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Hector Berlioz

By Harriette Brower

In the south of France, near Grenoble, is found a romantic spot, La Côte Saint-André. It lies on a hillside overlooking a wide green and golden plain, and its dreamy majesty is accentuated by the line of mountains that bounds it on the southeast. These in turn are crowned by the distant glory of snowy peaks and Alpine glaciers. Here one of the most distinguished men of the modern movement in French musical art, Hector Berlioz, first saw the light, on December 11, 1803.

He was an only son of a physician. His father, a learned man, with the utmost care, taught his little boy history, literature, geography, languages, even music. Hector was a most romantic, impressionable child, who peopled nature with fairies and elves, as he lay under great trees and dreamed fantastic day dreams. Poetry and romantic tales were his delight and he found much to feed his imagination in his father's large library.

His mother's father lived at Meylan, a little village not far from Grenoble, and there, in this picturesque valley, the family used to spend a part of each summer.

Above Meylan, in a crevice of the mountain, stood a white house amid its vineyards and gardens. It was the home of Mme. Gautier and her two nieces, of whom the younger was called Estelle. When the boy Hector saw her for the first time, he was twelve, a shy, retiring little fellow. Estelle was just eighteen, tall, graceful, with beautiful dusky hair and large soulful eyes. Most wonderful of all, with her simple white gown, she wore pink slippers. The shy boy of twelve fell in desperate love with this white robed apparition in pink slippers. He says himself:

"Never do I recall Estelle, but with the flash of her large dark eyes comes the twinkle of her dainty pink shoes. To say I loved her comprises everything. I was wretched, dumb, despairing. By night I suffered agonies—by day I wandered alone through the fields of Indian corn, or, like a wounded bird, sought the deepest recesses of my grandfather's orchard.

"One evening there was a party at Mme. Gautier's and various games were played. In one of them I was told to choose first. But I dared not, my heart-beats choked me. Estelle, smiling, caught my hand, saying: 'Come, I will begin; I choose Monsieur Hector.' But, ah, she laughed!

"I was thirteen when we parted. I was thirty when, returning from Italy, I passed through this district, so filled with early memories. My eyes filled at sight of the white house: I loved her still. On reaching my old home I learned she was married!"

With pangs of early love came music, that is, attempts at musical composition. His father had taught him the rudiments of music, and soon after gave him a flute. On this the boy worked so industriously that in seven or eight months he could play fairly well. He also took singing lessons, as he had a pretty soprano voice. Harmony was likewise studied by this ambitious lad, but it was self taught. He had found a copy of Rameau's "Harmony" among some old books and spent many hours poring over those labored theories in his efforts to reduce them to some form and sense.

Inspired by these studies he tried his hand at music making in earnest. First came some arrangements of trios and quartettes. Then finally he was emboldened to write a quintette for flute, two violins, viola and 'cello. Two months later he had produced another quintette, which proved to be a little better. At this time Hector was twelve and a half. His father had set his heart on the boy's following his footsteps and becoming a doctor; the time was rapidly approaching when a decision had to be made. Doctor Berlioz promised if his son would study anatomy and thoroughly prepare himself in this branch of the profession, he should have the finest flute that could be bought. His cousin Robert shared these anatomical lessons; but as Robert was a good violinist, the two boys spent more time over music than over osteology. The cousin, however, really worked over his anatomy, and was always ready at the lessons with his demonstrations, while Hector was not, and thus drew upon himself many a reprimand. However he managed to learn all his father could teach him, and when he was nineteen consented to go to Paris, with Robert, and—though much against his will—become a doctor.

When the boys reached Paris, in 1822, Hector loyally tried to keep his promise to his father and threw himself into the studies which were so repugnant to him. He says he might have become a common-place physician after all, had he not one night gone to the opera. That night was a revelation; he became half frantic with excitement and enthusiasm. He went again and again. Learning that the Conservatoire library, with its wealth of scores, was open to the public, he began to study the scores of his adored Gluck. He read, re-read and copied long parts and scenes from these wonderful scores, even forgetting to eat, drink or sleep, in his wild enthusiasm. Of course, now, the career of doctor must be given up; there was no question of that. He wrote home that in spite of father, mother, relations and friends, a musician he would be and nothing else.

A short time after this the choir master of Saint Roch, suggested that Hector should write a mass for Innocents' Day, promising a chorus and orchestra, with ample rehearsals, also that the choir boys would copy the parts. He set to work with enthusiasm. But alas, after one trial of the completed work, which ended in confusion owing to the countless mistakes the boys had made in copying the score, he rewrote the whole composition. Fearing another fiasco from amateur copyists, the young composer wrote out all the parts himself. This took three months. With the help of a friend who advanced funds, the mass was performed at Saint Roch, and was well spoken of by the press.

The hostility of Hector's family to music as a profession, died down a bit, owing to the success of the mass, but started up with renewed vigor when the son and brother failed to pass the entrance examinations at the Conservatoire. His father wrote that if he persisted in staying on in Paris his allowance would be stopped. Lesueur, his teacher, promised to intercede and wrote an appealing letter, which really made matters worse instead of better. Then Hector went home himself, to plead his cause in person. He was coldly received by his family; his father at last consented to his return to Paris for a time, but his mother forbade it absolutely. In case he disobeyed her will, she would disown him and never again wished to see his face. So Hector at last set out again for Paris with no kind look or word from his mother, but reconciled for the time being with the rest of the family.

The young enthusiast began life anew in Paris, by being very economical, as he must pay back the loan made for his mass. He found a tiny fifth floor room, gave up restaurant dinners and contented himself with plain bread, with the addition of raisins, prunes or dates. He also secured some pupils, which helped out in this emergency, and even got a chance to sing in vaudeville, at the enormous sum of 50 francs per month!

These were strenuous days for the eager ardent musician. Teaching from necessity, in order to live, spending every spare moment on composing; attending opera whenever he got a free ticket; yet, in spite of many privations there was happiness too. With score under arm, he always made it a point to follow the performance of any opera he heard. And so in time, he came to know the sound—the voice as it were, of each instrument in the orchestra. The study of Beethoven, Weber and Spontini—watching for rare and unusual combinations of sounds, being with artists who were kind enough to explain the compass and powers of their instruments, were the ways and means he used to perfect his art.

When the Conservatoire examinations of 1827, came on, Hector tried again, and this time passed the preliminary test. The task set for the general competition was to write music for Orpheus torn by the Bacchantes. An incompetent pianist, whose duty it was to play over the compositions, for the judges, could seem to make nothing of Hector's score. The six judges, headed by Cherubini, the Director of the Conservatoire, voted against the aspirant, and he was thrown out a second time.

And now came to Berlioz a new revelation—nothing less than the revelation of the art of Shakespeare. An English company of actors had come to Paris, and the first night Hamlet was given, with Henrietta Smithson—who five years later became his wife—as Ophelia.

In his diary Berlioz writes: "Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me down as with a thunderbolt. His lightning spirit opened to me the highest heaven of Art, and revealed to me the best and grandest and truest that earth can give." He began to worship both the genius of Shakespeare and the art of the beautiful English actress. Every evening found him at the theater, but days were spent in a kind of dumb despair, dreaming of Shakespeare and of Miss Smithson, who had now become the darling of Paris.

At last this sort of dumb frenzy spent itself and the musician in him awoke and he returned to his normal self. A new plan began to take shape in his mind. He would give a concert of his own works: up to that time no French musician had done so. Thus he would compel her to hear of him, although he had not yet met the object of his devoted admiration.

It was early spring of the year 1828, when he set to work with frantic energy, writing sixteen hours a day, in order to carry through the wonderful plan. The concert, the result of so much labor, was given the last of May, with varying success. But alas, Miss Smithson, adsorbed in her own affairs, had not even heard of the excitable young composer who had dared and risked so much to make a name that might attract her notice.

As Berlioz père again stopped his allowance, Hector began to write for musical journals. At first ignorant of the ways of journalism, his wild utterances were the despair of his friends; later his trenchant pen was both admired and feared.

For the third time, in June of this year, he entered the Conservatoire contest, and won a second prize, in this case a gold medal. Two years later he won the coveted Prix de Rome, which gives the winner five years' study, free of expense, in the Eternal City.

Before this honor was achieved, however, a new influence came into his life, which for a time overshadowed the passion for Shakespeare and Miss Smithson. It happened on this wise.

Ferdinand Hiller, composer, pianist and one of Hector's intimate friends, fell deeply in love with Marie Moke, a beautiful, talented girl who, later on, won considerable fame as a pianist. She became interested in the young French composer, through hearing of his mental suffering from Hiller. They were thrown together in a school where both gave lessons, she on the piano and he on the—guitar! Meeting so constantly, her dainty beauty won a warm place in the affections of the impressionable Hector. She was but eighteen, while her admirer was twenty-five.

Hiller saw how things were going and behaved admirably. He called it fate, wished the pair every happiness, and left for Frankfort.

Then came the Prix de Rome, which the poor boy had struggled so long to win, and now did not care so much for, as going to Italy would mean to leave Paris. On August 23, 1830, he wrote to a friend:

"I have gained the Prix de Rome. It was awarded unanimously—a thing never known before. My sweet Ariel was dying of anxiety when I told her the news; her dainty wings were all ruffled, till I smoothed them with a word. Even her mother, who does not look too favorably on our love, was touched to tears.

"On November 1, there is to be a concert at the Theater Italien. I am asked to write an Overture and am going to take as subject Shakespeare's Tempest; it will be quite a new style of thing. My great concert, with the Symphonie Fantastique, will take place November 14, but I must have a theatrical success; Camille's parents insist on that, as a condition of our marriage. I hope I shall succeed."

These concerts were both successful and the young composer passed from deepest anxiety to exuberant delight. He wrote to the same friend;

"The Tempest is to be played a second time at the opera. It is new, fresh, strange, grand, sweet, tender, surprising. Fétis wrote two splendid articles about it for the Revue Musicale.—My marriage is fixed for Easter, 1832, on condition that I do not lose my pension, and that I go to Italy for one year. My blessed Symphonie has done the deed."

The next January Berlioz went home to his family, who were now reconciled to his choice of music as a profession, and deluged him with compliments, caresses and tender solicitude. The parents had fully forgiven their gifted son.

"There is Rome, Signore."

It was true. The Eternal City lay spread out in purple majesty before the young traveler, who suddenly realized the grandeur, the poetry of this heart of the world. The Villa Medici, the venerable ancient palace, centuries old, had been reserved by the Academié of France as home for her students, whose sole obligation was to send, once a year, a sample of their work to the Academié in Paris.

When Hector Berlioz arrived in Rome he was twenty-seven, and of striking appearance. A mass of reddish auburn hair crowned a high forehead; the features were prominent, especially the nose; the expression was full of sensitive refinement. He was of an excitable and ardent temperament, but in knowledge of the world's ways often simple as a child.

Berlioz, who was welcomed with many humorous and friendly jests on his appearance among the other students, had just settled down to work, when he learned that his Ariel—otherwise Marie Moke—had forsaken him and had married Pleyel. In a wild state of frenzy he would go to Paris at once and seek revenge. He started, got as far as Nice, grew calmer, remained at Nice for a month, during which time the Overture to "King Lear" was written, then returned to Rome by the way of Genoa and Florence.

By July 1832, Berlioz had returned to La Côte Saint André for a home visit. He had spent a year in Italy, had seen much, composed a number of important things, but left Rome without regrets, and found the familiar landscape near his home more fascinating than anything Italy could show.

The rest of the summer was spent in the beautiful Dauphiny country, working on the "Damnation of Faust." In the fall he returned to Paris. The vision of his Ophelia, as he used to call Miss Smithson, was seldom long absent from his thoughts, and he now went to the house where she used to live, thinking himself very lucky to be able to find lodging there. Meeting the old servant, he learned Miss Smithson was again in Paris, and would manage a new English theater, which was to open in a few days. But Berlioz was planning a concert of his own compositions, and did not trust himself to see the woman he had so long adored until this venture was over. It happened, however, that some friends induced her to attend the concert, the success of which is said to have been tremendous. The composer had the happiness of meeting the actress the same evening. The next day he called on her. Their engagement lasted nearly a year, opposed by her mother and sister, and also by Hector's family. The following summer Henrietta Smithson, all but ruined from her theatrical ventures, and weak from a fall, which made her a cripple for some years, was married to Hector Berlioz, in spite of the opposition of their two families.

And now there opened to Berlioz a life of stress and struggle, inseparable from such a nature as his. At one moment he would be in the highest heaven of happiness, and the next in the depths of despair. His wife's heavy debts were a load to carry, but he manfully did his best to pay them. We can be sure that every work he ever produced was composed under most trying circumstances, of one kind or another. One of his happiest ventures was a concert of his own compositions, given at the Conservatoire on October 22, 1833. Of it he wrote: "The concert, for which I engaged the very best artists, was a triumphant success. My musicians beamed with joy all evening, and to crown all, I found waiting for me a man with long black hair, piercing eyes and wasted form. Catching my hand, he poured forth a flood of burning praise and appreciation. It was Paganini!"

Paganini commissioned Berlioz to write a solo for his beautiful Strad. viola. The composer demurred for a time, and then made the attempt. While the result was not just what the violinist wished, yet the themes afterward formed the basis for Berlioz' composition "Childe Harold."

The next great work undertaken by Berlioz was the Requiem. It seems that, in 1836, the French Minister of the Interior set aside yearly, 3,000 francs to be given to a native composer, chosen by the Minister, to compose a religious work, either a mass or an oratorio, to be performed at the expense of the Government.

"I shall begin with Berlioz," he announced: "I am sure he could write a good Requiem."

After many intrigues and difficulties, this work was completed and performed in a way the composer considered "a magnificent triumph."

Berlioz, like most composers, always wished to produce an opera. "Benvenuto Cellini" was the subject finally chosen. It took a long time to write, and perhaps would never have been finished, since Berlioz was so tied to bread-winning journalistic labors, if a kind friend—Ernest Legouvé—had not offered to lend him two thousand francs. This loan made him independent for a little time, and gave him the necessary leisure in which to compose.

The "Harold" music was now finished and Berlioz advertised both this and the Symphonie Fantastique for a concert at the Conservatoire, December 16, 1838. Paganini was present, and declared he had never been so moved by music before. He dragged the composer back on the platform, where some of the musicians still lingered, and there knelt and kissed his hand. The next day he sent Berlioz a check for twenty thousand francs.

Berlioz and his wife, two of the most highly strung individuals to be found anywhere, were bound to have plenty of storm and stress in their daily life. And so it came about that a separation, at least for a time, seemed advisable. Berlioz made every provision in his power for her comfort, and then started out on various tours to make his compositions known. Concerts were given in Stuttgart, Heckingen, Weimar, Leipsic, and in Dresden two, both very successful. Others took place in Brunswick, Hamburg, Berlin, Hanover, finishing at Darmstadt, where the Grand Duke insisted not only on the composer taking the full receipts for the concert, but, in addition, refused to let him pay any of the expenses.

And now back in Paris, at the treadmill of writing again. Berlioz had the sort of mentality which could plan, and also execute, big musical enterprises on a grand scale. It was proposed that he and Strauss should give a couple of monster concerts in the Exhibition Building. He got together a body of 1022 performers, all paid except the singers from the lyric theaters, who volunteered to help for the love of music.

It was a tremendous undertaking, and though an artistic success, the exertion nearly finished Berlioz, who was sent south by his physician. Resting on the shores of the Mediterranean, he afterwards gave concerts in Marseilles, Lyons, and Lille and then traveled to Vienna. He writes of this visit:

"My reception by all in Vienna—even by my fellow-plowmen, the critics—was most cordial; they treated me as a man and a brother, for which I am heartily grateful.

"After my third concert, there was a grand supper, at which my friends presented me with a silver-gilt baton, and the Emperor sent me eleven hundred francs, with the odd compliment: 'Tell Berlioz I was really amused.'"

His way now led through Hungary. Performances were given in Pesth and Prague, where he was royally entertained and given a silver cup.

On returning to Paris, he had much domestic trouble to bear. His wife was paralyzed and his only son, Louis, wished to leave home and become a sailor—which he did eventually, though much against the wishes of his parents.

The "Damnation of Faust," now finished, was given at the Opéra, and was not a success. Berlioz then conceived the idea of going to Russia to retrieve his fortunes. With the help of kind friends, who advanced the money, he was able to carry out the plan. He left for Russia on February 14, 1847. The visits to both St. Petersburg and Moscow proved to be very successful financially as well as artistically. To cap the climax, "Romeo and Juliette" was performed at St. Petersburg. Then the King of Prussia, wishing to hear the "Faust," the composer arranged to spend ten days in Berlin: then to Paris and London, where success was also achieved.

Shadows as well as sunshine filled the next few years. The composer was saddened by the passing of his father. Then a favorite sister also left, and last of all his wife passed quietly away, March 3, 1854. With all these sorrows Berlioz was at times nearly beside himself. But as he became calmer he decided, after half a year, to wed a woman who had been of great assistance to him in his work for at least fourteen years.

The remaining span of Berlioz' life was outwardly more peaceful and happy. He continued to travel and compose. Everywhere he went he was honored and admired.

Among his later compositions were the Te Deum, "Childhood of Christ," "Lelio," "Beatrice and Benedict" and "The Trojans."

At last, after what he called thirty years of slavery, he was able to resign his post of critic. "Thanks to 'The Trojans,' the wretched quill driver is free!"

A touching episode, told in his vivid way, was the meeting, late in life, with his adored Estelle of the pink shoes. He called on her and found a quiet widow, who had lost both husband and children. They had a poignant hour of reminiscence and corresponded for some time afterwards.

Hector Berlioz passed away March 8, 1869. The French Institute sent a deputation, the band of the National Guard played selections from his Funeral Symphony; on the casket lay wreaths from the Saint Cécilia Society, from the youths of Hungary, from Russian nobles and from the town of Grenoble, his old home.

The music of Berlioz is conceived on large lines, in broad masses of tone color, with new harmonies and imposing effects. He won a noble place in art through many trials and hardships. His music is the expression, the reflection of the mental struggles of a most intense nature. The future will surely witness a greater appreciation of its merits than has up to now been accorded it.