Berlioz, Hector Louis

Berlioz, Hector Louis


Born Dec. 11, 1803, in La Côte Saint-André, France; died Mar. 8, 1869, in Paris. French composer, conductor, and writer on music. Member of the Institute of France (1856).

Berlioz was born into the family of a physician, a freethinking and enlightened man. In 1821, Berlioz was a medical student, but soon, in spite of his parents’ objections, he abandoned medicine and decided to devote himself to music. The first public performance of a work by Berlioz (La Messe solennelle) took place in Paris in 1825. From 1826 to 1830, Berlioz studied at the Paris Conservatory with J. F. Lesueur and A. Reicha. He won the Prix de Rome (1830) for his cantata Sardanapale and lived in Italy (as a stipend holder). When he returned to Paris (1832), he devoted himself to composing, conducting, and critical writing. Beginning in 1842 he made many tours abroad. He made triumphant appearances in Russia as a conductor and composer (1847; 1867–68).

Berlioz was a brilliant representative of romanticism in music and the creator of the romantic programmatic symphony. Berlioz’ art had a great deal in common with the work of Hugo in literature and E. Delacroix in painting. As an artist and innovator, Berlioz boldly brought innovations into musical form, harmony, and especially instrumentation. (He was an outstanding master of orchestration; he had a propensity for the theatricalization of symphonic music and for compositions on a grandiose scale.)

Berlioz’ work as a composer reflected the contradictions characteristic of romanticism: the aspiration toward universality and the popular character of music coexisted with extreme individualism; heroism and revolutionary ardor coexisted with the intimate outpourings of a solitary soul inclined to the exaltation and fantasy of an artist. In 1826, Berlioz wrote the cantata La Révolution grecque, a response to the liberation struggle of the Greek people. He greeted the July Revolution of 1830 with enthusiasm; with the people in the streets of Paris he learned revolutionary songs, including the “Marseillaise,” which he adapted for chorus and orchestra. Revolutionary themes reverberate in many of Berlioz’ important compositions. In memory of the heroes of the July Revolution he created the lofty Requiem (1837) and the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony (1840, written for the triumphal ceremony for the transfer of the ashes of the victims of the July events). However, Berlioz did not understand the Revolution of 1848. During the last years of his life he was inclined increasingly toward academicism and abstract moral problems; these inclinations were shown in the oratorial trilogy L’Enfance du Christ (1854) and an opera in two parts, Les Troyens, adapted from Vergil (La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens a Carthage, 1855–59).

Berlioz’ style had already become defined in the Symphonie fantastique (1830, subtitled Episode de la vie d’un artiste). This most famous composition by Berlioz was the first romantic programmatic symphony. Typical attitudes of the period were reflected in this symphony (discord with reality and exaggerated emotionalism and sensitivity). In this symphony the subjective experiences of the artist were raised to the level of social generalizations: the theme of unhappy love took on the significance of a tragedy of lost illusions. After the symphony, Berlioz wrote a monodrama, Lélio, ou le Retour à la vie (1831, a continuation of the Symphonie fantastique). Berlioz used the plots of Byron’s works in his symphony for viola and orchestra, Harold in Italy (1834), and the overture Le Corsaire (1844). He used works by Shakespeare in the overture King Lear (1831), the dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet (1839), and the comic oper&Béatrice et Bénédict (1862, on the plot of Much Ado About Nothing). Goethe inspired the dramatic legend (oratorio) The Damnation of Faust (1846, a free treatment of Goethe’s poem). Berlioz was also the composer of the opera Benvenuto Cellini (performed in 1838); six cantatas; orchestral overtures, including The Roman Carnival (1844); romances; and other works. The collected works of Berlioz in nine series (20 volumes) were published in Leipzig and New York (1900–07).

Berlioz was an outstanding conductor. He and R. Wagner founded a new school of conducting. Berlioz made an important contribution to the development of music criticism and was the first foreign critic to appreciate the importance of M. I. Glinka (his article on Glinka, 1845) and of Russian music in general.


Dirizher orkestra. Moscow, 1912. (Translated from French.)
Memuary. Moscow, 1967. (Translated from French.)
lzbrannye stat’i. Moscow, 1956. (Translated from French).


Rolland, R. Muzykanty nashikh dnei. Translated from French by Iu. Veisberg. (Sobr. muz.-ist. soch., vol. 5.) Moscow, 1938.
Khokhlovkina, A. Berlioz. Moscow, 1960.
Sollertinskii, I. Berlioz, [3rd ed.]. Moscow, 1962.
Tiersot, J. Hector Berlioz et la société de son temps. Paris, 1904.
Boschot, A. L’histoire d’un romantique: Hector Berlioz, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1946–50.