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Music / Hector Berlioz

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"Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students."

Louis-Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 — 8 March 1869) was a French composer, conductor and music critic of the Romantic Era.

An extremely controversial figure due to the direction in which he took his compositions, Berlioz had difficulty having his works performed in France, the story of which is told colourfully (though with exaggerations) in his Memoirs. He fared somewhat better abroad as his tours in Germany, Russia and England were relatively successful. Schumann was enthusiastic about his music, and Liszt was one of his champions.

A Shakespeare fanboy, Berlioz wrote a semi-operatic "dramatic symphony" based on Romeo and Juliet and a full opera based on Much Ado About Nothing (under the title Beatrice and Benedict). His best-known work is Symphonie Fantastique, an early example of programme music, and one of the first examples of a psychedelic symphony. (In fact, the programme to that work mentions a "sensitive artist" who "poisons himself with opium in a fit of despair."), as well as the Te Deum, specifically its second movement, "Tibi omnes", which was used as the backdrop to the lighting of the Flame for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Berlioz's music and life provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Queen Mab never personally appears in Romeo and Juliet, where she is only referenced by Mercutio in trying to get Romeo to forget his old crush Rosaline. In Berlioz’s symphony of the same name, Queen Mab gets her own scherzo movement.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: The protagonist of Symphonie Fantastique pines for the object of his affection during his opium-fueled hallucinations, never having his love returned.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Berlioz's first marriage to actress Harriet Smithson in 1833 was happy at first but soon went sour. Her career declined rapidly while his improved. Her finances suffered, her health deteriorated, and she began drinking heavily. The relationship deteriorated because of her jealousy and suspicion – which was not helped when Berlioz took a mistress (who would become his second wife). The couple separated for good in 1843, but Berlioz continued to financially support her until her death.
  • Bigger Is Better: Some of Berlioz's major choral works call for unusually large forces. His Requiem requires an orchestra of quadruple woodwinds, 12 French horns, 4 each of cornets and tubas, 4 additional brass choirs, 16 timpani, 2 bass drums, 10 pairs of cymbals, 4 tam-tams, and a large string section and chorus. Berlioz adds in the performance notes that "The number [of players] indicated is only relative. If space permits, the chorus may be doubled or tripled, and the orchestra be proportionally increased." More than 400 performers participated in the work's premiere.
  • Culturally Religious: Berlioz was brought up a Catholic and gained his love of music from the Church. After seven years of living his childhood faith, it eventually failed and he became an agnostic. Despite this, he was not hostile to the Catholic Church and he recalled these years fondly. The influence of religious music remained in him throughout his life, and he composed a few sacred music pieces, such as the Grand Messe des morts (Requiem), a Te Deum, and The Childhood of Christ, an oratorio on the childhood years of Jesus.
  • Darker and Edgier: His Damnation of Faust, as opposed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's, gives no hope for Faust's salvation. Faust is taken to Hell by Mephistopheles instead of being redeemed by Gretchen.
  • Disguised in Drag: Shortly after starting his Prix de Rome residency, Berlioz discovered he had been dumped by his fiancée. He snuck away disguised as a woman, intending to kill her, her mother, and her new fiancé, and commit suicide, but he thought better of it and returned to finish his residency.
  • Disneyfication: Berlioz's Damnation of Faust lacks the obscure philosophy of Goethe's version. Instead, it focuses on the love story between Faust and Gretchen. Nevertheless, it is Darker and Edgier as Faust is damned instead of redeemed.
  • Door Stopper: Both volumes of his monstrous biography by David Cairns.
  • Dreadful Musician: Berlioz is one of few composers who never learned to play the piano. The guitar was his instrument, and he initially made his living playing it. He could also play the flute, but not well enough to do so in public.
  • Drugs Are Bad: The protagonist of Symphonie Fantastique, who is suffering from unrequited love, makes himself sick taking opium. His hallucinations about himself and the object of his affections provide the source of the symphony's program, in which the relationship does not end happily.
  • Eccentric Artist: Many of Berlioz's works are highly unusual examples of their genre, especially when compared to contemporary models. Of his four symphonies, for example: Symphonie Fantastique is a programmatic five-movement work that makes use of a recurring leitmotif (idée fixe), Harold In Italy is a hybrid symphony and viola concerto, Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale is scored for a large wind band with optional chorus and strings, and Romeo et Juliette intermingles expository and narrative choral sections with purely instrumental movements.
  • Fiery Redhead: Accounts of Berlioz's appearance range between his hair being red and light auburn. Of course, Berlioz himself had the passion and eccentricity to fit the trope.
  • Leitmotif: The idée fixe, a repeated melodic idea associated with the hero's love interest in Symphonie Fantastique, is the precursor of the leitmotif idea seen in later works such as Richard Wagner's operas.
  • Lighter and Softer: Beatrice and Benedict, based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, lacks the play's villainous plots and near catastrophe. It instead focuses on the repartee of the two protagonists.
  • Love Hurts: Love's close relationship with suffering and death, yet having a unique transcendant power, is a core theme of the Symphonie Fantastique, Romeo and Juliette, The Death of Cleopatra, The Damnation of Faust, and other works.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: France has a lukewarm attitude towards Berlioz to this day, but Berlioz was greatly acclaimed in England, Germany, and Russia. Diverse composers among Liszt, Brahms, Mahler, and Bruckner are indebted to his influence, and his works inspired new generations of Russian composers including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
  • Power Trio: Berlioz was grouped by composer Peter Cornelius as one of the "Three Bs" among the greatest musicians: Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz. However, conductor Hans von Bülow replaced Berlioz with Brahms, which stuck for various reasons. One is that Brahms better fit into the story of a linear musical tradition starting with Bach, which is how people still view the Common Practice Period, while Berlioz was a lone wolf with seemingly no precedents or successors. Another is that Brahms was German during the Romantic era, a period when nationality became ever more important, while Berlioz was French by birth only and did not really belong anywhere.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "March to the Scaffold" from Symphonie Fantastique sounds like a jaunty, upbeat march tune, when it actually represents a man hallucinating that he had murdered his lover and is being taken to the guillotine. After a restatement of the love motif, you even hear the blade come down and his head bounce across the platform!
  • Thinking Out Loud: Done in Lelio, the little-known sequel to Symphonie Fantastique, where the artist wakes up from his opium nightmare and eventually finds happiness in music. The piece alternates between the artist's monologues and instrumental movements. Lelio was a hit on its debut, partly because its mix of monologues and music was trendy with the first Romantic listeners. As the trend died out over time, Lelio vanished into obscurity.
  • Uncommon Time: An early scene in The Childhood of Christ features 7/4 time, when King Herod's fortune-tellers prophecy disaster for their ruler.

Berlioz in popular culture:

  • One of the three musical kittens in The Aristocats is named Berlioz. Unlike the composer, he is able to play the piano!
  • In La Grande Vadrouille, conductor Stanislas Lefort (Louis de Funès) tries to have his orchestra play the "Hungarian March" from The Damnation of Faust, and it's never good enough for him.