Born: 11 December 1803, La Côte-Saint-André, France
Died: 8 March 1869, Paris, France
The greatest French composer of the nineteenth century – but unpopular in his lifetime.
Berlioz was at once in the vanguard of Romanticism, a worshipper of Beethoven and Shakespeare, the bête noire of conservative critics, and the defender of the French tradition: the artistic son and heir of Gluck, the disciple of Spontini, LeSueur and Méhul. “My religion,” he wrote in his Mémoires, “is that of Beethoven, Weber, Gluck, Spontini.”
His music is by turns powerful, exuberant and melancholy, always imaginative, with innovative instrumentation and harmonies. Many pieces are scored for massive choral or orchestral forces; they are exciting, full of colour and life.
Winner of the Prix de Rome in 1831, he achieved success and fame in the 1830s with the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), the Grande Messe des Morts (1837), and Roméo et Juliette (1839).
None of his operas, though, were successful. Benvenuto Cellini, his high-spirited early masterpiece, was hissed and lasted only a handful of performances. The failure of La damnation de Faust (if this “légende dramatique” is an opera) bankrupted Berlioz. The Paris Opera refused to mount Les Troyens, his historical epic based on Virgil’s Æneid, and only half the work was produced in Berlioz’s lifetime. Only Béatrice et Bénédict, his Shakespearean “caprice written with the point of a needle”, was successful, and then in Germany rather than France.
In France, he influenced the next generation of composers, particularly Reyer, Gounod and Massenet. Meyerbeer, Wagner, and Liszt admired his music, while Peter Cornelius ranked him with Bach and Beethoven. His imaginative orchestration influenced Russian music (Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev), Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss.
For more information, see:
- The Hector Berlioz Website.
- Hugh MacDonald’s Berlioz (Master Musicians Series)
- David Cairns’s two volume biography
- Berlioz’s own Mémoires