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

French composer Hector Berlioz was born to a physician father. Although his interest in music was nurtured in the initial years, his path was always set to be in the field of medicine. And while he was 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 or have shown any musical talent at an early age. But he persevered, 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. His affinity to bold notes and uneven phrase lengths are to be credited for this. Although he was 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 last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, which was based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, was largely successful when it premiered but didn’t make it to the usual operatic repertoire as the others. 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.


  • Where was Berlioz born?

Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André in southeastern France on December 11, 1803.

  • Was Hector Berlioz married?

Yes, Hector Berlioz was married twice. His first wife was Harriet Smithson, whom he had seen as Ophelia in a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He immediately fell passionately in love with her, and pursued her for years. One of the results of his intense passion is his Symphonie Fantastique. Smithson herself rejected and avoided his advances until she attended a performance of his Lélio. They married in 1833.

However, the marriage was not a happy one, and Smithson left in 1843. Berlioz then married opera singer Marie Recio.

  • When did Berlioz die?

Hector Berlioz died in Paris on March 8, 1869, at the age of 65.

Related Resources

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

Robert Sherrane