b. La Côte Saint-André, France, 11 December 1803; d. Paris, 8 March 1869
The most self-consciously Romantic of all Romantic composers, and author of one of the most entertaining if unreliable autobiographies ever published, Berlioz was also a serious and discriminating musician with a unique ear for orchestral sounds and an inspiring theatrical imagination.
Unlike most other musical giants, Berlioz never learnt the piano or violin as a child – both were forbidden by his surgeon father – though he later developed an enthusiasm for the flute and guitar. Since his father insisted that he pursue a medical career, Berlioz enrolled at the Paris medical school, but he began to take private music lessons in 1822 and four years later abandoned medicine and entered the Conservatoire, where he developed at a bewildering speed.
In 1827 his life was changed by seeing a performance of Hamlet: though he spoke no English, the play struck him ‘like a thunderbolt’. It was the start of a lifelong addiction to Shakespeare and an equally intense passion for the Irish leading lady, Harriet Smithson, who inspired his first great orchestral work, the Symphonie fantastique of 1830, and whom he married in 1833, though they separated just eight years later.
Based on the autobiography of the great Renaissance sculptor and braggart, Berlioz’s first completed opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was accepted, against all the odds, by the Paris Opéra but its 1838 premiere proved a highly publicised failure. Berlioz called his next dramatic work, The Damnation of Faust, an ‘opéra de concert’ – that is, an opera for the concert hall rather than the stage, although it has in fact been staged more often than any of his ‘real’ operas. Buoyed by its relative success, Berlioz decided to have another go at a full-blown opera: the grandest French opera ever written, The Trojans could hardly have been more full-blown and was never performed complete during Berlioz’s lifetime.
Though the effort of writing The Trojans nearly killed him, within another two years Berlioz had begun a comic opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Premiered in Baden-Baden in 1862, Beatrice and Benedict didn’t reach Paris until 21 years after his death.
His last seven years were overshadowed by illness, despair and resentment at his country’s inability or unwillingness to recognise his talent. This critical alienation continued after his death, and even today Berlioz is sometimes dismissed as a megalomaniac whose large-scale structures are often uneven and who relies too heavily on shock tactics. Yet, judged on the merits of their parts, Berlioz’s operas are among the finest of the 19th century: his orchestration is the work of a magician, his melodies are frequently captivating, and many of his arias and ensembles are among the finest in French opera.
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