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Hector Berlioz: Hector Berlioz (b. La Cote-Saint-Andre, 11 Dec 1803; d. Paris, 8 March 1869).
Hector Berlioz was the son of a liberal, free-thinking doctor father and an intensely devout Catholic mother. His father gave him his early education, founding him in the Latin classics and imbuing him with a love of Vergil which was to be lifelong. He also gave the boy elementary medical training with a view to his possibly taking up medicine as a profession. Although given piano lessons by a local teacher, Hector Berlioz preferred the guitar and the flute, the only instruments which he ever mastered. He composed some songs and a quintet, after reading harmony treatises, and these were performed by local amateurs. In 1821 he went to Paris, ostensibly to study medicine since there was no question of his family allowing him to become a professional musician. But he spent much of his time at the Opera, where he indulged his passion for Gluck's music, and in the library of the Conservatoire, attending medical lectures sporadically and repelled by having to dissect corpses, an occupation he approached in the spirit of a romantic artist in search of the macabre rather than that of a scientific investigator. Life in Paris dangerously inflamed the imagination and distracted the powers of concentration in a young man already at loggerheads with his family and inevitably affected by the contradicting attitudes of his two parents. He managed, however, to enter the Paris Conservatoire where, though he fell foul of the director Cherubini, he found an understanding teacher in Lesueur, an elderly composer of the old school with a great admiration for Gluck. He also studied with Reicha, a learned theorist and a composer of chamber music, a man with an international experience and at one time a friend of the young Beethoven in Vienna. His student days were prolonged by his determination to win the Grand Prix de Rome, for which he first competed in 1827. Between this and his actually winning the prize there elapsed a period of three years which were filled with events for Hector Berlioz.
As early as 1825 he had had a Mass of his composition performed with an orchestra of 150 players. Lesueur, who remembered the monumental ceremonies of the 1790s, encouraged his young pupil's concern with 'Babylonian' effects and the employing of 'Ninivite' forces to obtain them. The chief experiences in Hector Berlioz's life between 1827 and 1830 were his hearing performances of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Habeneck and seeing performances of Shakespeare plays by an English company at the Odeon. He fell promptly, and as it turned out disastrously, in love with the leading lady, Harriet Smithson, who after many divagations on his part was eventually to become his wife. That, however, was not until 1833. In the meantime he obtained a performance of his Waverley overture, wrote Eight Scenes from Faust (which he knew in Gerard de Nerval's translation) and a handful of Irish songs. These were in honour of Miss Smithson's country; but at almost the same time he composed his Symphonie fantastique, a medley of romantic idealism, pastoral reverie, macabre visions and deliberately blasphemous scenes of witchcraft centred round an idee fixe representing the artist's amorous obsession. Hector Berlioz called this work 'Episode in the Life of an Artist' and this title was modelled on De Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater', which Alfred de Musset had recently translated. Hector Berlioz issued an elaborate programme with the music, which had its first performance under Habeneck on the 5th December 1829, and he insisted that the symphony was 'entirely autobiographical in intention'. He now identified Harriet Smithson with his evil genius, though for no apparent reason, and it was not long before he had fallen in love with another woman, Camille Moke, and even became engaged to marry her!
In 1830, the year in which he finally won the Grand Prix de Rome, Hector Berlioz formed part of the Jeune France party which fought the battle unleashed by Victor Hugo's Hernani, the play which symbolised the revolt of the young 'Romantic' school against the ancient, and indeed now totally lifeless, 'Classical' proprieties. In Hector Berlioz's case the confusion between life and art became for a time almost total. On arriving in Rome he heard that Camille Moke had deserted him for a member of the piano-making firm of Pleyel, whereupon he tried to commit suicide (very half-heartedly) and then left for Paris, where he intended to kill Camille. Reason reestablished control before he reached his destination and he returned to Rome, where he made the acquaintance of Glinka and, more importantly, Mendelssohn who, however, not unnaturally, thought the young Hector Berlioz in his present state ludicrously conceited and shamefully ignorant of his craft, as by Mendelssohn's standards he was. In fact the ostensibly autobiographical Lelio, with which Hector Berlioz returned to Paris, is a very unequal set of musically disconnected pieces precariously linked by a narration which might be a malicious parody of the excesses of the Romantic School. Far more important in Hector Berlioz's development than any musical experiences during this time in Rome, were the scenery of the Campagna, the life of the peasants and the many picturesque spectacles of Italian country life, not excluding the then very common plague of all travellers, highwaymen or banditi (real or imaginary), who appealed particularly to young Hector Berlioz's non-conforming, anti-Establishment mentality.
He returned to Paris, after visiting his family in Saint-Andre, early in November 1832 and in the following month Lelio was given its first performance. Almost immediately after this Hector Berlioz met Harriet Smithson again and, after much romantic gesturing which included a threat to poison himself, he persuaded her to marry him, which she did on the 3rd October 1833. Early the following year the violinist Paganini, then at the height of his career, commissioned Hector Berlioz to write a work for viola and orchestra. This was Harold in Italy, a four-movement piece in which Hector Berlioz imagined Byron's Childe Harold (represented by the solo instrument) musing over or sympathetically observing scenes of Italian country life such as he had himself lately witnessed - the solitude of the Abruzzi mountains, a procession of pilgrims winding their way past the observer, a mountaineer's serenade and a final 'Orgy' of brigands. The first movement is perhaps the nearest that Hector Berlioz ever approached to the music of Beethoven which he so much admired, while the second forms an interesting contrast to the movement in the Italian symphony where Mendelssohn evokes a similar scene. The tumultuous and explosive finale contains reminiscences of the earlier scenes, and the whole work is held together by the theme associated with Harold himself. Unfortunately the solo part offered Paganini nothing that he considered worthy of his bow and at the first performance, in November 1834, the solo part was played by the gifted Chretien Urhan, a Belgian pupil of Kreutzer and Rode for whom Meyerbeer was soon to write the viola d'amore solo in Les Huguenots.
Hector Berlioz had already been reduced, as he felt it, to writing music criticism in order to supplement his income and in 1835 he became the regular critic of the influential Journal des Debats as well as writing for the Gazette Musicale. His long-standing desire to write an opera was fired by the enormous success of Les Huguenots and he had determined on Benvenuto Cellini as a subject, and started work when he received an official commission to write a Requiem Mass. This was planned originally for the annual commemoration of those who had perished in the 1830 Revolution, but was eventually (5th December 1837) used for the office celebrated on the occasion of General Damremont's death in Algeria. Hector Berlioz conceived the work on the grandest, most romantic and least liturgical scale. This included enormous forces for both orchestra and choir and, in addition, four small brass bands stationed at the four corners of the church of Les Invalides to represent the summoning to the Last Judgment described in the Tuba mirum of the Dies Irae. At the other extreme lies the orchestration of the Hostias, for flutes and trombones, leaving a yawning gulf in the middle register of the orchestral sound. Nothing in the work is conventional, everything highly individual and conceived with the idea of obtaining effects of what the composer himself described as 'overwhelming' and 'of horrifying grandeur'. In fact Hector Berlioz in this work satisfied his romantic ideas of 'Babylonian' immensity achieved by 'Ninivite' forces.
The failure of his opera Benvenuto Cellini (10th September 1838) was only partly due to the mediocre libretto based on Cellini's memoirs by Leon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier. There could be no doubt in anyone's mind of Hector Berlioz's dramatic gifts, but these were always better deployed in the concert-hall than in the opera-house, where his imagination was both fatally stimulated by the spectacular nature of contemporary 'grand' opera (Meyerbeer, Halevy) and yet shackled by the need to confine himself to the details of stage-craftsmanship. In the event the work has been best remembered by the overture and the 'Carnaval romain', a brilliant crowd-scene which makes almost as great an effect without the chorus in the concert-hall as it does, in Hector Berlioz's original conception for the stage. His disappointment was mitigated the same year when he received from Paganini, in the most glowing terms, 20,000 francs for a new work of his own choosing. The money enabled Hector Berlioz to pay the debts incurred by a household which now included a small son as well as a wife and to devote himself for a time at least wholly to composition.
Romeo et Juliette is Hector Berlioz's most remarkable tribute to Shakespeare, who shared with Vergil, Gluck and Beethoven the highest place in his pantheon. In the Queen Mab scherzo and Romeo's love music it contains the greatest of all Hector Berlioz's compositions, unflawed by the moments of bathos which too often mar his work and are indeed to be found in other parts of Romeo itself and wholly original. The orchestral writing confirms that novel and unique sonorous imagination which made Hector Berlioz, who was to be the author of a treatise (1844) on the subject of instrumentation, the most important single force in developing this aspect of music, a fact at least obliquely admitted by Wagner himself. His next work, Symphonie funebre et triomphale is not comparable in quality, though here again the style is unmistakably personal. During the 1840s he began those increasingly wide-ranging foreign tours on which he conducted his own music. The successes which he obtained in Belgium, Germany Austria and finally Russia made his comparative neglect by his fellow-countrymen all the harder to bear. His marriage had now come to grief, and he had entangled himself with a worse than indifferent singer, Marie Recio, whose presence and performances on his foreign tours were an embarrassment to him. Much of his next work, La Damnation de Faust was conceived and written during these foreign travels, and its failure on the 6th December 1846 involved Hector Berlioz in a financial loss only recouped by his subsequent visit to Russia. Like nearly all Hector Berlioz's major works Faust suffers from lack of unity of style and moments of bathos, but contains some of his finest music and in Marguerite's 'D'amour l'ardente flamme' one of the greatest of all melodies. The work's hybrid character, well described as opera de concert, tells against it but faithfully reflects the composer's instinctive sense of his own gifts and limitations. After a period in London, where he conducted Italian opera at Drury Lane and avoided the revolution of 1848, Hector Berlioz returned to Paris, where his father's death shortly relieved his worst financial worries. In 1852 Liszt put on a Hector Berlioz Week in Weimar, where the composer was feted; and indeed his increasing fame throughout Germany contrasted ever more starkly with his neglect in France, a situation which has never really changed, though now it is the Anglo-Saxon world that shames the French in performing the music of a composer who, however unequal in performance, eccentric and even uncertain in taste, cannot be refused the name of genius.
The year 1854 saw the death of Hector Berlioz's wife and also the first performance of an unexpected oratorio, L'Enfance du Christ, which marks the opening of the final stage in Hector Berlioz's life as a composer and his cultivation of the classical virtues so markedly absent from his earlier music yet surely implicit in his admiration for Gluck and Vergil. It was Vergil's Aeneid that inspired the major work of the composer's last years, when his health was poor, his life lonely and his position in French musical life that of a solitary eccentric. He wrote his own libretto for Les Troyens, dividing the story into two unequal parts, 'La Prise de Troie' and 'Les Troyens a Carthage'. In form and idiom the work lies uneasily between the severe tradition of Gluck and the lavish, spectacular 'grand opera' of Meyerbeer. One of several great moments is the orchestral 'Royal Hunt and Storm', a tonepoem with obbligato voices but needing no scenery to bring it to life. Another is the septet in which the mutual passion of Dido and Aeneas first makes its full dramatic impact, while Dido's final farewell deserves comparison with the greatest scenes of Gluck's Alceste and Iphigenie. Hector Berlioz shared with other archromantics the characteristic of living entirely through his own feelings, and this was a handicap to him in the musical creation of character. It is neither Dido, nor certainly Aeneas, who gives Les Troyens its appeal, but rather Hector Berlioz as he reflects himself and his own sensibilities in such minor roles as Iopas or Hylas, •in the mime of Andromache and Astyanax or the Royal Hunt. The second part of Les Troyens was given on the 4th November 1863 in Paris, a year after the perverse but often delightful Beatrice et Benedict. The first part of Les Troyens was never heard by the composer, having its first performance at Carlsruhe in 1890, 21 years after his death.
The influence of Hector Berlioz's music during his lifetime was chiefly among Russian composers, though Liszt, Wagner and their successors borrowed and developed further his new conception of orchestral timbre and its importance as an integral element of music. Richard Strauss acknowledged his debt in this field, and there are echoes of Hector Berlioz's very individual - and often academically 'incorrect' - melodic and harmonic procedures in such widely different composers as Janacek and Nielsen. For nearly a century after his death his music, with the exception of the Symphonie fantastique, was regarded as the preserve of individual conductors, especially Weingartner and in this country Hamilton Harty. Before the centenary celebrations of 1969 there was already a notable revival of interest in his music - his memoirs and other writings were almost universally admired, and often used to throw his music into the shade - and in that year there was launched a scheme for a scholarly edition of his collected works. This had been attempted by Weingartner, but abandoned owing to lack of funds and to the continued, and still all but total, lack of interest among his own countrymen.
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