The French composer Hector Berlioz was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement. His work was full of his own thoughts and feelings, inspired by events from literature, and packed with novel ideas. Many of his works, like him, were on a larger than life scale - not fully appreciated in his own day - and, as a conductor, his knowledge of the different instruments and his lively direction made him the founder of modern orchestration. He gained recognition with his weird Symphonie fantastique of 1830, an opium induced fantasy about unrequited love, and his major works included Roméo and Juliette of 1839, The Damnation of Faust of 1846, Te Deum of 1850, and three operas, including The Trojans of 1858. He introduced new, exciting concepts of form and harmony, including his “fixed idea”, a recurring theme by which he united the different elements of his programme music. In 1843 he wrote his influential Treatise on Modern Instrumentation. Among his large circle of friends and acquaintances were Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, and the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, whilst his powerful, vigorous music inspired the likes of Charles Gounod, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

HECTOR BERLIOZ 1803 - 1869  (G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb)


Berlioz: by the French artist Émile Signol (1804-1892), 1832 – Académie de France, Rome. Fantastique: engraving by the Austrian artist Andreas Geiger (1765-1856), 1846 – Musée de l’Opera, Paris. Paganini: after the German artist Karl Joseph Begas (1794-1854) – Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands. Concert: date and artist unknown – National Library of France, Paris. Schumann: pencil drawing by the French artist Jean Joseph Bonaventure Laurens (1810-1890), 1853 – Bibliothèque Inguimbertine, Carpentras, France. Childhood: by the French painter Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), 1890 – Tacoma Art Museum, Pierce County, Washington. Clara: by the Austrian artist Andreas Staub (1806-1839), 1838. Nicolai: detail, printed lithograph by the Austrian artist Josef Kriehuber (1800-1876), 1842.

xxxxxThe French composer Hector Berlioz, along with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, was one of the foremost figures of the romantic era. Ever determined to go his own way, he used his music to express his own thoughts and feelings, and, for the most part, found his inspiration in dramatic events and locations featured in literature. And like the man himself, his music was full of emotion, bursting with energy, and packed with new ideas, seen at its best in his famous Symphonie fantastique of 1830, his Roméo and Juliette of 1839, and his cantatas The Damnation of Faust, in 1846, and the Infant Christ, completed in 1854. And to these must be added his three operatic works, Benvenuto Cellini of 1838, The Trojans of 1858, and Béatrice and Bénédict, produced in 1862. (As a young man he was known as “Mad Hector with the Flaming Locks”).

xxxxxBut Berlioz was an outstanding conductor as well as a brilliant composer, and these skills combined to make him the founder of modern orchestration. His knowledge and understanding of the increasing range of individual instruments enabled him to produce and direct orchestrated compositions on a large, imposing scale. These were not always appreciated in their day, particularly in France, but the musical innovations they introduced helped to increase the expressive role of the orchestra, and his Treatise on Modern Instrumentation of 1843, the first book of its kind, played an important part in the development of 19th century music in general.

xxxxxBerlioz was born at La Côte-Saint-André, near Grenoble in the French Alps. As a boy he learnt to play the flute and guitar, but his father, a doctor, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. However, while in Paris attending the School of Medicine, he became inspired by the operas of the German composer Christoph Gluck, and decided that his future lay in music - much to the annoyance of his parents. He began his studies at the Paris Conservatory in 1826, but it was not until 1830 that his cantata La Mort de Sardanapale gained him the coveted Prix de Rome. By that year, however, he had fallen in love - at a distance - with a young Shakespearean actress named Harriet Smithson and, with her in mind, had produced his first major work, the Symphonie fantastique.

xxxxxThis work, fantastic in every sense of the word, was a piece of programmed music, the first of its kind, which traced the episodes in the life of a love-sick musician - Berlioz himself. His unrequited love and its tragic consequences are played out as if on a stage, developed through the symphony’s five movements, and explained via copious notes to the audience. The young man’s hopes and dreams eventually give way to despair, and after attempting suicide by taking an overdose of opium, he is plunged into a nightmare world in which he murders his beloved and witnesses his own execution. The final movement follows his descent into a gruesome world of spirits, sorcerers and weird monsters. This myriad of moods and emotions is captured by brilliant orchestration, and the occasional use of selected instruments, the music ranging from the sedate to the vivid, weird and chaotic. The diverse nature of the symphony is united by what Berlioz called his “fixed idea” (Idée fixe), a short, recurring musical theme signifying the appearance of his beloved. This fantastic symphony, one of the most original and imaginative works of the century, attracted a mixed reception. The Italian operatic composer Gioachino Rossini was not impressed, and the German composer Felix Mendelssohn described it as “indifferent drivel”, whilst the Hungarian piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, known for his love of the unusual, thought so highly of it that he wrote a piano transcription of it in 1833.

xxxxxBerlioz spent two years in Italy and during his stay composed the overtures The Corsair and King Lear. It was while in Rome that he met the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, and made a life-long friend of Felix Mendelssohn. On his return to Paris he married Harriet in October 1833, and to supplement his income, became a successful music critic, writing principally for the Gazette Musicale and Le Journal des Débats. Among his friends at this time were the French poet Alfred de Vigny and the great pianist Frédéric Chopin. In 1834 he was commissioned by Niccolò Paganini (illustrated) to write a work for the viola. In fact, the work he composed, Harold in Italy, was a four movement orchestral piece in which the solo viola was given an extensive but, nonetheless, limited role. Nevertheless, the virtuoso violinist was greatly impressed when he heard the composition in 1838. He declared Berlioz a genius, and the following day sent him 20,000 francs. This generous gift enabled him to spend time composing Roméo and Juliette - a marked success - and his first opera Benvenuto Cellini - a marked failure. Meanwhile his Requiem, produced in 1837, was written for 110 violins, an enlarged brass section, and a choir of more than two hundred.

xxxxxBerlioz and Harriet separated in 1842, and it was in that year that he embarked on a series of long concert tours abroad, often traveling with his new lady friend, the singer Marie Recio, whom he married in 1854. These trips took him to Germany, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Russia and London, where he conducted his own works, and gained recognition both as an innovative composer and a new-style conductor. Foremost amongst his compositions at this time was his brilliant overture Roman Carnival, and two highly ambitious works, his dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust, premiered in 1846, and his colossal Te Deum of 1850. But these works, conceived on a spectacular scale, failed to attract the concert-going Parisian public. His Damnation, for example, based on an earlier version and requiring a chorus and a large orchestra, was poorly attended and harshly criticised, and his Te Deum - originally envisaged with a choir of eight hundred! - was only performed once during his lifetime. Likewise his opera The Trojans, based on Virgil’s Aeneid and completed in 1858, was on such a grand scale that it was not performed until 1863, and then only in part. Such works, the product of Berlioz’ lively imagination, were ahead of their time.


xxxxxHe completed his third opera, Béatrice and Bénédict in 1862. It was to be his last composition. Marie died in that year, and he himself, embittered by the lack of public interest in his work, began to suffer from depression and ill health. The death of his son Louis in 1867 deeply distressed him and, following a conducting tour in Russia, he died in Paris in March 1869.

xxxxxThe Symphonie fantastique remains Berlioz’ best known work, but over the years his operas and other grand compositions, denounced in his day, have added to his stature as a composer and orchestrator. In his choice of themes he was especially inspired by the works of Shakespeare, whilst in his music he was indebted to Ludwig van Beethoven for his development of programme music. And he learnt new concepts of form and harmony, and probably the idea of a recurring theme, from his friend Franz Listz. For his part, numerous composers, including Charles Gounod, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, were inspired and influenced by his powerful, unorthodox music, and the boost he gave to the growth and flair of the Romantic orchestra. Indeed, the modern orchestra was effectively created by Berlioz, and he himself paved the way for the maestros of the next century.

xxxxxIncidentally, we are told that when he began studying at the school of medicine in Paris - sent there by his father - he was so shocked at the sight of his first corpse that he jumped out of the window and ran off. He returned and spent two unhappy years as a medical student before leaving to devote his life to music. ……

xxxxx…… The term “fixed idea”, which Berlioz used to describe his idea of a recurring musical theme, was actually a medical term referring to a stubbornly held belief that cannot be changed by reason. He would have learnt about this when he was studying medicine. ……


xxxxx…… The Symphonie fantastique owed much to Beethoven. In his Pastoral Symphony the German composer had used each of the five movements to describe a particular emotion. Building upon this idea, Berlioz produced a piece of programme music which told a story by a series of scenes, in much the same way as in a theatre production.


Robert Schumann

xxxxxLike Hector Berlioz, the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a leading romantic composer who based most of his music on events from literature, but put a great deal of his own thoughts and feelings into his compositions. He produced a wide variety of music, including symphonies, concertos and choral work, but he excelled in songs and short piano pieces, noted for their lyrical quality and the outpourings of his memories and dreams. Notable among these were Carnival, Butterflies, Arabesque, Scenes from Childhood, and the song cycles Woman’s Love and Life and Poet’s Love. He was also a respected music critic, and edited his own journal, the influential New Musical Magazine, for ten years. During this time he came to know musicians such as Wagner, Berlioz and Chopin. Two friends in particular, the German composers Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms, did much to make his music known across Europe. He died at the age of 46 after a period of mental illness. His wife, Clara Schumann, was a composer and pianist in her own right.


xxxxxThe German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), was a principal figure in the Romantic Movement in the early 19th century and, like his fellow romantic Hector Berlioz, based many of his compositions on characters and scenes from poems, plays and novels. Music, he declared, was “an outlet for my feelings”. During his career, cut short by mental illness, he composed a wide variety of music, including choral work, sonatas, four symphonies, and concertos for piano, violin and cello, but today he is remembered especially for the lyrical quality of his song cycles and short piano pieces.

xxxxxSchumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony. He began piano lessons when he was six and, as the son of a bookseller, acquired an interest in literature from an early age. As a boy he composed a number of songs and played at school concerts and music soirées, but despite the promise he then showed, his parents had earmarked him for the legal profession. After the death of his father in 1826 he reluctantly attended the universities of Leipzig and Heidelberg, but he showed no interest in his law studies and, after attending a concert by the great violin virtuoso Paganini, determined to become a musician. In 1830, with his mother’s blessing, he abandoned his law course and returned to Leipzig to study under a well-known German teacher named Friedrich Wieck (1785-1873). He published his first works that year. In 1832, however, he suffered a grave misfortune. He badly injured one of the fingers of his right hand - how this happened is not quite clear - and this put an end to his hopes as a virtuoso pianist. As a result, he spent more time on composing, and also took up a career as a working journalist. In 1834 and for the next ten years he edited his own highly influential journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (The New Musical Magazine) and gained a well-earned reputation as a discerning and respected critic. It was during this time that he championed the Romantic cause, and came to know musicians such as Wagner, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Chopin.

xxxxxDuring the 1830s Schumann gave much of his time over to the composition of short piano pieces. These delightful musical expressions, based on literary themes or exploring his own inner feelings and memories, proved to be among his most enduring works. They included Carnival, Butterflies, Arabesque, Scenes from Childhood, Kreisleriana and a set of variations entitled Symphonic Studies. Then in 1840, after years of bitter opposition from his former teacher Friedrich Wieck - who doubted his capacity for hard work - he married his daughter Clara Wieck, herself an accomplished pianist and composer of songs and piano pieces. She helped him with his composition, and the effect was quite remarkable. In the space of that year he composed no less than 138 songs, inspired works about love and wedded bliss which included his well-known song cycles Liederkreis, Myrtles, Woman’s Love and Life, and Poet’s Love.


xxxxxThe 1840s saw the production of his first and second symphonies, his String Quartets and Piano Quintet, and his incidental music to Byron’s verse drama Manfred. It was during this period, however, that the stress of constant work began to take its toll, and he suffered a serious recurrence of the bouts of depression that had plagued him since his youth. He was appointed to the staff of the newly-founded Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, - where Felix Mendelssohn was the director - but found the work too demanding and broke down under the strain. He and Clara settled in Dresden the following year, and his health showed some signs of improvement, but in 1850 he agreed to become the director of music at Dusseldorf and the many demands of this appointment made worse his disturbed state of mind. He managed in that year to produce one of his finest orchestral pieces, his famous “Rhenish” 3rd Symphony, but after this his mental state deteriorated rapidly. In February 1854 he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, and then finished his days in a private asylum at Endenich, aged 46. It was a tragic ending for a musician of such promise whose music, often so full of joy and serenity, has survived the test of time.

xxxxxThe variety and the range of Schumann’s compositions are remarkable, as is the number of works he produced in a career that was so tragically short and so often troubled. As a true romantic, his work is of a highly personal nature, be it in his interpretation of a particular poem or drama, or in the outpourings of his own thoughts and feelings, often triggered by his memories of childhood, his delight in nature, and his love for Clara.

xxxxxHis orchestral work and chamber music have passages of rare beauty, grandeur and joyfulness, to be seen in his “Spring” Symphony, for example, his Piano Concerto in A minor, and his Paradise and the Peri of 1843. Essentially, however, Schumann was not fully at home in composing large scale works for the concert hall. It was in his songs and piano pieces, rounded and concise, that his intimate thoughts and dreams could be appreciated in their purest and most concentrated form, and it is in that form that he excelled. And two musicians who did much to make his music known across Europe was his close friend Felix Mendelssohn, and the German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms, who supported his family after his death.

xxxxxIncidentally, Schumann’s wife Clara (née Wieck) (1819-1896) was a child prodigy and had gained a European reputation as a pianist and composer before the age of 20. Apart from many solo piano pieces she wrote chamber music and orchestral works. After her marriage to Schumann in 1840, she not only helped him in his compositions, but also played many of his piano pieces - in between having eight children! On New Year’s Day 1846 she gave the first performance of his Piano Concerto in A minor. A close friend of Brahms, she continued to play and go on tour until her death in 1896, aged 77. ……

xxxxx…… Uncertainty still remains as to how Schumann hurt one of his fingers on his right hand, thereby ending his hopes of becoming a concert pianist. The general explanation is that the damage was done while he was using a gadget he had devised to strengthen his fingers. His wife, however, blamed a stiff dummy keyboard that he used to practise on, and Schumann himself very seldom referred to the accident. He put it down to “too much writing”, but, in fact, it might have been caused by the mercury he was taking to treat syphilis. ……

xxxxxAnotherxGerman composer who deserves mention here is Otto Nicolai (1810-1849). It was in this year, 1846, that he completed his operatic version of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. This is his best known work - noted especially for its joyful overture - but during his short life he also wrote four other operas, orchestral and choral works, some pieces for solo instruments, and a number of songs. He served as musical director at the Vienna Court Opera, and became the first conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1841. He died from a stroke at the age of 39, just two months after the premiere of his famous opera, and just two days after his appointment as director of the Berlin State Opera. On the day of his death he was elected a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts.