- Hector Berlioz - Episodes in the Life of an Artist [Biography]
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Hector Berlioz

"Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils."

Together with Liszt and Wagner, Berlioz was one of the key figures in the Romantic movement in music, which lasted from about 1820 to the end of the 20th century. As an artist, he insisted on following his own path and expressing his own thoughts and feelings through his music. He was inspired by literature, especially Shakespeare, and composed music - both for the concert hall and the opera house - that portrayed dramatic events and places. He also wrote brilliantly for the steadily growing Romantic orchestra - and with equal flair for the massed bands and choirs that continued the French Romantic tradition of big open-air public events, going back to the time of the Revolution.

Berlioz was born in La Côte-St-André on 11 December, 1803. He was sent to Paris by his father, a doctor, to study medicine in 1821, but he soon switched his interests to the study of music. Abandoning medicine, he studied music from 1823 to 1825 at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique under the French composer Jean François Le Sueur and the Czech composer Anton Reicha. In 1830 he won the Prix de Rome. He became a librarian at the Paris Conservatoire in 1838, toured the Continent and Great Britain several times as a conductor between 1842 and 1854, and from 1835 to 1863 wrote musical criticism for the periodical Journal des Débats.

With his thick head of reddish hair, Berlioz was impulsive, emotional, and bursting with energy and radical ideas. In his large-scale works, Berlioz often astonished audiences with original effects and abrupt changes of tempo. Critics often judged Berlioz's music to be eccentric and "incorrect". To prove them wrong, Berlioz published the Shepherd's Farewell as a 17th century work by "Pierre Ducré". The critics were fooled and reviewed the work favourably, which Berlioz maintained would not have been the case had they known it was his.

Berlioz's genius led him to occasionally stretch the accepted conventions of music to their limits and sometimes beyond, often in the vast numbers of musicians he demanded to perform his works. Yet he was also capable of writing music of the greatest delicacy and refinement, as can be heard in The Damnation of Faust.

Berlioz, who composed such masterpieces as the Te Deum and Requiem, was not religious in the usual sense. Berlioz's mother was a devout Catholic, but it was his liberal minded father who took control of his education and helped him to cultivate his own unique sense of spirituality. This is shown in a letter from Berlioz to his brother, Prosper, in which he describes the final chorus of L'Enfance du Christ as carrying a "feeling of the infinite, of divine love."

Berlioz's position in 19th-century music is that of a seminal figure, directly influencing symphonic form and the use of the orchestra as well as musical aesthetics, and to many he exemplifies the romantic image of the composer as artist. He laboured ceaselessly to promote the new music of his time. Forced to train orchestras to meet the demands of this music, he educated a generation of musicians and became the first virtuoso conductor - at a time when the growing complexity of much new music, and the size of orchestras, required such expert direction. In this latter capacity, he helped to pave the way for the musical maestros of the 20th century.

His Symphonie fantastique created an aesthetic revolution by its integral use of a literary program and established program music as a dominant romantic orchestral genre. In this work and in his symphony with viola solo, Harold en Italie, his use and transformation of a recurrent theme foreshadowed the symphonic poem of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the tone poem of the German composer Richard Strauss. The German composer Richard Wagner publicly acknowledged his debt to Berlioz.

Berlioz's profoundly influential Traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes (Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration), the first book on that subject, was an exposition of the aesthetics of musical expression as well as a handbook. Berlioz was highly aware of each instrument's unique ability to create a particular mood. In his writings on instrumentation, he explains how certain blends of instruments can create memorable moments. His own music is rich in colour and texture through his skillful and imaginative orchestration. Berlioz was also a masterful orchestrator of other composer's works, including Weber's piano piece Invitation to the Dance.

Idée fixe ("fixed idea") was a medical term for a delusion resulting in abnormal actions. Berlioz, a former medical student, used it as a musical term, to describe the use of a recurring theme as a musical device. His Symphonie fantastique is an excellent example of the use of the idée fixe. Subtitled "Episodes in the Life of an Artist", it was the first great piece of French Romantic music. In his memoirs, Berlioz writes that the subject of this semi-autobiographical musical drama was his love for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who was playing Ophelia in Hamlet in Paris at the time. The symphony's five-movement program relies again and again on the short theme representing the hero's beloved.

Berlioz was a highly talented writer and, in middle age, wrote witty, action-packed memoirs describing his life, loves, and the ups and downs of his musical career. In the memoirs, he describes his adventures in Italy, where he was sent to study after winning the Prix de Rome - a highly prestigious prize awarded to French music students.

As he grew older, disappointment clouded his life, but the same fiery energy and brilliance, as well as the same explosive surprises, never left his music. After World War II, his talent was rediscovered by the music world, and today, almost two hundred years after his birth, his vivid compositions have lost nothing of their power to astonish and thrill listeners. Hector Berlioz died on 8 March, 1869, in Paris.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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