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Berlioz, Hector (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz

born: 11 December 1803
died: 8 March 1869
country: France

Hector Berlioz was born in south-east France in 1803. At the age of 17 he was sent to Paris to study medicine, but after a year of medical studies became a pupil of the composer Jean-François Le Sueur. In 1826 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, winning the Prix de Rome four years later. Though Gluck and Spontini were important early influences, it was the discovery of Beethoven in 1828 that was the decisive event in his apprenticeship.

His first fully characteristic large-scale work, the autobiographical Symphonie fantastique, followed in 1830, and the next two decades saw a series of major works: Harold en Italie (1834), Benvenuto Cellini (1838), the Grande Messe des morts (1837), the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840), and Les nuits d’été (1841). Some were well-received, but quite early on he began to supplement his income by becoming a prolific and influential critic.

The 1840s were largely spent taking his music abroad and establishing a reputation as one of the leading composers and conductors of the day. These years of travel produced much less music, but in 1854 the success of L’enfance du Christ encouraged him to embark on a project long resisted: the composition of an epic opera on the Aeneid which would assuage a lifelong passion and pay homage to two great idols, Virgil and Shakespeare.

Although Béatrice et Bénédict (1860–62), the comic opera after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, came later, Les Troyens (1856–58) was the culmination of his career. It was also the cause of his final disillusionment and the reason, together with increasing ill-health, why he wrote nothing of consequence in the remaining six years of his life.

from notes by David Cairns © 2012

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