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Berlioz and Shakespeare - 
A Romantic Life
Max Reichert
 
 
?Which of the two powers, Love or Music, can elevate man to the sublimest heights??It is a great problem, and yet it seems to me that this is the answer: ?Love can give no idea of music; music can give an idea of love??Why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.?   - Hector Berlioz

Classical music lovers familiar with Berlioz? Symphonie fantastique will know of the supposed genesis of the symphony: the young composer?s infatuation for Harriet Smithson, the Irish Shakespearean actress. Yet this passion was only part of the transformation that Berlioz experienced when he first saw Harriet as Ophelia in the performance of Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre, Paris, in 1827. As he relates in his memoirs, ?This sudden revelation of Shakespeare overwhelmed me. The lightning flash of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me, illuminating its remotest depths in a single flash?? From then on the dramatic works of Shakespeare shaped his musical imagination in the creation of such works as the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, and shorter works - the King Lear Overture, Fantasy on The Tempest and the memorial to his love for Harriet, La Mort d?Ophélie
 
Hector Berlioz was born in December 1803, the eldest son of Louis Berlioz, a physician in the small town of La Côte Saint-André, near the French Alps. Hector was educated at home by his father, an atheist, while Madame Berlioz, a pious Roman Catholic, took charge of her son?s spiritual education. Hector became extremely devout until, at the age of twenty or so, he also became a freethinker, although it may be that the intensity of his single minded devotion to Shakespeare replaced his religious fervour. As a child, Hector learnt the flute and guitar and had voice lessons, but there was no particular encourage-ment for him to take up music as a vocation, his father refusing to buy a piano as he did not wish his son to have an artistic career. Despite this, Hector began composing music at the age of twelve, teaching himself harmony from an old treatise on the subject. In a foretaste of the other powerful inspiration of his mature years he also fell in love - with Estelle Duboeuf, an eighteen-year-old beauty in the family?s social circle at their country home at Meylan. The inevitable gaucheries of a young boy, seized by strong, unfamiliar emotions, gave endless amusement to family and neighbours, but it was a profound, and at times embarrassing, experience for Hector. 
 
At seventeen, Berlioz was sent to Paris to study medicine, but the magnetic presence of the Opéra, and the glorious music - easily accessible in the cultured city of Paris - became an obsession, and after a year of struggle he gave up his medical studies and took composition lessons with Jean-François Le Sueur, a celebrated composer and teacher at the Conservatoire. Le Sueur was impressed by the enthusiasm and talent of his young protégé and used his influence to have Berlioz enrolled as a full time student at the Conservatoire. Unfortunately, his family opposed the move - Berlioz senior wished his eldest son to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, whilst his mother,  driven by a medieval religious belief that actors and musicians were all children of Satan, disowned her son until such time as he renounced his evil ways. An uneasy agreement was eventually reached with his father that Hector?s allowance would be restored, subject to his success in examinations; but the allowance was barely at subsistence level, and Hector was forced to supplement his allowance with his earnings as a singer in the chorus of a second-rate vaudeville theatre. His enthusiasm and natural talent impressed his teachers and he was encouraged to enter for the Prix de Rome, a prize awarded annually after competitive examination. Berlioz entered three times, coming second at his second attempt, but it was not until 1830, at his fourth try,that he was successful. As one cynic remarked, it took him four years to compose something mediocre enough to satisfy the examiners - but it may also be that Berlioz was already exhibiting a talent for offending those with the power to affect his fortunes. 
 
Outside the Conservatoire, Berlioz was leading the legendary life of the penniless young artist in Paris, living frugally and eating infrequently, but meeting socially with artists and writers - Chopin, George Sand, Liszt, Hugo, Dumas and others - who would individually leave their marks on Western culture. As a student at the Conservatoire he had free entry to theatres and similar venues, and thus gained entry to the Odéon Theatre for a fateful performance of Hamlet on the night of 11 September 1827. 

Shakespeare?s works made their appearance in France some time after their influence shaped German Romantic thought in the late eighteenth century - and it was largely through the eloquence and persistence of writers such as Stendhal, de Vigny and Victor Hugo that the Parisian public became receptive to the plays in the 1820s - so that the English acting troupe managed by William Abbot arrived in Paris in 1827 with reasonable hopes of success. Whilst it was only a modest touring company, leading actors of the London stage, including Edmund Kean and Charles Kemble, were engaged in the principal roles for the Paris season. The latter required a leading actress to play Ophelia opposite his Hamlet; however, the actress chosen for the part, Maria Foote, fell ill at an inopportune moment and a minor actress in the company, Harriet Smithson, was given the part. Although the performance of Hamlet was entirely in English it was a huge success, mainly because of the emotional power of Harriet Smithson as the grief stricken Ophelia, who became the toast of Paris: so much so that it was unthinkable for another actress to replace her during the Paris season. The emotionally fragile Berlioz was shattered by the experience. Two nights later the company staged Romeo and Juliet, again to rapturous applause for Harriet, this time as Juliet, and it became a legend that Berlioz had cried ?I will marry that woman and write my grandest symphony on that play? - something he was later at pains to deny. He was not alone in his enthusiasm: Harriet became a symbol of Romanticism for the group of young artists in Paris at the time - she is the model for the famous Delacroix painting La Mort d?Ophélie which hangs in the Louvre. 
 
The obsessed and distraught Berlioz made every effort to make the young lady?s acquaintance, without success. The season ended and the company moved on to Amsterdam and London. However, Harriet Smithson was back in Paris by 1829 and Berlioz continued to write to her, still with no response. He therefore decided to make her aware of his existence by arranging to have one of his overtures performed at a benefit concert in which Harriet was to perform some excerpts from Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately he appeared at rehearsal just as Harriet, as the dead Juliet, was being carried offstage, and made such a scene that poor Harriet was terrified and gave instructions that the crazed Frenchman was not to be allowed anywhere near her person. ?Beware the gentleman whose eyes bode no good,? she told her colleagues. His case appeared hopeless and he was forced to rest in bed for some days with what was diagnosed as ?nervous collapse?. At the Conservatoire he continued to compose, both for the Prix de Rome, and following his own creative path. He had discovered Goethe?s Faust and written Huit Scènes de Faust, which in years to come would be expanded into The Damnation of Faust - one of his great works. But, more importantly, under the influence of Shakespeare and Goethe and driven by his unrealised passion for Harriet, he wrote the music by which he is most remembered, Symphonie fantastique or Episodes in the Life of an Artist, with the epigraph  on  the  title  page,   ?As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.? The fascinating programme of the symphony and its lurid movement titles, including ?March to the Scaffold? and ?Witches? Sabbath?, immediately caught the imagination of entrepreneurs, but the instrumental resources available were inadequate for Berlioz? ambitious score and the first performance was a fiasco. However, important figures in the music world - including Franz Liszt, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship - were impressed by what they had heard. 

Following his success in the Prix de Rome and while waiting for the formalities to be completed, Berlioz accepted an appointment as a guitar teacher at a girls? school. There the piano teacher was an attractive eighteen-year-old woman, Camille Moke, a friend of an acquaintance. The flirtatious young lady let it be known to Hector that Harriet was having affairs with her leading men - which was quite untrue. But the news had the effect of unhinging Hector?s already unstable emotions and he wandered the countryside for days, grief stricken. When he returned, Camille was waiting to console him, and after a short idyll in the country which caused him to forget Harriet completely, they were betrothed. Berlioz tried desperately to avoid the two years? residence in Rome required as a condition of his prize, but was unsuccessful, leaving for Rome in January 1831, after spending New Year at La Côte Saint-André with his family, now reconciled to his choice of career and proud of their son?s success. 
 
Berlioz arrived at the Villa Medici in Rome early in 1831. His first action was to request permission of Horace Vernet, Director of the French Institute in Rome, that he be allowed to return to Paris, but he was told that any return to French soil within two years would result in cancellation of his pension. Lonely and avoiding social contact, he spent his time reading King Lear and waiting for a letter from Camille; but the letter which eventually arrived was not from Camille, but her mother, to say that Camille was now married to M. Pleyel, the head of the large piano manufacturer (and obviously a much better catch than a penniless musician). 
 
To a young Romantic, the circumstances clearly demanded a dramatic response. First Hector visited a dressmaker and purchased a dress, hat and wig, then took, without permission, the case of pistols kept at the Institute for defence against brigands. His plan was to return to Paris, to inveigle his way into Madame Moke?s dining room disguised as a lady?s maid when the family were at dinner, and shoot first Madame herself, then her deceitful daughter, followed by the unfortunate bridegroom, leaving the last bullet for himself. He set off for Paris with the courier, but unfortunately, on arriving at Genoa, his disguise was missing, the carriage together with  his disguise having been changed at the previous stop. 
 
Driving along the corniche to Nice, listening to the waves break on the shore, Hector began to realise the absurdity of his behaviour and drafted a letter to Vernet requesting permission to return to the Institute (which was readily given). While awaiting a reply, he sojourned at Nice, swimming in the sea, walking on the beach, flirting with the girls and starting work on his King Lear Overture
 
Back in Rome, Berlioz passed the time touring ancient buildings and ruins with architects and painters, roamed the Abruzzi mountains with his guitar, drinking wine and exchanging folk songs with the brigands who dwelt in the mountains - some of whose music would appear in the last movement of Harold in Italy - and he put the finishing touches to Symphonie fantastique and King Lear. He also met Felix Mendelssohn, not yet twenty and already famous for his Overture to A Midsummer Night?s Dream. The rather precious German was initially not impressed, writing to his father that Berlioz was a freak without a spark of talent who could only talk of Beethoven; but later in life they became close friends. 
 
 Berlioz returned to France in May, 1832 anxious to have the revised symphony performed before an influential audience. He found that Harriet was also back in Paris; unfortunately, her career had not progressed; she had not been successful in London and the William Abbot company had broken up in disarray because of Harriet?s insistence that she should receive half the takings, as it was her that people came to see.  She was now Director of the reformed company, but Shakespeare was no longer a novelty in Paris and audiences were poor - she was facing bankruptcy to the tune of 6000 francs.

  On 9 December 1832 the rewritten Symphonie fantastique was performed before a glittering audience, including Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt and the great violin virtuoso, Paganini. Harriet was also present, as guest of the editor of an English magazine in Paris - and was the subject of knowing glances by those aware of the personal drama being enacted. Reading the libretto she instantly recognised herself and also the tempestuous young man who had pursued her. The symphony was a triumph and Berlioz was acclaimed by his peers - Paganini announced that Berlioz began where Beethoven and Weber left off - and Harriet was at last won over. Introductions were made through a mutual friend; they met and talked of the events of the previous five years - and by the end of the week they were engaged to be married.

  Both families were opposed to the match and even Franz Liszt counselled his friend against the marriage. Berlioz senior refused to accept an ?actress? into the family and Harriet?s mother in Ireland had heard the story of the mad Frenchman who had pursued her daughter. The woes of Harriet?s indebtedness were compounded by an accident she suffered while alighting from a carriage, resulting in a broken leg. An elder sister, sent from London to nurse Harriet, took an instant dislike to Hector, and the long engagement was marred by bitter quarrels and a suicide attempt by Hector. Harriet eventually agreed to a date and the wedding took place on 3 October 1833.

  The marriage was everything Berlioz had dreamed of, despite the fact that he did not understand spoken English and Harriet had no French, and even though he had assumed Harriet?s debts and horrendous medical bills, while neither had any sort of regular income or resources. Their only child - a son, Louis, born in 1834 - added to the financial burden; music alone would not provide the wherewithal to live and Berlioz therefore embarked on his career as a writer of articles and reviews for various periodicals, the income from which was to sustain the family for years to come.

  In December 1838 Berlioz unexpectedly received a gift from Paganini of a bank draft for 20,000 francs; the accompanying note said in part, ?Beethoven is dead and only Berlioz can revive him ...? Having paid off his debts, Berlioz resolved to repay his generous patron by writing ?a masterpiece, full of passion and imagination?: the result was his great symphony Roméo et Juliette. Before commencing work he studied five existing  works  on  the  subject, finding them all inadequate in expressing what to him was the essence of Shakespeare - the pure expression of romantic love.

  Roméo et Juliette is a dramatic symphony - a choral symphony with some parts which are almost operatic, with verses by the poet?s friend Emile Deschamps, who translated several of Shakespeare?s plays into French during the 1830s. The symphony is based on the eighteenth-century Garrick version of the play, which extends Act 5 to include a funeral procession, so that the ending is prolonged; to the Shakespearean the tragedy might appear more that of the Montagues and Capulets than of the two lovers, as the drama opens with the skirmish between the rival houses and ends with their reconciliation, effected by the catharsis of the lover?s deaths. The heart of the symphony is the adagio of the lengthy third movement - Scène d?amour - a purely orchestral expression of the balcony scene in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play. Here the evocation of place and the lovers? tender exchanges are superbly realised by the interweaving of strings and woodwind ensembles in different registers, given effect by Berlioz? innovative use of the new instruments introduced into the orchestra in the early nineteenth century.

  The symphony is in seven movements:

 1.   Introduction - Combat, Tumult, Intervention of the Prince

 2.  At the Capulets? House - Romeo  alone, Sounds of Ball
 
 3.  Balcony Scene - Serene Night,  Capulets leaving Ball, Love Scene
 
 4.   Queen Mab Scherzo

 5.   Funeral Cortege

 6.   Tomb Scene - Romeo at the Capulets? Tomb
 
 7.   Finale - Crowd at Cemetery, Friar Laurence Aria, Oath of Reconciliation
 
  Like much of Berlioz? music, the symphony was not well received by his contemporaries, despite the fact that he had a strong personal following and the respect of composers such as Robert Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn His developing reputation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe was not matched at home; he was passed over for positions, including one at the Conservatoire, for which he was clearly the best qualified. It may be that his powerful talent for orchestral composition was not appreciated by the Paris musical establishment, centred as it was on an operatic tradition. However, his conducting of Roméo et Juliette in 1839 was a critical and popular success, and from this time he began to build a reputation as a conductor, both of his own works and also those of Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn. Neither a piano or violin virtuoso, he was able to engage with all the instruments of the orchestra, and went to great pains to study and understand their capabilities and limitations; he also appreciated the skill and dedication of the musicians themselves: unlike many of his contemporaries he treated them with respect and as equals.     Using   the knowledge he had accumulated as composer and conductor, he wrote his Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration, published in 1843, which, although not the first work on the subject, became the standard text for musicians for over a hundred years - it was revised and edited by Richard Strauss in 1905.

 Unfortunately, Berlioz? increasing success, particularly following triumphant tours through Germany, aided by Liszt and Mendelssohn, was not reflected in his personal life. Harriet?s career had not flourished after the marriage - her broken leg had left her with a permanent limp and she had put on weight after the birth of her son, so that she was no longer a credible Juliet. She became increasingly shrewish and made Berlioz? life intolerable; eventually she was found to be addicted to eau de vie, a highly addictive alcoholic beverage in vogue at the time. Berlioz rented a cottage in the country and a nurse to care for her and embarked on an exhausting series of tours through Europe to earn the money necessary to support his extended family. His companion on these tours was a young Spanish/French soprano, Marie Recio (Marie Genevieve Martin) who insisted on singing at the tour concerts. But he never forsook Harriet, during the unhappy years before their separation in 1844. Berlioz wrote La Mort d?Ophélie in memory of the wonderful actress he had fallen in love with all those years ago. The verses of Ernest Legouvé were adapted from Gertrude?s speech in Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet ?There is a willow grows aslant a brook?. Through all these family trials, their son Louis suffered a miserable and lonely existence, living at boarding school until at fifteen he expressed a desire to go to sea. His cadetship on board a training vessel was costly and added to the financial burden Berlioz was already experiencing with Harriet?s medical costs. Once at sea, Louis was impressed to find that his father?s fame had spread to foreign countries, and in time he became close to his parents.

  In 1844, Harriet suffered a stroke and was incapacitated for the remainder of her unhappy life - she died in 1854. Liszt wrote from Weimar, ?She inspired you, you sang of her, her task was done.? Now free, Berlioz married Marie Recio, but her voice had not improved with age. Critics were uniformly unkind and even her loyal supporter, Berlioz, was eventually forced to confide in a letter to Liszt, ?She sings like a cat.?

  Through all his personal vicissitudes, Berlioz continued to compose. In 1854, he wrote the Christmas oratorio L?Enfance du Christ, and the following year his most ambitious work Les troyens, an enormous opera to be performed over two nights, including a love duet between Dido and Aeneas, based on the verses in Act 5, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. But the scale of the work gave his enemies at the Opéra the excuse that the work was too expensive to stage. Eventually, the second part, Troyens à Carthage, was staged at a smaller theatre and was received with enthusiasm. For some months in 1860, the Opéra vacillated between Les troyens and the premiere of Wagner?s Tannhauser, finally settling for the latter, and the complete opera was never performed in Berlioz? lifetime. In 1860 he was given a commission to write a comic opera to celebrate the opening of a new theatre at Baden Baden, the fashionable German Spa. Béatrice et Bénédict is based on Much Ado About Nothing; Berlioz himself wrote the libretto borrowing dialogue straight from the play, reducing the cast to the two pairs of lovers, plus Don Pedro and Ursula, and introducing a new comic character in the musical pedant Somarone, a satirical sketch of members of the Paris musical establishment he had been at odds with for most of his life. The premiere of the opera at Baden Baden was a huge success, its light-hearted story and melodic score ensuring its permanent place in the comic opera repertoire.

   While  rehearsing  Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz was interrupted by the news that Marie Recio had taken ill. By the time he reached her bedside she had died of a heart attack at the age of 48; Berlioz was now alone in the world, his only son being away at sea. In his loneliness he was seized by the urge to revisit the Meylan of his youth, which led to a meeting with Estelle Duboeuf, now Madame Fornier, a widow and a grandmother. While honoured by the attention of the famous Hector Berlioz, she made it clear that there was no room in her life for a deeper relationship and his loneliness continued.

  In June 1867, Berlioz received the sad news that Louis had died of yellow fever in Havana. When he had recovered from the shock he went to the Conservatoire and, with the aid of the porter, burnt all the mementoes of his life, keeping only the conductor?s baton given to him by Mendelssohn and a guitar, a present from Paganini.

  In the same year, he visited Moscow and St Petersburg to give a series of six concerts, but he was ill and stayed in bed at the palace except for rehearsals and concerts. It was winter and the exhausting journey permanently damaged his health. On his return to Paris he immediately left for Nice to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine, but while walking on the shore he slipped and fell on the rocks, possibly because of a stroke. He had to return to Paris and lived there as an invalid until his death on 8 March 1869.

  His funeral was a day-long ceremony with all the notable figures in the musical and art world present. He was buried in the family plot at Montmartre cemetery between Harriet and Marie Recio. Those who had frustrated his soaring talent throughout his career now posthumously honoured him and celebrated his greatness.

Bibliographical Note

Most of what is known of Berlioz is drawn from his Memoirs, 1803-65, the main source of the present article. Good modern translations are by Ernest Newman (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1932) and David Cairns (Gollancz, London, 1977). Cairns is also the author of the most recent 2 volume life, in Penguin. An earlier life is by Holoman in Faber. Berlioz? massive contribution to the development of the modern symphony orchestra is held in translation by the State Library of Victoria - Call No A 781.374.

From Vol.2  No.2: December 2001 and Vol.2  No.3: March 2002 of the "The Melbourne Shakespearean"
 

 

 
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