Berlioz--France's Musical Madman


His most famous composition describes a love-struck opium user's psychedelic trip into a world of witches, swirling ballrooms and an imagined execution by guillotine. But Hector Berlioz's fabulous “Symphonie fantastique” is just one work from a gifted 19th-Century composer who penned some of the concert hall's most explosive works. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample his colorful music and discover his even more colorful life (hint: Guess who that opium user was!).


It's not true that every 19th-Century European artist tended to be over-emotional. But it does seem that way. Novels, poems, paintings, plays and operas of the Romantic Era all seemed to wallow in the deepest of human emotions. Most likely, it was a reaction against the refined elegance and repressed feelings of the late 18th Century. Inspired by the music of Beethoven and the writings of the German master Johann Goethe, creative individuals tried to outdo each other with heart-wrenching stories and passionate musical works for the stage and the concert hall. And so, we come to Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Blessed with a wild head of hair and a wildly brilliant musical talent, he quickly became the talk of Paris (which just loved to gossip about people in those cafés on the Champs Elysees). He was born in the countryside near Grenoble and planned to enter a medical career, enrolling in a Paris school where he was totally unhappy. Exposed to the lively musical scene in that city, he soon began studies at the Paris Conservatory. Finally finding his place in the world, Berlioz quickly absorbed all that his teachers could impart, and began composing music. Fascinated with the theater, he wrote colorful orchestral overtures for the stage and concert hall in 1826, achieving some good reviews. But it was the following year that his life – and his music – would change dramatically. He attended performances by a Shakespeare company from England, and fell madly in love with the star actress, Harriet Smithson. She had won cheers for her Ophelia and Juliet, and Berlioz was determined to win her over. Harriet was not impressed by this impassioned, freakish-looking young man (a dramatist name Ernest Legouvé described his untamed hair as “an enormous umbrella, projecting something like a moveable awning over a beak of a bird of prey.”). But the young man in love pressed on, unwittingly pushing Smithson even further away. His friend Robert Schumann observed, “what he loves, he almost crushes in his fervor.” Inspired by Smithson and shaken by her rebuffs, Berlioz poured his frustration into a work that would bring him immortality – the Symphonie fantastique. Described as a journey taken by “an artist” (Berlioz, of course) who attempts to end his life over an unrequited love by ingesting opium. Instead of dying, he experiences a series of hallucinations, each described in five colorful movements – each one built around a theme (an idée fixe) representing his beloved. It was a smash, and when Smithson finally heard the piece and realized what a genius Berlioz was, she agreed to a marriage in 1833. Big mistake – they endured several years of unrelenting unhappiness, until finally separating after nine horrid years together (by then, Berlioz had taken a lover, whom he'd later marry). In the music world, however, he enjoyed great success, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1830, enjoying many triumphs as a gifted conductor and composer. He also showed talent as a journalist, contributing numerous critical reviews to Paris newspapers. He composed several operas, but only a few survived. His skills as an orchestrator were evident in many of his colorful symphonic works, such as the Roman Carnival concert overture, and his sublime and strikingly original dramatic works, Harold in Italy (a sort of viola concerto), Romeo et Juliet, Le Damnation de Faust and two extraordinary pieces with religious themes: an enormous Requiem and a sublimely lovely L'Enfance du Christ.  Known for his huge orchestras that produced a deafening sound, Berlioz defended his love of the spectacular: “Vulgar prejudice calls large orchestras noisy, but if they are well-balanced, well-trained and well-led … they should rather be called powerful.” No argument there.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were some of Berlioz's famous musical friends?
  • What is the connection between his opera Benvenuto Cellini and his Roman Carnival overture?
  • Can you name some late-19th Century composers who were influenced by Berlioz?
  • What was the sequel to the Symphonie fantastique?

Reflective Questions

  • Contrast the unbridled passion of Berlioz's music with his contemporaries.
  • Do you find that a little Berlioz goes a long way? Or do you love Big Sounds?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Macdonald, Hugh. Berlioz (Master Musicians Series). Oxford University Press. 2001. 280 pages. Highly readable, containing examinations of the music and of the man's fascinating life.
    Click here to order