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
plain, and its dreamy majesty is accentuated by the line of mountains
bounds it on the southeast. These in turn are crowned by the distant
of snowy peaks and Alpine glaciers. Here one of the most distinguished
of the modern movement in French musical art, Hector Berlioz, first saw
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
who peopled nature with fairies and elves, as he lay under great trees
dreamed fantastic day dreams. Poetry and romantic tales were his
and he found much to feed his imagination in his father's large
His mother's father lived at Meylan, a
little village not far from
Grenoble, and there, in this picturesque valley, the family used to
part of each summer.
Above Meylan, in a crevice of the
mountain, stood a white house amid
vineyards and gardens. It was the home of Mme. Gautier and her two
of whom the younger was called Estelle. When the boy Hector saw her for
first time, he was twelve, a shy, retiring little fellow. Estelle was
eighteen, tall, graceful, with beautiful dusky hair and large soulful
Most wonderful of all, with her simple white gown, she wore pink
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
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
"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,
will begin; I choose Monsieur Hector.' But, ah, she laughed!
"I was thirteen when we parted. I was
thirty when, returning from
passed through this district, so filled with early memories. My eyes
at sight of the white house: I loved her still. On reaching my old home
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
this ambitious lad, but it was self taught. He had found a copy of
"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
emboldened to write a quintette for flute, two violins, viola and
Two months later he had produced another quintette, which proved to be
little better. At this time Hector was twelve and a half. His father
set his heart on the boy's following his footsteps and becoming a
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
that could be bought. His cousin Robert shared these anatomical
but as Robert was a good violinist, the two boys spent more time over
than over osteology. The cousin, however, really worked over his
and was always ready at the lessons with his demonstrations, while
was not, and thus drew upon himself many a reprimand. However he
learn all his father could teach him, and when he was nineteen
to go to Paris, with Robert, and—though much against his will—become a
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
again and again. Learning that the Conservatoire library, with its
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
wonderful scores, even forgetting to eat, drink or sleep, in his wild
enthusiasm. Of course, now, the career of doctor must be given up;
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
parts. He set to work with enthusiasm. But alas, after one trial of the
completed work, which ended in confusion owing to the countless
the boys had made in copying the score, he rewrote the whole
Fearing another fiasco from amateur copyists, the young composer wrote
all the parts himself. This took three months. With the help of a
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
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
Conservatoire. His father wrote that if he persisted in staying on in
his allowance would be stopped. Lesueur, his teacher, promised to
and wrote an appealing letter, which really made matters worse instead
better. Then Hector went home himself, to plead his cause in person. He
coldly received by his family; his father at last consented to his
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
face. So Hector at last set out again for Paris with no kind look or
from his mother, but reconciled for the time being with the rest of the
The young enthusiast began life anew in
Paris, by being very
as he must pay back the loan made for his mass. He found a tiny fifth
room, gave up restaurant dinners and contented himself with plain
with the addition of raisins, prunes or dates. He also secured some
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
a point to follow the performance of any opera he heard. And so in
he came to know the sound—the voice as it were, of each instrument in
orchestra. The study of Beethoven, Weber and Spontini—watching for rare
and unusual combinations of sounds, being with artists who were kind
to explain the compass and powers of their instruments, were the ways
means he used to perfect his art.
When the Conservatoire examinations of
1827, came on, Hector tried
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,
the judges, could seem to make nothing of Hector's score. The six
headed by Cherubini, the Director of the Conservatoire, voted against
aspirant, and he was thrown out a second time.
And now came to Berlioz a new
revelation—nothing less than the
of the art of Shakespeare. An English company of actors had come to
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,
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
that earth can give." He began to worship both the genius of
and the art of the beautiful English actress. Every evening found him
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
At last this sort of dumb frenzy spent
itself and the musician in him
and he returned to his normal self. A new plan began to take shape in
mind. He would give a concert of his own works: up to that time no
musician had done so. Thus he would compel her to hear of him, although
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
dared and risked so much to make a name that might attract her notice.
As Berlioz père again stopped his
allowance, Hector began to
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
he won the coveted Prix de Rome, which gives the winner five years'
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
Smithson. It happened on this wise.
Ferdinand Hiller, composer, pianist and
one of Hector's intimate
fell deeply in love with Marie Moke, a beautiful, talented girl who,
on, won considerable fame as a pianist. She became interested in the
French composer, through hearing of his mental suffering from Hiller.
were thrown together in a school where both gave lessons, she on the
and he on the—guitar! Meeting so constantly, her dainty beauty won a
place in the affections of the impressionable Hector. She was but
while her admirer was twenty-five.
Hiller saw how things were going and
behaved admirably. He called it
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
known before. My sweet Ariel was dying of anxiety when I told her the
her dainty wings were all ruffled, till I smoothed them with a word.
her mother, who does not look too favorably on our love, was touched to
"On November 1, there is to be a concert
at the Theater Italien. I am
to write an Overture and am going to take as subject Shakespeare's
it will be quite a new style of thing. My great concert, with the
Fantastique, will take place November 14, but I must have a theatrical
success; Camille's parents insist on that, as a condition of our
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
articles about it for the Revue Musicale.—My marriage is fixed for
1832, on condition that I do not lose my pension, and that I go to
for one year. My blessed Symphonie has done the deed."
The next January Berlioz went home to
his family, who were now
to his choice of music as a profession, and deluged him with
caresses and tender solicitude. The parents had fully forgiven their
"There is Rome, Signore."
It was true. The Eternal City lay spread
out in purple majesty before
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
work to the Academié in Paris.
When Hector Berlioz arrived in Rome he
was twenty-seven, and of
appearance. A mass of reddish auburn hair crowned a high forehead; the
features were prominent, especially the nose; the expression was full
sensitive refinement. He was of an excitable and ardent temperament,
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,
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
seek revenge. He started, got as far as Nice, grew calmer, remained at
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
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,
on the "Damnation of Faust." In the fall he returned to Paris. The
of his Ophelia, as he used to call Miss Smithson, was seldom long
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
old servant, he learned Miss Smithson was again in Paris, and would
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
happiness of meeting the actress the same evening. The next day he
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,
from such a nature as his. At one moment he would be in the highest
of happiness, and the next in the depths of despair. His wife's heavy
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
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
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
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.
the result was not just what the violinist wished, yet the themes
formed the basis for Berlioz' composition "Childe Harold."
The next great work undertaken by
Berlioz was the Requiem. It seems
in 1836, the French Minister of the Interior set aside yearly, 3,000
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
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.
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
bread-winning journalistic labors, if a kind friend—Ernest
not offered to lend him two thousand francs. This loan made him
for a little time, and gave him the necessary leisure in which to
The "Harold" music was now finished and
Berlioz advertised both this
the Symphonie Fantastique for a concert at the Conservatoire, December
16, 1838. Paganini was present, and declared he had never been so moved
music before. He dragged the composer back on the platform, where some
the musicians still lingered, and there knelt and kissed his hand. The
day he sent Berlioz a check for twenty thousand francs.
Berlioz and his wife, two of the most
highly strung individuals to be
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,
advisable. Berlioz made every provision in his power for her comfort,
then started out on various tours to make his compositions known.
were given in Stuttgart, Heckingen, Weimar, Leipsic, and in Dresden
both very successful. Others took place in Brunswick, Hamburg, Berlin,
Hanover, finishing at Darmstadt, where the Grand Duke insisted not only
the composer taking the full receipts for the concert, but, in
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
give a couple of monster concerts in the Exhibition Building. He got
together a body of 1022 performers, all paid except the singers from
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
Marseilles, Lyons, and Lille and then traveled to Vienna. He writes of
"My reception by all in Vienna—even by
my fellow-plowmen, the
most cordial; they treated me as a man and a brother, for which I am
"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
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
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
his fortunes. With the help of kind friends, who advanced the money, he
able to carry out the plan. He left for Russia on February 14, 1847.
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
and last of all his wife passed quietly away, March 3, 1854. With all
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
assistance to him in his work for at least fourteen years.
The remaining span of Berlioz' life was
outwardly more peaceful and
He continued to travel and compose. Everywhere he went he was honored
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
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
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
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
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
been accorded it.