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Hector Berlioz was a French composer whose radical music was inseparable from his radical life-story. Read on to learn how this med school dropout helped influence a generation of composers to adopt a musical style called Romanticism.

Introduction

Most of us have had a celebrity crush at some point – there’s nothing odd about a little heart flutter at the sight your favorite film star.

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But most of us don’t invent a new music genre and change the course of history just to get the attention of a celebrity we’ve never met. That’s exactly what Hector Berlioz did in 1830, when he composed the autobiographical musical love-letter he entitled Symphonie fantastique.

Hector Berlioz, photographed in 1863.
The young Hector Berlioz
Young Hector Berlioz

Much to his parents’ chagrin, Berlioz dropped out of medical school.

Instead, he spent his time at opera performances and taking composition lessons at the Paris Conservatory. He developed a reputation around Paris as an opinionated, radical guy who was eager to push new ideas in music.One of Berlioz’s favorite ideas was that music should be combined with literature. His fascination with literature was fed by productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were touring in Paris at the time.

Berlioz developed a massive crush on Harriet Smithson, the star of these productions. He utterly failed to attract Harriet’s interest – possibly because he bombarded her with creepy love letters rather than introducing himself.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in 1827
Harriet Smithson

Symphonie fantastique: Berlioz’s Most Famous Work

In 1830, Berlioz cemented his reputation as a musical radical (and as a stalker) with the premiere of his Symphonie fantastique (Fantastic Symphony).

This work embodied Berlioz’s desire to combine music with literature. Traditionally, symphonies were abstract works for orchestra, structured around contrasting musical themes. But with the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz invented a new genre called program symphony: a symphony that can tell a story.A program symphony is a large orchestral work accompanied by a written program explaining its meaning.

Berlioz’s program tells the story of ‘An Artist’ (i.e., Berlioz), who meets his ideal ‘Beloved’ (i.e., Harriet), then travels from hope, to despair, to a terrible opium trip.Throughout the symphony, one melody keeps re-appearing: a lilting, delicate tune that Berlioz’s program calls the idée fixe .

The term means ‘fixed idea,’ and it’s pronounced ‘EE-day-eh FEES’. The tune represents Harriet, wandering in and out of The Artist’s consciousness.It was a brilliant way for Berlioz to tie his whole symphonic story together – so brilliant that composers use similar methods today. For example, in John Williams’ score to the Star Wars movies, you’ll remember the impressive ‘Imperial March,’ a recurring musical theme that appears whenever Darth Vader stalks onto the screen. Film composers often use recurring themes to represent ideas and characters in movies. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was one of the first pieces to pioneer the technique.

Unbelievably, when Harriet Smithson attended a performance of the Symphonie fantastique in 1832, she agreed to date Berlioz. To be honest, I’m not sure why, since the symphony implies that Berlioz murders her, and also depicts her as a ghostly witch dancing at his funeral. The two endured a miserable marriage, in which Berlioz drove Harriet crazy by renaming her ‘Henriette.’

Berlioz’s Later Career and Compositions

Berlioz had a reputation for writing big pieces for big orchestras. But despite what you see in this caricature, he did not actually include cannons in his compositions!
Hector Berlioz Conducting

The Symphonie fantastique helped redefine the Nineteenth Century’s attitude toward orchestral music.

Berlioz influenced composers all over Europe to write colorful, story-filled music for bigger and bigger orchestras. But he found it difficult to make a living as a composer in his native France, where many people still preferred old-fashioned, abstract orchestral music.Berlioz became a successful conductor instead.

He also applied his love of literature to a career in music criticism. Berlioz used his income to fund performances of his compositions. He continued to write epic music for large ensembles, much of which was inspired by works of literature.For example, Berlioz wrote an opera called Les Troyens (The Trojans), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid. He also wrote one called B;atrice et B;n;dict, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, and a symphony based on Romeo and Juliet.

One of Berlioz’s grandest works is The Damnation of Faust, a piece for choir and orchestra based on Goethe’s poetic version of the Faust legend.

This delightful caricature from 1850 is poking fun at the huge choirs Berlioz liked to use for performances of his choral works.
Berlioz conducting

Though his French colleagues criticized his music as too big, too loud, and out-of-control, Berlioz continued to experiment with orchestral sound until his death in 1869. Today his music is popular with concert-goers who love a big, bold orchestral music.

Lesson Summary

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a French composer from music’s Romantic Period.

Though he was considered a radical during his lifetime, his love of big orchestras, intense emotion and musical storytelling influenced later Romantic composers. Berlioz’s most famous piece is his Symphonie fantastique (1830). This semi-autobiographical program symphony uses a recurring theme, called an idée fixe, to represent Berlioz’s love interest Harriet Smithson.

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