Hector Berlioz (French: [ɛktɔʁ bɛʁljoːz]; 11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians.
He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler.
Hector Berlioz was born in France at La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, near Grenoble. His father, Louis Berlioz, a respected provincial physician and scholar who is widely credited for first experimenting with and recording the use of acupuncture in Europe, was responsible for much of the young Berlioz’s education. Louis was an agnostic, with a liberal outlook; his mother, Marie-Antoinette, was a devout Roman Catholic. He had five siblings in all, three of whom did not survive to adulthood. The other two, Nanci and Adèle, remained close to Berlioz throughout his life.
Berlioz was not a child prodigy, unlike some other famous composers of the time; he began studying music at age 12, writing small compositions and arrangements. As a result of his father’s discouragement, he never learned to play the piano, a peculiarity he later described as both beneficial and detrimental. He became proficient at guitar, flageolet and flute. He learned harmony from textbooks alone—he was not formally trained. The majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces.
While yet at age twelve, as recalled in his Mémoires, he experienced his first passion for a woman, an 18-year-old next-door neighbour named Estelle Fornier (née Dubœuf). Berlioz appears to have been innately Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature, as well as Shakespeare and Beethoven, and his weeping at passages by Virgil (by age twelve he had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father’s tutelage).
In March 1821, Berlioz left high school in Grenoble, and in late September, at age 18, he was sent to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected. (He gives a colorful account in his Mémoires.)
He began to take advantage of the institutions to which he now had access in the city, including his first visit to the Paris Opéra, where he saw Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer whom he came to admire above all, alongside Ludwig van Beethoven.
He also began to visit the Paris Conservatoire library, seeking out scores of Gluck’s operas and making personal copies of parts of them. He recalled in his Mémoires his first encounter with Luigi Cherubini, the Conservatoire’s then music director. Cherubini attempted to throw the impetuous Berlioz out of the library since he was not a formal music student at that time.
Berlioz also heard two operas by Gaspare Spontini, a composer who influenced him through their friendship, and whom he later championed when working as a critic. From then on, he devoted himself to composition. He was encouraged in his endeavors by Jean-François Le Sueur, director of the Royal Chapel and professor at the Conservatoire.
In 1823, he wrote his first article—a letter to the journal Le corsaire defending Spontini’s La vestale. By now he had composed several works including Estelle et Némorin and Le passage de la mer Rouge (The Crossing of the Red Sea) – both now lost;– the latter of which convinced Le Sueur to take Berlioz on as one of his private pupils.
Despite his parents’ disapproval, in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. He composed the Messe solennelle. This work was rehearsed and revised after the rehearsal but not performed until the following year. Berlioz later claimed to have burnt the score, but it was re-discovered in 1991.
Later that year or in 1825, he began to compose the opera Les francs-juges, which was completed the following year but went unperformed. The work survives only in fragments; the overture has been much recorded and is sometimes played in concert.