Hector Berlioz

Biography

Born: 1803   Died: 1869   Country: France   Period: Romantic
Berlioz, the passionate, ardent, irrepressible genius of French Romanticism, left a rich and original oeuvre which exerted a profound influence on nineteenth century music. Berlioz developed a profound affinity toward music and literature as a child. Sent to Paris at 17 to study medicine, he was enchanted by Gluck's operas, firmly deciding to become a composer. With his father's reluctant consent, Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1826. Read more His originality was already apparent and disconcerting -- a competition cantata, Cléopâtre (1829), looms as his first sustained masterpiece -- and he won the Prix de Rome in 1830 amid the turmoil of the July Revolution. Meanwhile, a performance of Hamlet in September 1827, with Harriet Smithson as Ophelia, provoked an overwhelming but unrequited passion, whose aftermath may be heard in the Symphonie fantastique (1830).

Returning from Rome, Berlioz organized a concert in 1832, featuring his symphony. Harriet Smithson was in the audience. They were introduced days later and married on October 3, 1833.

Berlioz settled into a career pattern which he maintained for more than a decade, writing reviews, organizing concerts, and composing a series of visionary masterpieces: Harold en Italie (1834), the monumental Requiem (1837), and an opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1838), a crushing fiasco. At year's end, the dying Paganini made Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs, enabling him to devote nearly a year to the composition of his "dramatic symphony," Roméo et Juliette (1839). And then, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the July Revolution, came the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840).

Iridescently scored, an exquisite collection of six Gautier settings, Les nuits d'été, opened the new decade. This was a difficult time for Berlioz, as his marriage failed to bring him the happiness he desired. Concert tours to Brussels, many German cities, Vienna, Pesth, Prague, and London occupied him through most of the 1840s. He composed La Damnation de Faust, en route, offering the new work to a half-empty house in Paris, December 6, 1846. Expenses were catastrophic, and only a successful concert tour to St. Petersburg saved him.

He sat out the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 in London, returning to Paris in July. The massive Te Deum -- a "little brother" to the Requiem -- was largely composed over 1849, though it would not be heard until 1855. L'Enfance du Christ, scored an immediate and enduring success from its first performance on December 10, 1854. Elected to the Institut de France in 1855, he started receiving a members' stipend, and this provided him with a modicum of financial security. Consequently, Berlioz was able to devote himself to the summa of his career, his vast opera, Les Troyens, based on Virgil's Aeneid, the Roman poet's unfinished epic masterpiece. The opera was completed in 1858. As he negotiated for its performance, he composed a comique adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which met with a rapturous Baden première, on August 9, 1862. Unfortunately, only the third, fourth, and fifth acts of Les Troyens were mounted by the Théatre-Lyrique, a successful premiere, on November 4, 1863, and a run of 21 performances notwithstanding. This lopsided production stemmed from a compromise (bitterly regretted by the composer) that Berlioz had made with the Théâtre-Lyrique.

Though frail and ailing, Berlioz conducted his works in Vienna and Cologne in 1866, traveling to St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1867-1868. Despondent and tortured by self-doubt, the composer received a triumphant welcome in Russia. Back in Paris in March 1868, he was but a walking shadow as paralysis slowly overcame him. Read less
Berlioz: Overtures / Andrew Davis, Bergen Philharmonic
Release Date: 02/26/2013   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5118   Number of Discs: 1
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Spirit Of Scotland - Berlioz, MacCunn, Arnold, Etc
Release Date: 04/24/2007   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10412   Number of Discs: 1
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Berlioz: Romeo & Juliette
Release Date: 03/11/2014   Label: Carlos Paita Edition  
Catalog: 801   Number of Discs: 2
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Berlioz: 5 Overtures / Gibson, Scottish National Orchestra
Release Date: 10/09/1992   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 8316   Number of Discs: 1
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French Wind Band Classics - Berlioz, Et Al / Reynish, Royal Northern College Of Music
Release Date: 01/23/2001   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9897   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: La damnation de Faust, Op. 24: Rákóczy March

 

About This Work
At the beginning of 1846, Berlioz was in Vienna. Following a farewell concert on January 11th, with the virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst taking the viola solo in Harold en Italie, the intendant of the Hungarian National Theater, Count Ráday, Read more suggested to Berlioz that if he wished to score a success in Pesth, which Berlioz was to visit, he should arrange the national Hungarian air, Rákóczy-induló, or Rákóczy march. Locked into the forced marriage of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungarians were seething with anti-Austrian sentiment, and Berlioz was, after all, from a nation which had seen two revolutions within living memory and was, moreover, widely regarded -- if in a somewhat different sense -- as the most revolutionary of living composers.

He sketched the march the evening before leaving Vienna and completed it upon his arrival in Pesth. It was included in his first concert there, given on February 15, a Sunday morning, with the Roman Carnival Overture, movements from the Symphonie fantastique, and Harold en Italie. Wisely, Berlioz reserved it for last. An open letter to his friend, Humbert Ferrand, included in his Memoirs, describes with inimitable verve one of the most stupendous successes of his career. Before the concert, a newspaper editor, one M. Horváth, after examining Berlioz's arrangement of the Rákóczy air as it lay beneath the hand of the copyist, presented himself to the composer. "Well?" Berlioz asked. "Well -- I'm nervous...You state the theme piano. We, on the contrary, are accustomed to hearing it played fortissimo." With the serene assurance of the great master depicted in August Prinzhofer's pair of oft-reproduced engravings, made just weeks before, Berlioz replied, "Don't worry, you shall have such a forte as you have never heard in your life." Indeed, after a fanfare, the theme is announced by flutes and clarinets, set off by string pizzicati, and repeated several times with suspenseful alternations of loud and soft until, as Berlioz writes, "a long crescendo...with fragments of the theme reintroduced fugally, broken by the dull thud of the bass drum, like the thump of distant cannon...." The excitement was palpable and electric, and "as the orchestra unleashed its full fury and the long-delayed fortissimo burst forth, a tumult of shouting and stamping convulsed the theater...." The piece had to be repeated, to even greater excitement. During his central European tour, Berlioz had begun the composition of La Damnation de Faust. With his arrangement of the Rákóczy air such a superbly accomplished fact, he did not hesitate to designate its opening scene as "the plains of Hungary," and to have Faust, like Hamlet, view troops passing to the strains of the Rákóczy March, for which he added a more elaborate coda. The autograph score was purchased by Count Casimir Batthianyi for 500 francs.

-- Adrian Corleonis, All Music Guide Read less

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