September 8, 2014


I was listening to a recording of Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust and decided to learn something of his life. What I found was interesting enough to make a blog entry.


1821, Berlioz at age 18 left home near Grenoble sent by his parents to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had no interest. Despite his parents' disapproval he abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. As a struggling  artist in Paris, he did odd jobs. At one point he worked as a chorus singer at a vaudeville theatre and wrote vaudeville songs to support himself.  He attended a production by a traveling English theatre company at the Odéon theatre with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet and became infatuated with  the actress. Prone to rash impulses, Berlioz began flooding Smithson's hotel room with love letters which both confused and terrified her. Needless to say, his advances led nowhere.

Finally in 1831, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome, which included a five year stipend.  The award required winners to spend two years studying in Rome. While in Rome, he stayed at the French Academy in the Villa Medici and during his stay, he received a letter from the mother of his fiancée informing him that she had called off their engagement. Instead his fiancée was to marry the son of a rich piano manufacturer. Enraged, Berlioz decided to return to Paris and take revenge on the rival, his fiancée, and her mother by killing all three of them. He created an elaborate plan, going so far as to purchase a dress, wig and hat with a veil (with which he was to disguise himself in order to gain entry to their home). He even stole a pair of double-barreled pistols from the Academy, where he was lodging. Berlioz purchased strychnine and laudanum to use in the event of the pistols jamming.

Berlioz failed to carry out the plot. After arriving in Nice, he reconsidered the plan, deciding it to be foolish. He sent a letter to the Academy in Rome, requesting that he be allowed to return. This request was accepted, and he returned to Rome -we assume with the pilfered pistols.

Berlioz and Harriet Smithson were finally introduced and became involved.  Despite Berlioz not understanding English and Harriet not knowing any French, in October, 1833 they were married in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy with Liszt as one of the witnesses.  The following year their only child, Louis, was born. Unfortunately living under the same roof with The Beloved was less appealing than worship from afar. Their marriage turned out to be a disaster - there were violent personality clashes and outbursts of temper. Berlioz and Harriet Smithson separated, the latter having become an alcoholic, perhaps due to living with Berlioz. Berlioz moved in with his mistress Marie Recio, but continued to provide for Harriet for the rest of her life. Marie Recio and Berlioz were eventually married, but she died unexpectedly of a stroke at the age of 48, in 1862. Berlioz soon met a young woman named Amélie  and though she was only 24, they developed a relationship with lasted for a while, but failed. Later, Berlioz heard from a friend that Amélie, who had been suffering from poor health, had died at the age of 26. Berlioz was now alone. Most of his family and friends had died, including his two surviving sisters. His isolation from the musical scene increased as the focus shifted to Germany.

I am in my 61st year; past hopes, past illusions, past high thoughts and lofty conceptions. My son is almost always far away from me. I am alone. My contempt for the folly and baseness of mankind, my hatred of its atrocious cruelty, have never been so intense. And I say hourly to Death: 'When you will'. Why does he delay?


berlioz Painting of a young Berlioz by Émile Signol, 1832.

On 8 March 1869, Berlioz died at his Paris home, No.4 rue de Calais.