Hector Berlioz

1803–1869

Romantic

Hector Berlioz was a French composer of the early Romantic Era. His Symphonie fantastique is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, and his ideas on composition and instrumentation were very influential. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner were two composers who owed much to him (although Wagner didn’t really like to admit it). He was considered to be very progressive in his day, and he never did anything by halves. He loved making music that was really loud, sometimes having as many as a thousand people in his choir and orchestra. Besides the standard orchestra and choir, his Grande Messe des morts calls for four off-stage brass bands and ten timpani players – just think how thunderous that is when it’s performed! It’s very powerful.

Berlioz was a very emotional man, often falling desperately in love with women who didn’t love him back. He got engaged to one of them, but after she called it off while he was away in Italy he started plotting his revenge. Fortunately, on the way to France, he realised that revenge is never a good thing, and he changed his mind. He ended up marrying twice after that.

Berlioz was often not happy with how other people conducted his music, so he preferred to conduct it himself. In fact, he was just as popular for his conducting as he was for his composing.

Niccolò Paganini, one of the most famous violinists of all time – and a massive show-off – asked Berlioz to compose a viola concerto for him. Paganini saw the early version of it and rejected it because it wasn’t flashy enough, but Berlioz finished it anyway, calling it Harold en Italie (‘Harold in Italy’). Paganini attended a performance, and at the end he was so blown away by it that he knelt before Berlioz on stage and called him the heir to Beethoven; then he gave him a huge sum of money!

Hector Berlioz, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Pick a piece by Berlioz.

Symphonie fantastique (Fantastical Symphony), Op. 14: V. Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

This vivid, pictorial work is extremely famous. Berlioz is telling a story about a young man going through an extremely turbulent period. What do you think is happening to him?

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Pinchas Steinberg

Taken from Naxos 8.550093

Les Nuits d’été (The Nights of Summer), Op. 7: La spectre de la rose (The spectre of the rose)

This song comes from a cycle of six songs, setting poems by Théophile Gautier. It’s very romantic and sad – all about a girl mourning a rose.

Performers: Elsa Maurus, mezzo-soprano; Lille National Orchestra; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557274

Harold en Italie (Harold in Italy), Op. 16: III. Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abruzzes à sa maîtresse (Serenade of a Highlander to his Mistress)

Lord Byron’s huge poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is about a sad, tired young man and his travels as he searches for more in life. Berlioz wanted the viola in Harold in Italy to have the same melancholy character. It was written for the brilliant violinist Paganini.

Performers: Lise Berthaud, viola; Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.573297

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which composer did Berlioz call a ‘terrifying giant’?

a. Beethoven
b. Wagner
c. Handel

 How many times did Berlioz get married?

a. Four
b. Three
c. Two

 Which instrument did Berlioz not play very well?

a. Flageolet
b. Piano
c. Guitar

 How old was Berlioz by the time he learned to read Latin fluently?

a. 60
b. 17
c. 12

 What subject did Berlioz originally come to Paris to study?

a. Basket-weaving
b. Medicine
c. Music


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Berlioz was originally sent to Paris to study medicine, but ended up getting side-tracked by music.
  2. Berlioz’s music is very vivid, and often tells a story – that’s called ‘programmatic’ or ‘programme’ music.
  3. Berlioz loved Shakespeare. In fact, he learned English so that he could read Shakespeare’s plays in the original language!
  4. Berlioz won the Prix de Rome – Europe’s biggest composition prize – in 1830, and the time he spent in Italy inspired many of his works.
  5. Berlioz was also a well-known music critic, and he used his writing to earn a bit more money throughout his life.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Telling Stories


Symphonie fantastique (‘Fantastical Symphony’)

This vivid, pictorial work is extremely famous. Berlioz is telling a story about a young man going through an extremely turbulent period. He is in despair that the person he loves doesn’t love him back. These pieces describe his imagination and how he copes with this.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Pinchas Steinberg

Taken from Naxos 8.550093


Le Damnation de Faust (‘The Damnation of Faust’) (excerpt)

Berlioz called this long piece based on Goethe’s Faust a ‘légende dramatique’ (dramatic legend). He loved making up new forms. It’s part opera, part symphony!

Performers: Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.660116-17


Roméo et Juliette (‘Romeo and Juliet’), Op. 17 (excerpts)

Berlioz called this piece, based on Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, a ‘symphonie dramatique’ (dramatic symphony). It’s orchestral, but also features voices (a choir) that tell a story.

Performers: San Diego Master Chorale; San Diego Symphony Orchestra; Yoav Talmi

Taken from Naxos 8.553195


Les Troyens à Carthage (‘The Trojans at Carthage’) (excerpts)

The Trojans at Carthage is an opera – a huge ‘grand opera’, to be precise! It’s got five acts (which means it’s long!), and is based on a classical text: Virgil’s Aeneid. Berlioz loved literature and had long admired Virgil. This big work was a huge achievement, which he completed in 1858. He was very happy with it. Here are two excerpts – in the second one, listen to the powerful entry of the chorus of voices at 6:44 for the ‘Storm’.

Performers: San Diego Symphony Orchestra; Yoav Talmi

Taken from Naxos 8.553195

Songs and Choral Works


Les Nuits d’été (‘The Nights of Summer’), Op. 7

This is a cycle of six songs, setting poems by Théophile Gautier. First of all Berlioz wrote it for voice and piano, but then he expanded the piano into a whole orchestra. It is all about love – from start to finish!

Performers: Elsa Maurus, mezzo-soprano; Lille National Orchestra, Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557274


L’Enfance du Christ, Op. 25 (excerpts)

Berlioz began this by composing a section of it on the corner of a table at a party! When that was performed, people liked it. So Berlioz wrote some more. The whole dramatic oratorio (a work for chorus and orchestra on a religious subject) is based on the Biblical story of the Holy Family’s escape from King Herod. It is in three parts and you can hear Part 2 here – when Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt.

Performers: Michèle Lagrange, soprano (Mary); Michel Piquemal, baritone (Joseph); Fernand Bernardi, bass (Herod); Antoine Garcin, baritone (Father of the family of Ishmaelites); Étienne Vandier, tenor (A Centurion); Jean-Louis Serre, baritone (Polydorus); Jean-Luc Viala, narrator; Chœur Régional Vittoria de l’Île-de-France; Maîtrise de Radio France; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.553650-51


La Mort de Sardanapale (‘The Death of Sardanapalus’)

Berlioz tried four times to win the top prize at the Prix de Rome (the most prestigious composition prize of his day), finally succeeding with this emotional cantata. Sardanapalus was a lazy king who probably lived in the 7th century BC in the ancient kingdom of Assyria. He liked to party a bit too much, and ended his life surrounded by enemies.

Performers: Daniel Galvez Vallejo, tenor; Chœur Régional Nord/Pas-de-Calais; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.555810


Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5, ‘Requiem’ (excerpts)

Berlioz’s Requiem – a Mass for the dead – has always been one of his most popular and successful works. With its huge orchestra, plus four off-stage brass groups, it is thrilling partly just for the noise it makes! Listen to the music build at 5:00 in the Dies irae (Day of Judgement), as the brass really gets going and the tenors and basses of the choir burst in at 5:12 with ‘Tuba, mirum spargens sonum’ (‘The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound’).

Performers: Michael Schade, tenor; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir; Elora Festival Orchestra; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.554494-95

Overtures


Le Carnaval romain, ouverture (‘Roman Carnival, Overture’), Op. 9

Although Berlioz called this an ‘overture’ – suggesting that it was meant to introduce something – it was a piece that stood all by itself. It didn’t introduce anything else. It uses themes from his opera Benvenuto Cellini and has a famous solo for the cor anglais (a deep-voiced oboe): listen from 0:24 to 1:24 to hear this rich woodwind sound. At 3:42 you can hear the carnival start get going!

Performers: Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550231


Le Roi Lear (‘King Lear’), Op. 4

Berlioz loved Shakespeare, and this overture is based on the Bard’s famous tragedy King Lear. It was first performed in 1833.

Performers: Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550231


Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23: Overture

This overture actually is an overture – i.e. an introduction – to Berlioz’s opera of the same name, about the irascible Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini.

Performers: Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550231


Le Corsaire (‘The Corsair’), Op. 21

Written in 1844, this might be Berlioz’s most famous overture. Berlioz was indecisive and kept giving it different titles – Le Corsaire was actually his third choice. A corsair was a pirate or a privateer (private person or ship given permission to fight against other ships at sea, in a wartime situation).

Performers: Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550231

Instrumental Challenges


Harold en Italie (‘Harold in Italy’), Op. 16

Lord Byron’s huge poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is about a sad, tired young man and his travels as he searches for more in life. Berlioz wanted the solo viola in his Harold in Italy to have the same melancholy character. The brilliant violinist Paganini asked Berlioz to write it: he had got a viola as well as a violin, but not much music to play on it. Actually Paganini was disappointed when he saw his part – he thought it wasn’t making him important enough, so he walked off. When he eventually heard somebody else play the piece, he thought it was brilliant!

Performers: Lise Berthaud, viola; Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.573297


Rêverie et Caprice, Op. 8

This difficult work for violin and orchestra became hugely popular with contemporary virtuosos, including Joseph Joachim and Ferdinand David.

Performers: Giovanni Radivo, violin; Orchestre National de Lille; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.573297


L’Enfance du Christ, Op. 25: Trio

Originally from a much larger work, this beautiful flute-and-harp trio has become a popular stand-alone performance piece.

Performers: Claudi Arimany, flute; Marc Grauwels, flute; Annie Lavoisier, harp; Waterloo Chamber Orchestra; Ulysse Waterlot

Taken from Naxos 8.555954