1902 Encyclopedia > Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz
French composer
(1803-69)




HECTOR BERLIOZ, by far the most original composer of modern France, was born in 1803 at Côte-Saint-André, a small town near Grenoble, in the department of Isère. His father was a physician of repute, and by his desire our composer for some time devoted himself to the study of the same profession. At the same time he had music lessons, and, in secret, perused numerous theoretical works on counterpoint and harmony, with little profit it seems, till the hearing and subsequent careful analysis of one of Haydn's quartets opened a new vista to his unguided aspirations. A similar work written by Berlioz in imitation of' Haydn's masterpiece was favourably received by his friends. From Paris, where he had been sent to complete his medical studies, he at last made known to his father the unalterable decision of devoting himself entirely to art, the answer to which confession was the withdrawal of all further pecuniary assistance. In order to support life Berlioz had to accept the humble engagement of a singer in the chorus of the Gymnase theatre. Soon, however, he became reconciled to his father and entered the Conservatoire, where he studied composition under Reicha and Lesueur. His first important composition was an opera called Les Francs-Juges, of which, however, only the overture remains extant. In 1825 he left the Conservatoire, disgusted, it is said, at the dry pedantry of the professors, and began a course of autodidactic education, founded chiefly on the works of Beethoven, Gluck, Weber, and other German masters. About this period Berlioz saw for the first time on the stage the talented Irish actress Miss Smithson, who was then charming Paris by her impersonations of Ophelia, Juliet, and other Shakespearean characters. The young enthusiastic composer became deeply enamoured of her at first sight, and tried, for a long time in vain, to gain the responsive love or even the attention of his idol To an incident of this wild and persevering courtship Berlioz's first symphonic work, Episode de la Vie d'un Artiste, owes its origin. It describes the dreams of an artist who, under the influence of opium, imagines that he has killed his mistress, and in his vision witnesses his own execution. It is replete with the spirit of contemporary French romanticism and of self-destructive Byronic despair. A written programme is added to each of the five movements to expound the imaginative material on which the music is founded. By the advice of his friends Berlioz once more entered the Conservatoire, where, after several unsuccessful attempts, his cantata Sardanapalut (1830) gained him the first prize for foreign travel, in spite of the strong personal antagonism of one of the umpires. During a stay in Italy Berlioz composed an overture to King Lear, and Le Retour d la Vie,—a sort of symphony, with intervening poetical declamation between the single movements, called by the composer a melologue, and written in continuation of the Episode de la Vie d'un Artiste, along with which work it was performed at the Paris Conservatoire in 1832. Paganini on that occasion spoke to Berlioz the memorable words: "Vous commences par oil les autres ont fini." Miss Smithson, who also was present on the occasion, soon afterwards consented to become the wife of her ardent lover. The artistic success achieved on that occasion did not prove to be of a lasting kind. Berlioz's music was too far remote from the current of popular taste to be much admired beyond a small circle of esoteric worshippers. It is true that his name became known as that of a gifted though eccentric composer ; he also received in the course of time his due share of the distinctions generally awarded to artistic merit, such as the ribbon of the Legion of Honour and the membership of the Institute. But these distinctions he owed, perhaps, less to a genuine admiration of his compositions than to his influential position as the musical critic of the Journal des Debats (a position which he never used or abused to push his own works), and to his successes abroad. In 1842 Berlioz went for the first time to Germany, where he was hailed with welcome by the leading musicians of the younger generation, Robert Schumann foremost amongst them. The latter paved the way for the French composer's success, by a comprehensive analysis of the Episode in his musical journal, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. Berlios gave successful concerts at Leipsic and other German cities, and repeated his visit on various later occasions—in 1852, by invitation of Liszt, to conduct his opera, Benvenuto Cellini (hissed off the stage in Paris), at Weimar; and in 1855 to produce his oratorio-trilogy, L'Enfance du Christ, in the same city. This latter work had been previously performed at Paris, where Berlioz mystified the critics by pretending to have found one part of it, the " Flight into Egypt," amongst the manuscript scores of a composer of the 17th century, Pierre Ducre' by name. Berlioz also made journeys to Vienna (1866) and St Petersburg (1867), where his works were received with great enthusiasm. He died in Paris, March 9, 1869.

Berlioz has justly been described as the French representative of musical Romanticism, and his works are in this respect closely connected with the contemporary movement in literature known by that name. The affinity between him and Victor Hugo, for instance, is undeniable, and must be looked for deeper than in the fantastic eccentricities and breaches of the established form common to both. His ready acknowledgment of congenial aspirations in foreign countries, so adverse to French natural prejudice, may be cited as another essentially "romantic" feature in Berlioz's character. In his case, however, the predilection for English literature, as ohown in the choice of several of his most important subjects from Shakespeare, Byron, and Walter Scott, may be to some extent explained from his connection with Miss Smithson, a striking instance of the relation between life and art in a man of high creative faculty.

The second powerful element in Berlioz's compositions is the in fluence of Beethoven's gigantic works. The grand forms of the German master's symphonies impressed him with competitive zeal, and what has been described as the "poetical idea" in Beethoven's creations soon began to run riot in the enthusiastic mind of the young medical student. But, in accordance with the aversion of his national character to indistinct ideal notions, he tried to con dense the poetical essence of his inspiration in the tangible shape of a story, and in this manner became the father of what is generally called "programme-music". Whether the author of such works as Harold en Italie, or the Episode de la Vie d'un Artiste, may lay claim to the prophet's cloak is difficult to decide ; he must at any rate be accepted as a man strong in his own convictions, "a swallower of formulas," and faithful ally in the great cause of nature versus traditional artificiality, of Shakespeare against pseudo-classicism. Under such circumstances we can hardly be surprised at seeing Berlioz appreciated sooner and more lastingly in Germany than in his own country. Schumann and Liszt were, as we have men tioned, at various periods amongst the foremost promoters of his music. We subjoin a list of the more important works by Berlioz not mentioned above, viz., the symphonies Borneo et Juliette (1834), and Damnation de Faust (1846); the operas Beatrice ei Benedict (1862), andiej Troyens (1866); a Requiem, and Tristia, a work for chorus and orchestra, written on the death of his wife. Of his spirited literary productions we mention his Voyage musical en Allernagne et en Italie (1845), Les Soiries d'Orchestre (1853), A travers Chant (1862), and his incomparable Trait'e d'Instrumenta tion (1844). The characteristics of Berlioz's literary style are French verve and esprit, occasionally combined with English humour and German depth of idea. The time has hardly yet arrived for judging finally of Berlioz's position in the history of his art. His original ideas, his poetical intentions, nobody can deny ; the question is whether he possesses genuine creative power to carry out these in tentions, and, first of all, that broad touch of nature which leads from subjective feeling to objective rendering, and which alone can establish a lasting rapport between a great artist and posterity. To decide this question the performances of his works have as yet, un fortunately, been too few and far between. In England, particu larly, only a very small fraction of his compositions has been heard. (F. H.)







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