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The two sides of Hector Berlioz

Created date

February 21st, 2014
Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz was perhaps the greatest composer of the Romantic era, and he knew it. His dossier rich in masterpiece compositions like the Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts, audiences revered him in life and death. 

With his fame came fortune and a heightened sense of his own worth. “I have the modesty to admit,” he once remarked, “that lack of modesty is one of my failings.”

Yet, as you get to know him, you find that this flash of candor was not the product of arrogance but well-deserved confidence. He was a man of contradictions that were every bit as paradoxical as his supposed lack of humility; they were the source of his brilliance.

A late start

Born in Isere, France, in 1803, Berlioz was not a child prodigy like Bach or Mozart. Discouraged by his physician father, he had little exposure to music until the age of 12 (late compared to most composers) and never did learn to play the piano.

For most of his youth, he studied science and, at his father’s insistence, entered medical school in Paris. Berlioz hated the subject.

Instead of focusing on anatomy and dissection, the frustrated student divided his time between opera houses and the library of the Paris Conservatoire, where he poured over the manuscripts of scores by composers like Christoph Willibald Gluck. Much to his father’s disgust, he eventually traded his medical books for a composer’s pen.

Berlioz would choose his own career and music was what it would be.

Soon after making his decision, he wrote his first major work without any formal musical training. His setting of the Catholic mass Messe solennelle signaled the beginning of a nearly 50-year career that would change the face of classical music for composers and audiences.

In 1826, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of French maestros Jean-Francois Le Sueur and Anton Reicha. Here, Berlioz immersed himself in the craft of symphonic composition and emerged transformed.

The man reared on science and the empirical had cultivated a deeply romantic sensibility that was the inspiration behind his musical creations. While a majority of composers were struggling to put food on the table, he quickly made his mark as a prodigious, forward-thinking talent.

At just 27 years old, Berlioz was already breaking new ground, dazzling audiences with an epic masterpiece called Symphonie fantastique (1830). This five-part program, which told the tragic story of a gifted artist driven to suicide over lost love, required 90 instruments—the most of any symphony at the time.

The piece proved wildly popular with European audiences. Its performances drew the attendance of literary and musical greats like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Niccolo Paganini. 

Still, in spite of his artistic success, Berlioz couldn’t resist the pull of the analytical inclinations fostered by his father; a trait rather rare among artists. 

It was plain that he was doing something right as a composer, but what? The scholar in him had to know.

Combining science and art

Determined to merge the scientist with the artist, Berlioz began writing articles for musical journals—essays that probed his own symphonies as well as those of Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. These critiques discussed style and instrumentation in order to better understand the makeup of an orchestra.

In 1844, he published a revised compilation of these articles called Treatise on Instrumentation, in which he offered a technical analysis of Western musical instruments and their uses in popular works. Berlioz examined the tonal quality, chromatic range, and limitations of every instrument in a symphony orchestra: strings, keyboards, winds, brass, percussion, the human voice, even new instruments like the saxophone and concertina. 

The book became a bible for serious composers—Mussorgsky, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mahler numbering among those who studied it carefully. 

Contrary to his father’s opinion that medicine was the only worthy career choice, Berlioz had done quite well with music. Almost 150 years after his death, his symphonies remain staples in orchestral programs around the world and his texts a wealth of knowledge for up-and-coming composers.

Indeed, Berlioz knew that he had contributed a great deal to his art, which might explain, as he put it, why a “lack of modesty [was] one of [his] failings.”