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The Domestic Life of Hector Berlioz

By Arthur Elson

Still more evident is the influence of woman upon music in the case of Hector Berlioz. Berlioz studied at the Paris Conservatoire, but his sensational style did not win favour with the classical Cherubini, and the young man was forced to work against many difficulties. He was even forbidden at one time to compete for the Prix de Rome, and came near giving up his career in dejection.

On the Parisian stage was a beautiful Irish actress, named Harriet Smithson, who was performing the plays of Shakespeare. Berlioz at once fell in love with her, but it was some time before his needy circumstances allowed him to lay his suit before her. When he did so, his passion found shape and expression in a great musical work,—the Symphonic Fantastique.

This is a weird and sinister composition, but very effective. It is in five movements. The first represents a young man seeing his ideal and falling in love with her, the object of this sudden affection being depicted by a tender theme on the violin. This theme pervades the entire work. In the second movement, which represents a ball, it signifies the entrance of the fair one. The third movement is called "In the Fields," and contains a duet between the two lovers in the guise of a shepherd and shepherdess. They are portrayed by an English horn and an oboe, the result being one of the great instrumental dialogues that are sometimes found in-works of the tone masters. An effective touch is the introduction of a thunder-storm, after which the English horn begins a plaintive note of inquiry, but meets with no reply. In the fourth movement, the young man has slain his love in a fit of jealousy, and is on his way to execution. Very powerful music expresses the fatal march, interrupted every now and then by the surging footsteps of the crowd. At its close, the hero ascends the scaffold; amid a hush, the tender love theme reappears, but is obliterated by a sudden crash of the full orchestra, and all is still. Berlioz, however, does not let his hero rest in the grave, but adds a fifth movement to show him in the infernal regions. Piccolo and other wild instruments depict the fury of the demons, a parody on the Dies Iræ follows, and even the tender love-theme is not spared, but is turned into the most vulgar of waltzes.

This musical love-letter was understood, and Miss Smithson afterward married the great composer. But, unfortunately, the romance stopped at this point, and they did not "live happily ever afterward." The actress was forced by an accident to leave the stage permanently. She and her husband did not agree well, and were continually at odds. Finally she took to drink, and a separation soon followed. Berlioz married again, his second wife being the singer, Mlle. Recio. He outlived her, and in later life was taken care of by her mother.

The symphony, incidentally, was so successful at its first performance that a strange-looking man rushed to the platform, saluted the composer, and sent him a more substantial token in the shape of twenty thousand francs. The stranger proved to be Paganini, but that famous violinist was such a miser that the story has been doubted. It is said that he acted in behalf of an unknown benefactor, but his enthusiasm at the performance seems to disprove this, and the work possesses just the dark and sinister character that would appeal to Paganini.

Another composition inspired by the same love episode is the "Romeo and Juliette" Symphony. Berlioz tried to make all his music tell a story, and he believed in the theory that tones could be made to represent ideas in a much greater degree than is usually supposed. The result is shown in many characteristic passages in his works, an excellent example being the gentle and melancholy theme that typifies Childe Harold in the symphony of that name. But Berlioz carried his idea to extremes, and fairly earned the half-reproach of Wagner, who said of him: "He ciphers with notes." That Berlioz could write with more direct beauty is shown by his practical joke at the expense of the critics; for he pretended to unearth an old piece by a certain Pierre Ducré, which they praised greatly in contrast with his own works, and after they had done their worst, Berlioz proved that he himself was the mythical Ducré.