The life of Berlioz is the stuff of romantic legend. Obsession, infatuation, romance, jealousy, murder and brilliantly emotive music, Berlioz was seen in his time as the heir to Beethoven’s legacy and the future of music. As well as his compositions, he was an immensely respected critic and musical theorist, with his Treatise on Orchestration in particular arguably changing the course of classical music.
Originally trained in medicine, he abandoned his studies after witnessing the dissection of a cadaver, horrifying him to his very core. Shortly after, he attended the Paris Conservatoire and studied composition, simultaneously entering for the coveted Prix de Rome (essentially a scholarship). He became obsessed with winning the accolade and entered a new piece each year until he was finally awarded first prize, at his fourth attempt. As he was about to enter his piece to the competition, the revolution broke out, and in a typically romantic statement, Berlioz wrote that he dashed off his work whilst listening to the ricochet of bullets on his wall, then roamed around Paris “Pistol in hand”. Further example of the composer’s melodramatic life lay in his first performance at the Paris Opera; his overture to The Tempest received almost no audience due to a sudden, and highly ironic, rainstorm over the city.
Berlioz fell in love with Harriet Smithson, after seeing her in two productions of Shakespeare plays. His infatuation manifested itself with numerous passionate letters to her. She refused his advances. Despite being wildly obsessed with Ms Smithson, Berlioz became engaged to another woman - Camille Moke. This leads to possibly one of the most bizarre stories in the history of classical music. Berlioz received a letter from Moke’s mother stating that her daughter had decided to marry another man from the piano manufacturing family, Pleyel. The irate composer therefore decided to murder both his fiancée, her mother and the other prospective husband, constructing a plan involving disguising himself as a woman (using a dress, veil and hat), then shooting all three of them, plus himself. Just in case, he also purchased poison as a failsafe. Unfortunately for Berlioz, he managed to misplace his costume, and after careful consideration, decided to abandon his scheme.
By far his most popular work is the magnificent Symphonie Fantastique, a piece of programmatic music telling the story of a lone artist and unrequited love. Despite its obvious sentimentality and melodrama, it remains an absolute pillar of a work within the context of early romanticism in music. This, Harold in Italy and the Requiem are the most performed of Berlioz’s works.
Symphonie Fantastique, Requiem
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