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Hector Berlioz

1803 - 1869

Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard WagnerNikolai Rimsky-KorsakovFranz LisztRichard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler.

“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately, it kills all its pupils...” 

Hector Berlioz             


Key Works

The Damnation of Faust, Op 24, (Hungarian March)

Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op 15

I. Marche funèbre: Moderato un poco lento [0:00]
II. Oraison funèbre: Adagio non tanto [17:34]
- Andantino un poco lento e sostenuto [22:46]
III. Apothéose: Allegro non troppo e pomposo [25:52]

Symphonie fantastique, Op 14

Inspired by Beethoven, Berlioz decided to become a symphonist himself. This work became a Romantic auto biography about his obsession with Harriet Smithson, who is musically portrayed by an idee fixe. His concert notes described a young musician of great sensibility and imagination, in despair because of hopeless love. Opium plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by weird visions.
DREAMS AND PASSIONS (16:001 Ranging from calm and melancholy to passion and despair, the artist recalls the time before love, then its delirious effect, and religious consolation.

A BALL (6:00) A brilliant and sumptuous waltz halts dramatically as the beloved’s theme is heard once again.
SCENE IN THE COUNTRY (17:00) Off-stage players depict far-off shepherds piping. The melancholy artist almost achieves tranquillity, but the beloved is recalled and distant thunder sounds.
MARCH TO THE SCAFFOLD (7:00) To rasping brass and winds, he is condemned to death for his beloved’s murder. We hear her plaintive theme, the blade drops and crowds cheer.

DREAM OF A SABBATH NIGHT (10:00) Grotesquely parodied, the beloved joins the devilish orgy while the ancient plainchant “Dies Irae” is intoned, surrounded by tolling bells.

Harold en Italie, Op 16

Symphonie en quatre parties avec un alto principal Op. 16
I. "Harold aux montagnes"
II. "Marche des pèlerins"
III. "Sérénade"
IV. "Orgie de brigands"

Roméo et Juliette, Op 17

1. Introduction: Combats -- Tumulte -- Intervention du
prince -- Prologue -- Strophes -- Scherzetto
2. Roméo seul: Tristesse -- Bruits lointains de concert
et de bal -- Grande fête chez Capulet -- Fête
3. Nuit serène -- Le jardin de Capulet silencieux et
déserte -- Scène d'amour
4. Scherzo: La reine Mab, ou la Fée des songes
5. Convoi funèbre de Juliette: 'Jetez des fl eurs pour la
vierge expirée'
6. Roméo au tombeau des Capulets -- Invocation:
Réveil de Juliette -- Joie délirante, désespoir --
Dernières angoisses et mort des deux amants
7. Finale: La foule accourt au cimetière -- Des Capulets
et des Montagus -- Récitatif et Air du Père Laurence
'Pauvres enfants que je pleure' -- Serment de
réconciliation 'Jurez donc par l'auguste symbole'

Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9

Beatrice et Benedict, H 138, overture

Les Troyens - Highlights

Berlioz based his magnum opus, Les Troyens, on Virgil’s Aeneid, completing both libretto and music in two years.

The first two acts depict the story of the Trojan Horse, and the remainder, Dido and Aeneas in Carthage. He finished the work in 1858 and it was first performed in 1863 as two separate operas, as is often the case nowadays.

L'Enfance du Christ, Op. 25

Requiem - Grande Messe des Morts

Berlioz’s forceful and vivid setting of the Requiem, with its massive orchestra including 12 horns, 16 timpani and four brass ensembles, immerses the listener in the drama of the text. Commissioned by the government for performance in the church of Les Invalides in Paris, Berlioz later said, “If I were threatened with the destruction of all my works but one, I would beg mercy for the Grande messe des morts”.

Te Deum, Op 22

Written to be heard in church, Berlioz described this piece as being not only the ceremonial hymn of thanksgiving usual in a Te Deum, but also an offering of prayers whose humility and melancholy contrast with the majesty of the hymns. His placing of the orchestra and chorus (including a large children’s choir) at the opposite end of the church to the organ, was essential to the musical effect. Berlioz also re-ordered the traditional text to control the overall tension of the work. As well as the six choral movements, there are two instrumental movements - originally designed for ceremonial purposes—which are not always included in modern performances.

(b. La Cote-Saint-Andre, December 11, 1803; d. Paris, March 8, 1869)

French composer and critic who possessed the most daring and original voice of his age. His febrile imagination and extraordinary sensitivity to extramusical ideas drove him to fashion works that changed the scope, content, even the very sound of orchestral music in the 19th century. He was the eldest child of a country doctor, who supervised his early education and encouraged him to read the classics. He took lessons on flute and guitar, learned harmony from some textbooks, and composed his first pieces as he entered his teens. In 1821, in deference to his father, he went to Paris to study medicine. While in medical school he immersed himself in the Parisian musical scene, attending numerous performances at the Opera and studying informally with Jean-Francois Le Sueur at the Conservatoire; by 1824 he had abandoned medicine, and in 1826 he entered the Conservatoire officially as a student of Le Sueur (composition) and Antoine Reicha (counterpoint and fugue).

Lithograph of Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, Vienna, 1845.

On September 11, 1827, he attended a performance of Hamlet at the Odeon in which the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson performed the role of Ophelia. Overwhelmed by her beauty and charisma he fell madly in love with her, and permanently under the spell of Shakespeare. Six months later, he heard for the first time Beethoven’s dramatic, large-scale Third and Fifth Symphonies. The result of this remarkable conjunction was the Symphonie fantastique (Fantastic Symphony; 1830), incomparably vivid self-portrait that took as its subject the experiences of a young musician in love and proved to be one of the defining works of musical Romanticism.

A Concert of Hector Berlioz in 1846. Caricature of Berlioz conducting an orchestra including cannons..

A string of groundbreaking efforts followed, many of them inspired by great literature: the symphony for solo viola and orchestra Harold en Itaue (1834), written for Paganini and loosely based on Byron’s epic Childe Harold; the colossal Requiem, which Berlioz titled Grande messe des marts (1837); the “dramatic symphony” Romeo et Juliette (1839) for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, a brilliant homage to Shakespeare; La damnation de Faust (1845-46), after Goethe’s Faust; and, most important of all to the composer, the grand opera Les Troyens (1856-58), whose story, based on Virgil’s Aeneid, deals with the denouement of the Trojan War, the flight of Aeneas and his followers to Carthage, and the establishment of ancient Rome. In each of these grandiose scores Berlioz painted an orchestral canvas worthy of Delacroix; but his touch was equally sure in the more intimate vein of pieces such as the song cycle Les nuits d’ete (Summer Nights; 1841), the quasi-oratorio L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ; 1850-54), and the opera Beatrice et Benedict (1860-62), based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately, Berlioz was his own worst enemy, unable to keep hurtful opinions of others to himself, and the prescient nature of his work too often meant that its true value eluded both the public and the establishment. He died a weary, broken man.

Pencil drawing of Berlioz, by Alphonse Legros, c.1860

Berlioz by Pierre Petit

Unable to play a single instrument well, Berlioz nonetheless developed into the supreme orchestrator of his time. His star-ding innovations included the use of vasdy augmented brass, multiple dmpani to produce chords, esoteric percussion (like the tambourine in the Roman Carnival Overture and the deep bells in the Symphonic fantastique), riotous figurations for the strings, and unusual effects such as percussive col legno bowing. He got the orchestra to produce sonorities no one had ever imagined before: In the Grande messe des morts (Grand Mass of the Dead), to symbolize the gulf between heaven and earth, he set the groaning of eight trombones in their pedal register against dulcet chords in three flutes.

Berlioz was the quintessential Romantic, fired by a love for great literature and an unquenchable passion for the eternal feminine. He was also a classicist and an idealist, a worshipper of grace, proportion, and poise—and in the best of his works these qualities conspired to produce music of exquisite beauty and exceptional emotional power.

Les nuits d'été, Op 7

Les nuits d'été (Sommernächte) ∙
Originally composed for single voice and piano, Berlioz orchestrated these settings of poems by Theophile Gautier in 1856 for multiple soloists. Varying from the joyful “Villanelle”, to the despairing “L’ile inconnue”, the light but exquisitely coloured orchestration paved the way for similar works by Richard Strauss and Mahler.
I. Villanelle (Ländliche Idylle) ∙
II. Le spectre de la rose (Der Geist der Rose) ∙
III. ¬Sur les lagunes (Auf den Lagunen) ∙
IV. Absence (Trennung) ∙
V. Au cimetière - Clair de lune (Auf dem Friedhof - Mondlicht) ∙
VI. L'île inconnue (Die unbekannte Insel) ∙

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