Berlioz – A Life (1)



Forgive me but I do carry on somewhat about Berlioz who has been one of my great passions. Here is a man who made his presence felt both by his extravagances and through his music. OK, I know I’m going a bit over the top here but then Berlioz himself was a larger than life character. This term we celebrate one of the greatest compositional innovators there has ever been, a virtually untutored genius whose life was as romantically adventurous as the music he wrote. Such was his magnetism that the artist Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) developed what he called a singular obsession in drawing Berlioz portraits.   Hollywood could never have done justice to Berlioz because whatever he did was bigger and grander than anything Metro Goldwyn Mayer could ever have projected.

To begin at the beginning, Hector Berlioz was born at La Côte-Saint-André in South Eastern France between Lyon and Grenoble in 1803. In his Memoirs, which are a hoot to read, he is modest enough to confess “however painful the admission to my vanity, I came into this world quite normally, unheralded by any of the portents in use in poetic times to announce the arrival of those destined for glory”. His father, Louis-Joseph Berlioz, was a respected local doctor, an atheist and a liberal thinker. His mother was churchgoing. Of himself, Berlioz wrote “Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life and although we have long since fallen out I have kept the most tender memories of it”. These tender memories are there to be found in abundance in his musical output.

 Now, before going further, let us get some chronological bearings on Berlioz. I always find it useful to see where an artist stands generationally. It is in doing this we can begin to see how ahead of his time Berlioz was. For most people who have some little knowledge of the composer he may be perceived alongside other dominant nineteenth century figures like Wagner, Brahms, Dvorak, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. But hold on. 1803 was when Beethoven was writing the Eroica symphony, its original name scratched out when Beethoven learned of Napoleon becoming emperor in 1804. In 1803 Haydn was seventy one with six years still to go. Schubert was just six years old. Berlioz did not discover his innate musical talent till he was twenty. At that time Beethoven was completing his choral symphony. Berlioz’s opus 1, Eight Scenes from Faust, was published the year of Beethoven’s death. His Symphonie Fantastique was completed in 1830, two years after Schubert’s death and the same year as Mendellsohn’s Italian symphony. Wagner and Verdi were ten years younger than Berlioz; Brahms was not born till 1833 and his symphonies did not emerge till the 1870’s. Tchaikovsky and Dvorak were born respectively in 1840 and 1841. When we hear Symphonie Fantastique we are hearing sounds that no-one had dreamed of at the time. More of that anon but, now, one can begin to appreciate that in Berlioz here is a pioneer who ploughed a solitary furrow and, like Beethoven with his last string quartets, it took a half a century to catch up with him. Berlioz was the pioneer. Others followed.

 Berlioz was no child prodigy, unlike some other composers we have encountered; at ten he was sent to the local secondary school where he did not stay for long. His father, busy as he was, withdrew him and undertook his tuition from age 12, including languages, literature, history and geography and basic music. He found daily translation of Latin tedious until the penny dropped for him whilst he was translating Virgil’s Aeneid and, as recounted in his Memoirs, he burst into tears as the story revealed itself to him. It played no further part in his life until resurrected by him in his last years for his great opera, The Trojans. As to music, he never learned to play the piano. As a composer this would be viewed like a blind man playing cricket, not that the present English team are any better. He did however become reasonably proficient at guitar, flageolet, an early form of flute, and drums. His learning of harmony was by textbooks alone which may be why Matthew would like to teach him a lesson or two on the subject if he could. The majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces but get this. Berlioz would not know the sound of an orchestra till he arrived in Paris when he was eighteen. It was only then that he got to hear the orchestra, usually the one in the opera pit. And yet within just a few years he was producing orchestral sounds as no-one had ever heard before, with instruments never before used, and creating an aural experience that would change the direction of symphonic writing.

 His first passion – his word – for someone of the opposite sex took place when he was 12. He describes in his Memoirs how when he visited his grandfather, he met a neighbour called Estelle Dubœuf who was 18. He describes the electric feeling which seized him and what he remembered most was not the colour of her hair or eyes but her pink dancing shoes. It might have been calf love but he wrote a song for Estelle which he stored away in his memory to reappear again as the opening largo at the very beginning of his Symphonie Fantastique, a movement he called “Rêveries-Passions”. Berlioz from the start was an incurable romantic, not only weeping at passages by Virgil, but driven from an early age by testosterone.

 In 1821, he finished his school studies at Grenoble, and went on to Paris to study medicine, clearly intended to follow his father, but a field for which he had developed no interest himself. In the Memoirs he describes his revulsion at a human corpse being dissected and his having to rush out of the building. Many accounts will say that that was the be all and end all of his medical studies and he then switched to composing. Not so. He was yet to discover the world of music. He was an eighteen year old on his own. He stayed with medical and scientific education which lasted on for another year or more and hardened himself as a seasoned medical student. Berlioz himself records that “I was on my way to becoming just another student, destined to add just one more obscure name to the lamentable catalogue of bad doctors, when one evening I went to the Opéra”.

He was to hear “Les Danaides” by Salieri, then Méhul, names barely known to-day. Salieri had in his time given lessons to Beethoven and to Schubert. I am lucky at having heard Beecham conducting a concert of lollipops which included the Overture to La Chasse du Jeune Henri by Méhul. For Berlioz this was a new world. His studies ran in parallel with his evenings at the opera. There he would sit close to the orchestra, absorbing the sounds and range of each instrument; he got to know the players by sight. He had great admiration for La Vestale by Spontini but his greatest love was for Gluck. As the great institutions of the arts were opened up for the free use of students he took advantage by going to the Conservatoire library to study and copy out the parts from Gluck’s Iphigenaia in Tauris. This led to his first encounter with Luigi Cherubini. That very year Cherubini, Italian born but who had spent most of his life in France, became the director of the conservatoire. In his Memoirs Berlioz recounts that Cherubini had introduced a rule to keep male and female students apart by creating separate entrances of which Berlioz was not aware . This led to a scene between the two in the library with Berlioz refusing to give his name and Cherubini chasing him round the table in an attempt to have him thrown out. There are some who say that Berlioz’s depiction has distorted Cherubini’s image with posterity. He certainly portrayed him in his memoirs as a crotchety pedant. Adam, the composer of Giselle, wrote of Cherubini “some maintain his temper was very even – because he was always angry.”

Now Berlioz began writing his first works and in 1824 he decided to abandon his medical studies and devote himself to composition. His parents were devastated and angry and correspondence between them led to his father severely cutting his allowance which in turn led to Berlioz on the bread line. Unable to obtain admission to the conservatoire as he had no certificates to show he managed to obtain private lessons from one of its professors, Jean-François Lesueur, who was composer to the Chapelle Royale and who remained firmly rooted in the eighteenth century writing fugues and counterpoint. He encouraged Berlioz who wrote warmly of him as a true friend “but what hours I wasted learning his antediluvian theories and only having to unlearn them and begin my education again from the beginning”.


In 1824 the choirmaster of St. Roch asked him to compose a mass. His Messe Solennelle was what he called milk and water copy of Lesueur’s methods. He approved the most Lesueur-like passages Berlioz wrote. To save copying charges the score was copied out by choir boys who missed out notes, flats, sharps and bars so that Berlioz had to rewrite all the parts himself. Only a handful of the players attended the rehearsal and it ended as a fiasco. Still Berlioz had heard enough to rewrite it and, with the help of a loan from a friend and the Odéon singers and players giving their services without charge, it received a second performance at St Eustache some months later. Berlioz recorded in his Memoirs that he later burnt the score. There has turned out to be a sensational sequel. The score of the Mass was discovered in an organ loft in Antwerp in 1991and passed to Berlioz experts and then taken up by John Eliot Gardiner and recorded. It is not the raising of the Titanic but a fledgling work, but what is simply amazing is that this was written only a year after his arrival. Moreover it is teeming with ideas of tunes known from later works that been filed away in the My Themes Folder of Berlioz’s mental computer. Thus we find a wisp of the Dance of the Sylphs in the Kyrie; then in the Gratias, almost as if filched before its later birth, the whole of the main theme from the Scène aux Champs of the Symphonie Fantastique. One becomes disorientated when hearing a familiar strain from the overture to Le Carnaval Romain which leaves one writhing to try and identify it out of context. This occurs in the Resurrexit following what are clearly the fanfares from the tuba mirum from the Grande Messe Des Morts but here the embryo of what would be the later giant. The score discovered is the first of the two versions Berlioz wrote, whilst all we have left of the second version is the Resurrexit which itself is an enormous advance on that of the first version. (Berlioz addicts, which you all should finish up being, are recommended to the CD of John Eliot Gardiner).

Meantime, he returned to La Côte St André to try and sort matters out with his estranged father. The reception was icy and Berlioz père threatened to withdraw all subsidy. Even if he were to go along with Berlioz fils giving up medicine, he should choose a proper alternative profession, not music. There followed a stand off without dialogue, a hunger strike and lack of sleep until his father summonsed him and to the surprise of Berlioz conceded that he could return to Paris to study music, for a period only on condition that, should he fail, he would take up another career. His comment to Berlioz was “You know my opinion of second rate poets. Second rate artists are just as bad”. Berlioz’s riposte in his Memoirs was, “My father was unaware that he was more indulgent towards second rate doctors, who are as numerous as bad artists as well as being useless and positively dangerous”. What was even more upsetting for Berlioz was that his mother refused any part in the reconciliation. Her perception was that music meant theatre and theatre and all that went with it was immoral. She cursed him for the shame he had brought on the family.

On returning to Paris, to supplement his allowance he started taking on pupils of his own as well as finding a position in the chorus of a second rate vaudeville theatre, winning the audition as he was able to sing by sight reading. He then started work on an opera, Les Francs Juges. It never saw the lighting of any theatre as the production company had its facilities withdrawn. Still, there is a legacy. First of all, there is the overture, his first orchestral work, which is remarkable for the advance on the St Roch Mass and emerges as full blown Berlioz. It is well known, its memorable second subject taken from one of his juvenile flute quintets. But most daring and amazing is a development section where the bass drum and timpani join in playing with a different number of beats to the bar to the rest of the orchestra. Amongst the instruments is the ophicleide, a military instrument invented in 1818 and first used in a Spontini opera. It replaced the serpent and after a short life was replaced by the tuba which is used today in the modern orchestra. The other legacy of Les Francs Juges was a march lifted out bodily, so to speak to become the Marche au Supplice in the Symphonie Fantastique. Listen to that and compare it with Brahms third symphony, for example, written in 1883 and you will realize the sheer bravura of Berlioz nearly sixty years before. In comparison Brahms is conservative and stuffily comfortable. Wagner would have agreed with me.



In 1826, with help from Lesueur, he gained admission to the Conservatoire to study composition under Le Sueur and Anton Reicha. Reicha was a Bohemian who was born the same year as Beethoven and played alongside him at Bonn in their early years. He moved to Paris and was celebrated for his wind writing including some eighty wind quintets. His pupils also included Gounod and Franck. Berlioz also entered the Prix de Rome Competition but was eliminated in the primary round. Winning this prize would become a target, if not an obsession, every year until he succeeded at his fourth attempt in 1830. His motive was not just academic recognition but winning included a five year pension, very useful income for any struggling composer

So here we are in 1826/7, three years on from his arrival in Paris and a full time student at the Conservatoire, except that he was teaching, singing and had taken up musical journalism which would on and off earn him his keep for many years and make him many enemies. It was during this period that four thunderbolts would occur, two literary and two musical, each of which would leave an indelible impression on him and his music.

First, there was Weber, who was passing through Paris in 1826 on his way to London where he would die of tuberculosis. His opera, Der Freischutz, was to be performed at the Odéon and Berlioz went to each performance which he acclaimed despite the work being ravaged and bad performances. Berlioz desperately tried to meet Weber but always just missed him wherever he went. Weber was the originator of German romanticism and replaced classical gods and monsters with aerial spirits, sylphs, fairies and water nymphs. He was also the originator of German nationalism and thus his music was both influential on both Mendelssohn (Midsummer Nights Dream) and the music of Wagner. What appealed to Berlioz was the element of the fantastic and we were soon to learn of the influence that would have in the symphony Berlioz had in mind.

 Thunderclap No 2, what Berlioz described as “the supreme drama of my life”, was Shakespeare and Miss Hariet Smithson. That year, an English theatre company were playing both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon. Berlioz went to the first and was bowled over by the Irish born lead actress, Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia.. Although he did not understand English, he was immediately infatuated with her. He could not sleep. He roamed the streets of Paris. In this state he went to see the production of Romeo with her playing Juliet. The contrast between the cold backdrop of Elsinore Castle and the Italianate heat of Verona was too much for him to bear. He was in a state of fever and, prone to violent impulses began flooding her lodgings with love letters and proposals of marriage which both confused and terrified her as well as getting him nowhere. She had to have protection from this madman. This was the beginning but by no means the end of his encounter with Miss Smithson as we shall later see. One London critic welcomed her success in Paris as it kept her away from the London stage. Shakespeare would be a predominant influence on Berlioz’s output which would include, “The Death of Ophelia”, the symphony “Romeo and Juliet”, the opera Beatrice and Benedict and the overture, King Lear.

In December 1827 Berlioz discovered Goethe’s Faust in translation. Its impact on him was again immediate. Its dwelling upon a world of promises and the temptations by the devil linked in many ways with the world of the fantastic of Weber. Berlioz wrote Eight Scenes from Faust (his original Opus 1), no longer played but which became instead later re-developed and integrated into La Damnation de Faust. It is very much the Faustian atmosphere which takes over and pervades the last movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, A Dream of the Witches Sabbath.

Lastly there arrived in Paris the symphonies of Beethoven to be played for the first time in that city at the conservatoire. The shock produced by hearing for the first time the Eroica and then the fifth symphony, twenty years after their composition, cannot be imagined. Until then Haydn was the supreme master of symphony, itself a form considered in France nowhere near as important as the opera. The musical establishment had little time for music from the other side of the Rhine and many kept away. The music itself was not quite authentic Beethoven even but re-orchestrations by a French composer, Fétis, who corrected a number of the mistakes Beethoven had clearly made. Even, despite this adulteration, Berlioz found himself overwhelmed by the Eroica and relates in the Memoirs trying to persuade Lesueur to go with him for the first performance of the fifth symphony. Lesueur was uncertain but Berlioz persuaded him it should be his duty to listen and judge when music of a completely new style and an unprecedented scale was to be performed. The old teacher yielded and was dragged off to hear the fifth. However, he insisted on sitting in a box on a lower floor where he would know no-one, so as to remain unbiased. After the performance Berlioz rushed down to find out the effect the music had had on his master. “Ouf, I am going outside for air. It’s unbelievable, wonderful. It so moved me and disturbed me that when I went to put my hat on I didn’t know where my head was”. By the next day he seemed again to be doubtful but, pressed by Berlioz, he acknowledged he had been moved but he went on to say “All the same, that sort of music should not be written”. Berlioz retorted, “Don’t worry master. There is not much danger that it will”.

To visualize Berlioz at this time, we have in two years a mélange of Weber, Shakespeare, Goethe and Beethoven driving him on in new directions whilst he is developing his skills as a composer, soon to be at work on the Symphonie Fanastique, a symphony that would be themed around the beloved Harriet Smithson. He describes himself in his Memoirs as “ravaged day and night by my Shakespearian love which the discovery of Beethoven’s music only made worse” and “perpetually in a dream, unsociable, unkempt in appearance, unbearable alike to myself or my friends” when in June 1828 he decided to enter for the Prix de Rome for the second time and came second. Berlioz gives an amusing description of the competition which can but be briefly described here. There is no sense of wounded vanity or sour grapes as he went on to win it in 1830. What he describes is pure Laurel and Hardy. The competition starts with entrants having to write a fugue. Then the top six are locked up daily in the Institute between 11 and 6, given a piano and set a scena for a singer and orchestra. This goes on for days until the work is handed in. It is then judged with other members of the institute, artists, sculptors, engravers, but it is played not with an orchestra but in a piano reduction. Berlioz comments that you cannot judge an orchestral work by listening to a piano or understand what instruments it was written for without reading a score. In Berlioz’s case, those who composed at the piano had the advantage of their work reverting to it; not so Berlioz whose orchestration did not readily adapt to the piano. Still he got to know what the judges wanted. Ultimately an enlarged jury of 36, consisting of all the faculties, gave their judgement and only then was the work heard with the orchestral accompaniment. “Thus the prize is awarded by men who are not musicians and who have not had the chance of hearing an adequate performance”

Berlioz then gives us a hilarious diversion devoting a chapter to the revelations of the porter of the Institute, one Pingard, in what is probably a completely fictitious account with Pingard having overheard the shenanigans going on between the judges.

Berlioz: “What have I got? Tell me. First, second or honourable mention or nothing ?”

Pingard: “You’ve got second prize. Look it has really upset me but then, you know, I am not a painter or an architect or an engraver of medals, so of course I know nothing about music…..” In Berlioz’s case, sarcasm can be the best form of wit.

The following year, Berlioz was the hot favourite for the prize. Having come second the year before, it was Buggins turn. But the judges, no doubt on the advice of Cherubini, withheld the award of first prize!. The next year when he did win, the 1830 revolution was breaking out and, in true Berlioz manner , “I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering on the wall outside my window. On the 29th I had finished, and was free to go out and roam about Paris ’till morning, pistol in hand”.

It was this same year he started and finished the Symphonie Fantastique but, that said, much of it had been written for earlier incarnations. The wonder and novelty and excitement of this work never ceases to amaze. As you know I do not like to tread on Matthew’s toes because he is the one illustrating the music but it is the realisation of what and when which helps one to appreciate even more this work.

First of all we have a five movement symphony instead of the usual four. OK, Beethoven had written five for his pastoral symphony but that was not quite the same thing as structurally the fourth movement there is more an interlude to link the third to the fifth. With Berlioz there are five distinct movements with a valse and a march surrounding a long slow movement. It was a form not used again (as far as I know) until Mahler’s second, the Resurrection, in 1894 or Sibelius’s string quartet, Voces Intimae, in 1906.

Next it is a programme symphony, that is a symphony with a story to tell. There were other early 19th century composers, mostly disappeared from the scene, who wrote battle symphonies and the like, Beethoven included although not one from his top drawer. With Berlioz it is different. Just as Mendelssohn would write songs without words, Berlioz was almost writing an opera without singers. Subtitled Episode in the Life of An Artist (Berlioz of course) the story is of a composer who has taken opium and in his psychedelic haze recalls his passions, including that of Estelle, before the main theme itself gets underway with what is called the idée fixe, a syncopated theme which appears throughout each movement, representing the Beloved (Hariet Smithson of course). Exhausted the hero turns to religion at the end of a first movement which is written in sonata form notwithstanding its dramatic content. The use of the idée fixe was to be developed later by Wagner as the leitmotif. The programme symphony of Berlioz would become in the hands of Liszt and later of Richard Strauss, the symphonic poem.

The second movement is Un Bal (A Ball) introduced by strings and two expectant sounding harps making that instrument’s first entry into symphonic music. The idée fixe turns into a waltz as he dances, sighting the Beloved, until she is whisked away. In the original orchestration there is a prominent part for cornet, not often heard in modern performances. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky introduced a ballet-like waltz into his fifth symphony which was written in 1888 and thought at the time to be daring. Yet here we have Berlioz doing the same thing almost sixty years earlier.

The third movement is the “Scène Aux Champs” (Scene in the Fields), a long slow movement. The hero has escaped to the country to regain his equilibrium when he perceives the Beloved at a distance. It starts with a cor anglais, a shepherd’s pipe, answered from off stage by a distant oboe. Here Berlioz shows how to fill space with sound. The cor anglais was unusual but had been used long before by Haydn, two of them in fact, in his symphony no. 23, the Philosopher. The main tune which follows is retrieved from the wreckage of the Le Roch Mass. The orchestra then becomes agitated at the sight of the Beloved and we hear the idée fixe. The shepherd’s pipe on cor anglais returns but no answering call from the oboe. Instead there are thunder rolls with four (!) tympanists, quiet rumblings which fade away.

The fourth movement is the March to the Scaffold. Our hero now dreams he has murdered his Beloved and is being marched to the scaffold. Berlioz said he wrote it in one night which may not be surprising because he had copied it straight out of Les Francs Juges with the exception of a reference to the idée fixe, which has been cut and pasted, just before the drop of the guillotine. In the original serpents, ophicleides and trombones between them blow rude raspberries. The sound in the original is more ominous and the tempo slower. There are two sets of tympani outdoing each other, building to the horns and ophicleides, heaving like a French rugby scrum, then the trumpets blast a tune not too distant from La Marseillaise. One last lingering glance up at the Beloved before the blade falls and the tumbrels roll.

Finally, a Dream of the Witches Sabbath. Our hero dreams he is in hell where his Beloved, now grotesque, in the company of witches, dances about him. Strange slithery sounds come from the woods before the Beloved appears, the idée fixe on clarinet sounding distorted and horrible without its syncopations with the witches joining in a diabolical dance. Two themes now interchange. The Gregorian Dies Irae is intoned on the ophicleides (tubas) and other brass and tubular bells ring out at intervals. The Ronde Du Sabbat (Sabbath Round) appears, turns into a fugue which goes straight up non-stop to a climax almost like a rocket out of control until it bursts like a star shell and explodes and spatter in all directions. Both the Ronde du Sabbat and the Dies Irae are played then together but we are not quite finished yet. The violins are directed to turn their bows round on to their wood and play col legno, representing the rattle of bones before one last devilish idée fixe, the distorted clarinet theme now on full orchestra ending in a triumphant tumultuous blaze.

 By now but he had won the Prix de Rome. He did not wish to leave as he had formed a new attachment for Marie Moke to whom he became engaged but the French Academy would not release him.

 In 1821 he had arrived in Paris, an absolute greenhorn. Now he had come out as the top pupil of the Conservatoire, despite the hostility towards him. He had emerged as the most original and individual of composers who was leading France from the shackles of an outdated classicism and opening the floodgates of romantic music. Few might understand. In short, long before Frank Sinatra, he did it his way..