Composer of the Week: Hector Berlioz

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Hector Berlioz channeled his insanity into music, which we think is pretty awesome. He’s our Composer of the Week.

b. December 11, 1803 in La Côte-Saint-André, France
d. March 8, 1869 in Paris, France

Hector Berlioz was strongly encouraged to study medicine by his physician father. His father strongly opposed music and therefore kept young Berlioz from studying piano. Berlioz did, however, manage to become proficient on the flute and guitar.

After studying medicine briefly at age 18, Berlioz left for Rome to study music against his father’s wishes. While away, he received a letter from fiancé Camille Moke’s mother stating that the two would not marry. Berlioz developed a grand plan to return to Paris disguised as a woman, wherein he would kill Camille, her mother, new fiancé and himself. He lost the costume along the way (or just chickened out), however, and returned to Rome without harming anyone.

Berlioz’s most famous work by far is his Symphonie Fantastique. The piece was written to woo Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. Though Harriet did not attend the initial premiere of the piece, Berlioz kept working to convince her to attend. Upon hearing the work she realized that Berlioz wrote the symphony for her, and she agreed to date him.

Within the composition, the lovesick artist (Berlioz) takes opium and subsequently experiences a series of haunted visions involving his unattained love interest. Berlioz and Harriet began living the tumultuous fantasy of the symphony when Berlioz ingested a lethal dose of opium to persuade Harriet to marry him. The ploy worked, and after recovering (he took the antidote immediately afterward) the two married.

Berlioz continued to take care of Harriet after she succumbed to alcoholism and he remarried after her death.

The beginning of Symphonie Fantastique:

Berlioz’s Hungarian March, performed by the YouTube Symphony:

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