Hector Berlioz, in full Louis-Hector Berlioz, (born December 11, 1803, La Côte-Saint-André, France—died March 8, 1869, Paris), French composer, critic, and conductor of the Romantic period, known largely for his Symphonie fantastique (1830), the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), and the dramatic piece La Damnation de Faust (1846). His last years were marked by fame abroad and hostility at home.
Berlioz was born in a village about 35 miles (56 km) northwest of Grenoble in the French Alps. France was at war; the schools were disrupted; and Berlioz received his education from his father, an enlightened and cultured physician, who gave him his first lessons in music as well as in Latin. But, like many composers, Berlioz received in his early years little formal training in music. He worked out for himself the elements of harmony and by his 12th year was composing for local chamber-music groups. With help from performers, he learned to play the flute and the guitar, becoming a virtuoso on the latter.
In 1821 his father sent him to Paris to study medicine, and for a year he followed his courses faithfully enough to obtain his first degree in science. He took every opportunity to go to the Paris-Opéra, however, where he studied, score in hand, the whole repertory, in which the works of Gluck had for him the most appeal and authority. His musical vocation had become so clear in his mind that he contrived to be accepted as a pupil of Jean-François Lesueur, professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. This led to disagreements between Berlioz and his parents that embittered nearly eight years of his life. He persevered, took the obligatory courses at the Conservatoire, and in 1830 won the Prix de Rome, having received second prize in an earlier competition. These successes pacified his family but were, in a sense, incidental to his career, for in the same year he had finished and obtained a performance of his first great score, which is also a seminal work in 19th-century music, the Symphonie fantastique.
A series of accidents brought him in touch with the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he married on October 3, 1833. The marriage did not last, though for some years the couple led a peaceful existence at Montmartre in the house that Maurice Utrillo later never tired of painting. Among the visitors there were the young poets and musicians of the Romantic movement, including Alfred de Vigny and Chopin. It was there that Berlioz’s only child, Louis, was born and also where he composed his great Requiem, the Grande Messe des morts (1837), the symphonies Harold en Italie (1834) and Roméo et Juliette (1839), and the opera Benvenuto Cellini (Paris, 1838).
The Requiem of 1837 had been a government commission for a ceremonial occasion designed to encourage the Rome laureate. The request to compose another work for a public ceremony—the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (Funeral Symphony) for military band, chorus, and strings, commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the July Revolution (1840)—was intended as a partial solace for the defeat of Benvenuto Cellini. A few years before, Berlioz’s literary gifts had won him the post of music critic for the leading Paris newspaper, the Journal des Débats, and his employers wielded political influence. Once again, there were intrigues, but the score of the Funeral Symphony was ready for the inauguration of the Bastille column. Unfortunately, the music was drowned out by the drum corps, a disaster that Berlioz repaired by giving the work the following month at a concert hall. This was the score that Wagner, then seeking fame in Paris, admired so wholeheartedly.
Berlioz was able to put Wagner in the way of some musical journalism and thus began a fitful connection of 30 years between the two men whose influence on modern music still resembles a battle of ideals: Berlioz aiming at the creation of drama in and through music alone; Wagner at marriage of symphony with opera. Although Berlioz and Wagner met again in London in 1855 and found each other congenial, their philosophical differences generally kept them apart.
On orchestration itself (and, even more important, on instrumentation) Berlioz produced the leading treatise, Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (1844). Much more than a technical handbook, it served later generations as an introduction to the aesthetics of expressiveness in music. As Albert Schweitzer has shown, its principle is as applicable to Bach as to Berlioz, and it is in no way governed by considerations of so-called program music. To this last-named genre of dubious repute, Berlioz did not contribute more than the printed “story” of his first symphony, which is intelligible as music, without any program.
In Berlioz’s final years he was incapacitated by illness and saddened by many deaths. His first wife, from whom he was separated but to whom he still felt a deep attachment, died in 1854; his second wife, Maria Recio, who had been his companion for many years and whom he had married when he became a widower, died suddenly in 1862. Finally, his son, Louis, who was a sea captain and on whom he concentrated the affection of his declining years, died of yellow fever in Havana at the age of 33.