Hector Berlioz Explained

Hector Berlioz: The Pathological Romantic

In our recent article on the Three Bs of Music we mentioned that the French Romanticist composer Hector Berlioz was the original choice for the third B of the Trinity. He would, as time progressed, loose that position to Johannes Brahms. But that is not a indictment against Berlioz, nor is it some consolation prize. If anything one could consider it a compliment: Berlioz, although influenced by the tradition that came before him, desired to tread a path less conducive than that. He is Lucifer to Brahms Holy Ghost: rather than continuing the structures of the Father and Son, Berlioz wanted to tread his own path, be the light bearer of a new generation. Besides, we saw the torment Brahms experienced from adopting the mantle of Beethoven. Berlioz had his own turmoils to contend with.

These turmoils are inseparable from his work, particularly his Symphonie Fantastique, his most famous work. Berlioz possessed a compunction toward Romanticism, He could not help himself to live the lifestyle he did, regardless of the obsessive torments it created within him.

Unconventional Beginnings

Berlioz was born in 1803 to Louis-Joesph Berlioz, a respected physician and scholar, and Marie-Antoinette Berlioz. Unlike many famous composers Berlioz was not a child prodigy. His father was not too keen on the idea of his son as a musician and so discouraged him from studying it. Berlioz study of music began when he was twelve, and he did not receive the traditional education as with the three Bs or other composers. The strongest demonstrations is his lack of piano ability, never really learning it. He instead learnt harmony from text books and played the guitar and flute. His never learning the piano was described by him as both beneficial and detrimental.

But where his father’s discouragement may have been problematic, Louis-Joesph’s scholarly credentials insured Berlioz gained a great deal of knowledge in other arts, particularly literature. He was keen on Shakespeare, and at age twelve discovered Virgil in Latin and, with his father’s guidance, translated it into French.

He moved to Paris age 18 to study medicine, a profession to which he had initial indifference and eventually outright disgust after witnessing a cadaver being dissected. But where his formal schooling was a drudgery, the city of Paris, his new home, provided him access to an artistic world he had not yet experienced. Paris Opera introduced him to Gluck, and the Paris Conservatoire Library provided him with resources to study music like never before, although he was not formally a student.

Gradually accumulating knowledge, building his own compositional repertoire and gaining contacts with composers and musicians, Berlioz abandoned his medical studies permanently in 1824, much to his parents disapproval. Two years later he began studying at the Conservatoire. He submitted a fugue to the Prix de Rome, a highly prestigious scholarship, although Berlioz would not win it until his fourth attempt in 1830. The reasons for his persistence was not merely the prestige, although any young composer would crave this, but also the financial security it provided with its five year pension.

It was also in the 1820s that he discovered the symphonies, sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven, as well as his introduction to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. He also began studying English so that he could read Shakespeare. It was also in this period that began to write musical criticism, and activity he would continue for his career.

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

He spent two years in Rome as part of his scholarship, where he came to detest the city but adored the surrounding countryside. His main drive to continue was from the poetry of Byron, who likewise spent time in Italy, the scenes and characters of his poetry providing Berlioz an access to the city and surroundings.

He did not do a great deal of composing while in Rome, but one incident reveals a considerable deal of Berlioz’s temperament. Before leaving Paris Berlioz became engaged to Marie Moke. In Rome he received word from his future mother-in-law that the engagement was off and that her daughter was to marry Camille Pleyel, a wealthy piano manufacturer. He was enraged and his response was to kill all three and then himself. His plan required a disguise consisting of a dress, wig and veil to gain entry to their house, and two double barrelled pistols, one bullet for each concerned. In the event that the pistols malfunctioned he had poison as backup. This was not simply planned, but he took action to achieve his goal. He purchased the necessary items and made way to Paris. Over the course of the trip (a considerable journey in the nineteenth century) he slowly began to see the folly in the plan, and by the time he reached Nice he decided to call off the murder-suicide and continue with his music in Rome.
What makes this incident so revealing is that it was not only driven by unrestrained, pathological passion, but that it was accompanied by incredibly thorough and quite creative planning, not the mention the theatrical flare if indeed performed. His zeal towards this one incident may have worn off, but the combination of passion and planning, of convulsion and craftsmanship was to remain.

Craftsmanship: Treatise on Instrumentation

Before we explore specific examples of Berlioz’s music is it worthwhile discussing his academic contributions. Berlioz, like Wagner, spent a great deal of his career writing about music rather than composing music.

Berlioz also established a reputation for himself as a conductor. He first considered adopting this post due to his dissatisfaction with previous performances of his work. This has been attributed to the fact that many conductors were still more used to conducting older style works, where Berlioz required a developed technique in order to fully realise his artistic ideals.

Despite his success with works such as Symphonie Fantastique and being considered Beethoven’s heir, he found it increasingly difficult to gain an audience for his works. This led him to travel and work as conductor in numerous countries, conducting not only his work but also that of other composers. He would, however, despite his talent, never hold a position for any orchestra, appearing only as a guest conductor, although this was enough to increase his fame considerably.

Adopted as a necessity to have his works performed the way he wanted, his talents proved to be considerable in this area, with many such as Hans von Bulow considering him the greatest conductor of his age. Other’s, such as critic Louis Engle, also mention his incredible ability to ‘hear’ the instruments, and his understanding of how the different sounds interact. Engle gives an example when Berlioz noticed a minor pitch difference with two clarinets. This would be a considerable feet in any circumstance, let alone discerning this discontinuity amongst a full orchestra.

His understanding of instruments reaches its greatest height with his Treatise on Instrumentation. The work, the first of its kind, acts as a manual, providing composers with information on different instruments and how they interact, through way of examples from works by himself as well as Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, and giving advice on certain combinations and so forth. This was considerably influential. Mahler, Strauss Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov studied it closely, with the latter producing his own version.

Harriet Smithson portraying Ophelia

Harriet Smithson portraying Ophelia

Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz produced a large variety of works. From orchestral pieces such as La damnation de Faust (inspired by Geothe) to a dramatic symphony based on Shakespeare’s Roméo et Juliette, to Harold en Italie, to several still popular concert overtures such as Le Corsaire and Le Carnaval romain, as well as vocal works like the song cycle Les nuits d’été and the oratorio L’enfance du Christ through to Te Deum and Grande messe des morts, perhaps his second most famous work. Of all Berlioz’s works it is his Symphonie Fantastique that reveals his compulsion towards the Romantic, but also showcases his full ability as a musical craftsman.

The Symphony is as much about Berlioz as it is about music. In September 1827 Berlioz went to a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet staged by an English theatre group. The actress that played Ophelia was Harriet Smithson, an Irish-born actress who gained considerable fame and a large number of admirers in Paris.

Berlioz was one of these admirers and became enthralled by the actress. She became Berlioz’s idee fixe (fixed idea, also referred to as monomania). He became obsessed with her, despite having never met the actress and being engaged to Marie Moke.

Apart from his connection with Moke, what made this so difficult for Berlioz was that Smithson had no idea he existed. He wrote her countless letters, but these were all unanswered, not surprising considering the large number of admirers Smithson had and the number of letters she likely received. But this did not stop Berlioz’s efforts, and he continued this hopeless activity until 1832, when, through a mutual friend, he had Smithson come to the performance of Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie, his sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. Up until that point he had only ever seen her on stage, and created in his mind the ideal women around her visage. The absence of this beloved strengthened the beauty of her, and fed his obsession.

He became love sick and composing became a catharsis for him. This obsession led to the symphony, which is one of the greatest examples of Program Music, where narrative is expressed through instruments rather than told through the human voice with instruments providing atmosphere and setting.

As well as the program music element there are differences in the structure, although this is linked with the program element. Symphonies generally possessed four movements, but Berlioz’s has five:

1. Rêveries – Passions (Daydreams – Passions)
2. Un bal (A ball)
3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)
4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
5. Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)

Berlioz provided program notes to be distributed to the audience upon entry into the theatre, providing them a way of understanding the work.The narrative provided goes as follows:

A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere.

There is an important note to be made, which is that even Berlioz himself sees the significance of the melody and the beloved combined as a double idée fixe.

Leonard Bernstein highlight’s the importance of the idée fixe in understanding the symphony:

The melody is used in each of the movements, something of a porto-leitmotif, representing the obsession he has with his beloved. Berlioz’s approach is far more innovative than that. Rather than use the melody as a means of revealing his beloved’s presence, as is the use of leitmotifs, he reveals how his perception of her changes over the course the work. It changes, rather than being a static idea. This is in keeping with the pathological romanticism of Berlioz. He is incapable of becoming placid with an idea. Instead it constantly churns in his mind, pulling his passions from hope to despair, joy and anger.

But this “double” idée fixe, “the yoking of amorous and aural fixation”, as described by Francessa Brittan, is not a new innovation by Berlioz as first thought. Brittan recounts two stories, E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1814 “Automata” and Mme de Duras’ 1825 novel Édouard, as predating the narrative of Symphonie Fantastique with is story of a lover distraught by an unattainable love that infects his minds, the monomania pervading him at every turn.

The autobiographical nature of the work is difficult to dispute. Berlioz, in a letter to Humbert Ferrand, wrote “Now, my friend, here is how I have woven my novel [mon roman], or rather my history [mon histoire], whose hero you will have no difficulty recognizing.” And, as Britton reveals, his own monomania with Smithson was crippling the composer around the same time. He recorded in a letter to a friend: “I was going to come and see you today, but the frightful state of nervous exaltation which I have been struggling against for the past few days is worse this morning and I am incapable of carrying on a conversation of any reason- ableness. An idée fixe is killing me . . . all my muscles twitch like a dying man’s.” Note that Berlioz refers to the malady of his protagonist with the same vigour and terms as his own affliction and also refers to it as an idée fixe.

But this is not to suggest that Berlioz wrote the work in a single opium induced binge. Paul Banks, surveying several studies of the Symphonie, reveals “that during the first four years of its existence the Fantastique underwent major structural changes that altered not only the shape of individual movements, but also the de- sign of the whole work.”

Banks, like Bernstein, highlights the structural importance of the idée fixe, emphasising the reduced role it plays in the successive movements. This climaxes with what appears superficially as a standard Romantic technique of thematic recall and cyclical return as a unifier, it is actually not as static as this technique, but instead acts as a way of creating diversity through the unity the theme provides. Listen to the work with particular attention to the idée fixe, and with an eye on the program notes provided by Berlioz.

1. Rêveries – Passions (Daydreams – Passions)

He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.

2. Un bal (A ball)

He meets again his beloved in a ball during a glittering fête.

3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)

One summer evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds dialoguing with their ‘Ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring; but she reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him… One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody, the other one no longer answers. The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)

He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for a moment like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

5. Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance-tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roars of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae.
Berlioz created program notes that he refined over several decades to accompany the composition.

This is the most significant and well known movement of the work, particularly with the idée fixe now transformed to a dim, horrid caricature of itself and overpowered by the Dies Irae, a 13th Century Latin hymn, with a strong trochaic metre that tells of Judgement Day, where God comes to bring the saved to paradise and the unsaved cast into the fit of fire.

It may be asked why we include and even emphasise these notes when discussing the Symphony. Berlioz himself stressed the importance of the notes, emphasising that the program notes should “be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.” By the 1855 revision he mentions that “one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.”

Caricature of Hector Berlioz conducting

Caricature of Hector Berlioz conducting

The change in his placing importance on the notes may be due to its somewhat prophetic nature.
Berlioz would eventually come to marry and live with Smithson, but almost as his Symphony predicted, it was not and entrance into a paradise, but a haunting troubled marriage.

The high point of Smithson’s career had already passed by the time she met Berlioz, who’s own fame was growing, especially considering the comparisons with Beethoven. Some believe that it was due to this that Smithson married Berlioz, rather than a mutual attraction. There was also considerable difficulty in their conversing, Berlioz understanding only written English and Harriet not knowing French. Both were prone to violent outburst and fits of temper. Over the next decade Smithson’s career deteriorated, leading her to alcoholism, until Berlioz eventually divorced her and moved in with his mistress, Marie Recio in 1844. His marriage essentially destroyed his own idée fixe of Smithson, and he longer desired the cold harsh memories of this lost obsession. The heart ache of longing was quelled by the agony of reality.

The Pathological Romantic

Aristotle once lamented, “why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” And although this not entirely true (think of Bach or Mendelssohn) it certainly surmises Berlioz. And in the case of Berlioz it was his fiery temperament, his living by compulsion and passion, his pathological surrender to his impulses that created marvellous revolutions in music, his melancholy providing the inspiration and driving force for his music, and his dedication to craftsmanship creating works of rich orchestral insight and romantic thematic control.

Recommended Reading:

Nichols, Roger, “Berlioz: the Innovator”, Gramophone.


Banks, Paul, “Coherence and Diversity in the “Symphonie fantastique””. 19th-Century Music, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 37-43.

Brittan, Francesca, “Berlioz and the Pathological Fantastic: Melancholy, Monomania, and Romantic Autobiography”, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Spring 2006), pp. 211-239.

Hector Berlioz Primer - The Pathological Romantic
Article Name
Hector Berlioz Primer - The Pathological Romantic
Primer about Hector Berlioz and his fantastic music. Learn about his biography as well as Berlioz' Idee Fix & Symphonie Fantastique.
1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] the production of music. He is best known for his work with U2, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. Source: http://www.gentlemansgazette.com/hector-berlioz/ / […]

Comments are closed.