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Berlioz, (Louis-) Hector

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Berlioz, (Louis-) Hector, great French composer who exercised profound influence on the course of modern music in the direction of sonorous grandiosity, and propagated the Romantic ideal of program music, unifying it with literature; b. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, Dec. 11, 1803; d.Paris, March 8, 1869. His father was a medical doctor who possessed musical inclinations. Under his guidance, Berlioz learned to play the flute, and later took up the guitar; however, he never became an experienced performer on any instrument. Following his father’s desire that he study medicine, he went to Paris, where he entered the École de Médecine; at the same time, he began taking private lessons in composition from Jean François Le Sueur. In 1824 he abandoned his medical studies to dedicate himself entirely to composition; his first important work was a Messe solennelle , which was performed at a Paris church on July 10, 1825; he then wrote an instrumental work entitled La Révolution grecque , inspired by the revolutionary uprising in Greece against the Ottoman domination. He was 22 years old when he entered the Paris Cons, as a pupil of his first music teacher, Le Sueur, in composition, and of Anton Reicha in counterpoint and fugue. In 1826 Berlioz wrote an opera, Les Francs- juges , which never came to a complete performance. In 1827 he submitted his cantata La Mort d’Orphée for the Prix de Rome, but it was rejected. On May 26, 1828, he presented a concert of his works at the Paris Cons., including the Resurrexit from the Messe solennelle, La Révolution grecque , and the overtures Les Francsjuges and Waverley . Also in 1828 he won the second prize of the Prix de Rome with his cantata Herminie . In 1828-29 he wrote Huit scenes de Faust , after Goethe; this was the score that was eventually revised and produced as La Damnation de Faust . In 1829 he applied for the Prix de Rome once more with the score of La Mort de Cléopâtre , but no awards were given that year. He finally succeeded in winning the 1 st Prix de Rome with La Mort de Sardanapale; it was performed in Paris on Oct. 30, 1830. In the meantime, Berlioz allowed himself to be passionately infatuated with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson after he attended her performance as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet , given by a British drama troupe in Paris on Sept. 11, 1827. He knew no English and Miss Smithson spoke no French; he made no effort to engage her attention personally; conveniently, he found a surrogate for his passion in the person of Camille Moke, a young pianist. Romantically absorbed in the ideal of love through music, Berlioz began to write his most ambitious and, as time and history proved, his most enduring work, which he titled Symphonie fantastique; it was to be an offering of adoration and devotion to Miss Smithson. Rather than follow the formal subdivisions of a sym., Berlioz decided to integrate the music through a recurring unifying theme, which he called an idée fixe , appearing in various guises through the movements of the Symphonie fantastique . To point out the personal nature of the work he subtitled it “Épisode de la vie d’un artiste.” The artist of the title was Berlioz himself, so that in a way the sym. became a musical autobiography. The 5 divisions of the score are: I. Reveries, Passions; IL A Ball; III. Scene in the Fields; IV. March to the Scaffold; V. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath . Berlioz supplied a literary program to the music: a “young musician of morbid sensibilities” takes opium to find surcease from amorous madness. Berlioz himself, be it noted, never smoked opium, but this hallucinogenic substance was in vogue at the time, and was the subject of several mystic novels and pseudo-scientific essays. In the Symphonie fantastique the object of the hero’s passion haunts him through the device of the idée fixe; she appears first as an entrancing, but unattainable, vision; as an enticing dancer at a ball; then as a deceptive pastoral image. He penetrates her disguise and kills her, a crime for which he is led to the gallows. At the end she reveals herself as a wicked witch at a Sabbath orgy. The fantastic program design does not interfere, however, with an orderly organization of the score, and the wild fervor of the music is astutely subordinated to the symphonic form. The idée fixe itself serves merely as a recurring motif, not unlike similar musical reminiscences in Classical syms. Interestingly enough, in the March to the Scaffold Berlioz makes use of a section from his earlier score Les Francsjuges , and merely inserts into it a few bars of the idée fixe to justify the incorporation of unrelated musical material. No matter; Symphonie fantastique with or without Miss Smithson, with or without the idee fixe, emerges as a magnificent tapestry of sound; its unflagging popularity for a century and a half since its composition testifies to its evocative power. The work was first performed at the Paris Cons, on Dec. 5, 1830, with considerable success, although the Cons.‘s director, the strict perfectionist Cherubini, who failed to attend the performance, spoke disdainfully of it from a cursory examination of the score. Nor did Miss Smithson herself grace the occasion by her physical presence. Incongruously, the publ. score of the Symphonie fantastique is dedicated to the stern Russian czar Nicholas I. That this apotheosis of passionate love should have been inscribed to one of Russia’s most unpleasant czars is explained by the fact that Berlioz had been well received in Russia in 1847. Berlioz followed the Symphonie fantastique with a sequel entitled Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vie , purported to signalize the hero’s renunciation of his morbid obsessions. Both works were performed at a single concert in Paris on Dec. 9, 1832, and this time La Smithson made her appearance. A most remarkable encounter followed between them; as if to prove the romantic notion of the potency of music as an aid to courtship, Berlioz and Smithson soon became emotionally involved, and they were married on Oct. 3, 1833. Alas, their marriage proved less enduring than the music that fostered their romance. Smithson broke a leg (on March 16, 1833) even before the marriage ceremony; and throughout their life together she was beset by debilitating illnesses. They had a son, who died young. Berlioz found for himself a more convenient woman companion, one Maria Recio, whom he married shortly after Smithson’s death in 1854. Berlioz survived his second wife, too; she died in 1862.

Whatever the peripeteias of his personal life, Berlioz never lost the lust for music. During his stay in Italy, following his reception of the Prix de Rome, he produced the overtures Le Roi Lear (1831) and Rob Roy (1831). His next important work was Harold en Italie , for the very unusual setting of a solo viola with orch.; it was commissioned by Paganini (although never performed by him), and was inspired by Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold . It was first performed in Paris on Nov. 23, 1834. Berlioz followed it with an opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1834–37), which had its first performance at the Paris Opéra on Sept. 10, 1838. It was not successful, and Berlioz revised the score; the new version had its first performance in Weimar in 1852, conducted by Liszt. About the same time, Berlioz became engaged in writing musical essays; from 1833 to 1863 he served as music critic for the Journal des Débats; in 1834 he began to write for the Gazette Musicale . In 1835 he entered a career as conductor. In 1837 he received a government commission to compose the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) , for which he demanded a huge chorus. The work was first performed at a dress rehearsal in Paris on Dec. 4, 1837, with the public performance following the next day. On Dec. 16, 1838, Berlioz conducted a successful concert of his works in Paris; the legend has it that Paganini came forth after the concert and knelt in homage to Berlioz; if sources (including Berlioz himself) are to be trusted, Paganini subsequently gave Berlioz the sum of 20, 000 francs. In 1839 Berlioz was named asst. librarian of the Paris Cons, and was awarded the Order of the Légion d’Honneur. On Nov. 24, 1839, Berlioz conducted, in Paris, the first performance of his dramatic sym. Roméo et Juliette , after Shakespeare; the work is regarded as one of the most moving lyrical invocations of Shakespeare’s tragedy, rich in melodic invention and instrumental interplay. In 1840 Berlioz received another government commission to write a Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale . This work gave Berlioz a clear imperative to build a sonorous edifice of what he imagined to be an architecture of sounds. The work was to commemorate the soldiers fallen in the fight for Algeria, and if contemporary reports can be taken literally, he conducted it with a drawn sword through the streets of Paris, accompanying the ashes of the military heroes to their interment in the Bastille column. The spirit of grandiosity took possession of Berlioz. At a concert after the Exhibition of Industrial Products in 1844 in Paris he conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Sym. with 36 double basses, Weber’s Freischütz Overture with 24 French horns, and the Prayer of Moses from Rossini’s opera with 25 harps. He boasted that his 1, 022 performers achieved an ensemble worthy of the finest string quartet. For his grandiose L’Impériale , written to celebrate the distribution of prizes by Napoleon III at the Paris Exhibition of Industrial Products in 1855, Berlioz had 1, 200 performers, augmented by huge choruses and a military band. As if anticipating the modus operandi of a century thence, Berlioz installed 5 subcon-ductors and, to keep them in line, activated an “electric metronome” with his left hand while holding the conducting baton in his right. And it was probably at Berlioz’s suggestion that Vuillaume constructed a monstrous Octo-bass, a double bass 10 feet high, for use in a huge orch.; it was, however, never actually employed. Such indulgences generated a chorus of derision on the part of classical musicians and skeptical music critics; caricatures represented Berlioz as a madman commanding a heterogeneous mass of instrumentalists and singers driven to distraction by the music. Berlioz deeply resented these attacks and bitterly complained to friends about the lack of a congenial artistic environment in Paris.

But whatever obloquy he suffered, he also found satisfaction in the pervading influence he had on his contemporaries, among them Wagner, Liszt, and the Russian school of composers. Indeed, his grandiosity had gradually attained true grandeur; he no longer needed huge ensembles to exercise the magic of his music. In 1844 he wrote the overture Le Carnaval romain , partially based on music from his unsuccessful opera Benvenuto Cellini . There followed the overture La Tour de Nice (later rev. under the title Le Corsaire) . In 1845 he undertook the revision of his early score after Goethe, which now assumed the form of a dramatic legend entitled La Damnation de Faust . The score included the Marche hongroise , in which Berlioz took the liberty of conveying Goethe’s Faust to Hungary. The march became extremely popular as a separate concert number. In 1847 Berlioz undertook a highly successful tour to Russia, and in the following year he traveled to England. In 1849 he composed his grand Te Deum; he conducted its first performance in Paris on April 28, 1855, at a dress rehearsal; it was given a public performance two days later, with excellent success. In 1852 he traveled to Weimar at the invitation of Liszt, who organized a festival of Berlioz’s music. Between 1850 and 1854 he wrote the oratorio L’Enfance du Christ; he conducted it in Paris on Dec. 10, 1854. Although Berlioz was never able to achieve popular success with his operatic productions, he turned to composing stage music once more between 1856 and 1860. For the subject he selected the great epic of Virgil relating to the Trojan War; the title was to be Les Troy ens . He encountered difficulties in producing this opera in its entirety, and in 1863 divided the score into two sections: La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage . Only the second part was produced in his lifetime; it received its premiere at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris on Nov. 4, 1863; the opera had 22 performances, and the financial returns made it possible for Berlioz to abandon his occupation as a newspaper music critic. His next operatic project was Béatrice et Benedict , after Shakespeare’s play Much Ado about Nothing . He conducted its first performance in Baden-Baden on Aug. 9, 1862. Despite frail health and a state of depression generated by his imaginary failure as composer and conductor in France, he achieved a series of successes abroad. He conducted La Damnation de Faust in Vienna in 1866, and he went to Russia during the 1867-68 season. There he had a most enthusiastic reception among Russian musicians, who welcomed him as a true prophet of the new era in music.

Posthumous recognition came slowly to Berlioz; long after his death some conservative critics still referred to his music as bizarre and willfully dissonant. No cult comparable to the ones around the names of Wagner and Liszt was formed to glorify Berlioz’s legacy. Of his works only the overtures and the Symphonie fantastique are accorded frequent hearings. His Requiem stands as one of the greatest scores of its kind, but its demands on performers renders it a work generally reserved for special occasions. Performances of his operas are infrequent.

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