852 and 1853, conducting his own works and others'.

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Berlioz enjoyed consistent success there, with the exception of a revival of Benvenuto Cellini at Covent Garden which was withdrawn after one performance.

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Berlioz spent much of the next year in conducting and writing prose.

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Berlioz worked on it, in between his conducting commitments, for two years.

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Berlioz was survived by her mother, to whom Berlioz was devoted, and who looked after him for the rest of his life.

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Berlioz did not seek a revival of Les Troyens and none took place for nearly 30 years.

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Berlioz sold the publishing rights for a large sum, and his last years were financially comfortable; he was able to give up his work as a critic, but he lapsed into depression.

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Berlioz and his son had grown deeply attached to each other, but Louis was a captain in the merchant navy, and was more often than not away from home.

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Berlioz was unaware of it until he came across her grave six months later.

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Berlioz called on her in September 1864; she received him kindly, and he visited her in three successive summers; he wrote to her nearly every month for the rest of his life.

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In 1867 Berlioz received the news that his son had died in Havana of yellow fever.

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The concerts were successful, and Berlioz received a warm response from the new generation of Russian composers and the general public, but he returned to Paris visibly unwell.

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Berlioz went to Nice to recuperate in the Mediterranean climate, but fell on rocks by the shore, possibly because of a stroke, and had to return to Paris, where he convalesced for several months.

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Berlioz was buried in Montmartre Cemetery with his two wives, who were exhumed and re-buried next to him.

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Forty years earlier, Sir Thomas Beecham, a lifelong proponent of Berlioz's music, commented similarly, writing that although, for example, Mozart was a greater composer, his music drew on the works of his predecessors, whereas Berlioz's works were all wholly original: "the Symphonie fantastique or La Damnation de Faust broke upon the world like some unaccountable effort of spontaneous generation which had dispensed with the machinery of normal parentage".

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Rushton suggests that "Berlioz's way is neither architectural nor developmental, but illustrative".

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Berlioz explained his practice in an 1837 article: accenting weak beats at the expense of the strong, alternating triple and duple groups of notes and using unexpected rhythmic themes independent of the main melody.

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Macdonald writes that Berlioz was a natural melodist, but that his rhythmic sense led him away from regular phrase lengths; he "spoke naturally in a kind of flexible musical prose, with surprise and contour important elements".

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In Rushton's analysis, most of Berlioz's melodies have "clear tonal and harmonic implications" but the composer sometimes chose not to harmonise accordingly.

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Berlioz gives as an example the second phrase of the main theme – the idee fixe – of the Symphonie fantastique, "famous for its shock to classical sensibilities", in which the melody implies a dominant at its climax resolved by a tonic, but in which Berlioz anticipates the resolution by putting a tonic under the climactic note.

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Berlioz took instruments hitherto used for special purposes and introduced them into his regular orchestra: Macdonald mentions the harp, the cor anglais, the bass clarinet and the valve trumpet.

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Berlioz wrote four large-scale works he called symphonies, but his conception of the genre differed greatly from the classical pattern of the German tradition.

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The structure is more conventional than the instrumentation: the first movement is in sonata form, but there are only two other movements, and Berlioz did not adhere to the traditional relationship between the various keys of the piece.

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None of Berlioz's three completed operas were written to commission, and theatre managers were not enthusiastic about staging them.

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Cairns writes that unlike Meyerbeer, who was rich, influential, and deferred to by opera managements, Berlioz was "an opera composer on sufferance, one who composed on borrowed time paid for with money that was not his but lent by a wealthy friend".

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Berlioz welcomed Liszt's help in revising the work, streamlining the confusing plot; for his other two operas he wrote his own libretti.

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Berlioz based the text on Virgil's Aeneid, depicting the fall of Troy and subsequent travels of the hero.

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Berlioz described it as "a caprice written with the point of a needle".

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Berlioz's libretto, based on Much Ado About Nothing, omits Shakespeare's darker sub-plots and replaces the clowns Dogberry and Verges with an invention of his own, the tiresome and pompous music master Somarone.

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Berlioz gained a reputation, only partly justified, for liking gigantic orchestral and choral forces.

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Berlioz, after a brief youthful religious spell, was a lifelong agnostic, but he was not hostile to the Roman Catholic church, and Macdonald calls the "serenely contemplative" end of the work "the nearest Berlioz ever came to a devoutly Christian mode of expression".

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Berlioz suppressed some of his early songs, and his last publication, in 1865, was the 33 Melodies, collecting into one volume all his songs that he chose to preserve.

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Berlioz later orchestrated some of the songs originally written with piano accompaniment, and some, such as "Zaide" and "Le Chasseur danois" were written with alternative piano or orchestral parts.

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The first version, written at the Villa Medici, had been in fairly regular rhythm, but for his revision Berlioz made the strophic outline less clear-cut, and added optional orchestral parts for the last stanza, which brings the song to a quiet close.

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Songs remain on the whole among the least known of Berlioz's works, and John Warrack suggests that Schumann identified why this might be so: the shape of the melodies is, as usual with Berlioz, not straightforward, and to those used to the regular four-bar phrases of French song this is an obstacle to appreciation.

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Berlioz professed to dislike writing his press pieces, and they undoubtedly took up time that he would have preferred to spend writing music.

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Berlioz's successors were Tom S Wotton, author of a 1935 biography, and Julien Tiersot, who wrote numerous scholarly articles on Berlioz and began the collection and editing of the composer's letters, a process eventually completed in 2016, eighty years after Tiersot's death.

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Since Barzun, the leading Berlioz scholars have included David Cairns, D Kern Holoman, Hugh Macdonald and Julian Rushton.

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Macdonald was appointed in 1967 as the inaugural general editor of the New Berlioz Edition published by Barenreiter; 26 volumes were issued between 1967 and 2006 under his editorship.

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Cairns dismisses the article as "an astonishing anthology of all the nonsense that has ever been talked about [Berlioz]", but adds that by the 1960s it seemed a quaint survival from a vanished age.

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In 1950 Barzun made the point that although Berlioz was praised by his artistic peers, including Schumann, Wagner, Franck and Mussorgsky, the public had heard little of his music until recordings became widely available.

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Milestone in the reappraisal of Berlioz's reputation came in 1957, when for the first time a professional opera company staged the original version of The Trojans in a single evening.

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In recent decades Berlioz has been widely regarded as a great composer, prone to lapses like any other.

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Northcott concluded, "Berlioz still seems so immediate, so controversial, so ever-new".

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