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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 "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:

  • 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 as his improved, her finances suffered, her health took a turn for the worse, she began drinking heavily, and jealousy and suspicion rapidly overtook the relationship — 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 support her financially 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.
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  • 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 L'enfance du 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, rather than 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 and her new fiancé and commit suicide, but 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.
  • Door Stopper: Both volumes of his monstrous biography by David Cairns. Reading both volumes may take almost a year or more.
  • Dreadful Musician: At least regarding certain instruments. Berlioz is one of few composers who never learned to play the piano. Rather, 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 motif (idée fixe), Harold In Italy is a hybrid symphony and viola concerto, Symphonie Funebre Et Triomphale is scored for large wind band with optional chorus and strings, and Romeo Et Juliette intermingles expository and narrative sections for voices with purely instrumental movements.
  • 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 villains and near catastrophe of the play. It instead focuses on the psychologies and repartee of the two protagonists.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: France had a lukewarm attitude towards Berlioz's works and still does to this day. But Berlioz was greatly acclaimed in England, Germany, and Russia, his works even being a source of inspiration to a young Tchaikovsky.
  • 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!
  • 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:

  • Shout-Out: The musical kitten in The Aristocats is named Berlioz. Unlike the composer, he is able to play the piano!