Music History 102

The Romantic Era

Hector Berlioz

Born: La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, December 11, 1803

Died: Paris, March 8, 1869

portrait of Berlioz

Sent to Paris by his father to study medicine, Berlioz instead studied music, supporting himself by writing about music and giving lessons. Berlioz may well have been the first great composer to not be able to play a musical instrument, nor to have shown any musical talent at an early age. But he perservered, and became interested in the vast possibilities of orchestration and the different combinations of instrumental sounds. In 1844, he wrote a book on orchestration (Traite de l’Instrumentation – Treatise on Orchestration), which is still widely regarded as one of the best in the field. Berlioz’ advances in this area contributed greatly to the growth and development of the modern symphony orchestra.

In 1830, only three years after the death of Beethoven, Berlioz composed his most famous work, the programmatic Symphonie fantastique. Having an autobiographical basis, the piece is a highly romantic program symphony in five movements, the story of which tells of an artist who, unhappy in love, takes an overdose of opium and dreams of his own passions and desires, his beloved, her murder, and his own death. Berlioz had seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson perform in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and had fallen passionately, even hysterically in love with her. He intended to immortalize his love in music with his symphonie. The artist’s beloved is represented throughout the work by a melodic motif known as the idée fixe, a device which serves to unify the disparate elements of the symphony. The fourth movement is entitled “March to the Scaffold,” and depicts the protagonist’s dream of his own execution for having killed his faithless beloved. The symphony was wildly successful at its premiere, and made a name for its young composer, if not a fortune.

Portrait of Berlioz and musicians

Berlioz’ remarkable gift for orchestration resulted in sounds never before heard from a symphony orchestra. Greatly criticized during his lifetime for his orchestral extravagance, the brilliance and overwhelming effect of such instrumental excerpts as the Rakoczy March from the dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust and the Royal Hunt and Storm from Berlioz’ immense grand opera Les Troyens (The Trojans), have earned Berlioz lasting fame as a composer who was definitely ahead of his time. His theories and creative use of the symphony orchestra influenced such composers as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, but his greatness was not clearly recognized in his own country until the advent of the French composers of the late nineteenth century.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane