Hector Berlioz

Portrait of Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer and conductor. He composed symphonies, operas and choral pieces in an individualistic style.  He was born on 11th December 1803 in La Côte-Saint-André and died in Paris on 8th March 1869 aged 65.

Major Works

“Symphonie Fantastique” (1830)
“Harold in Italy” (1834)
“Grande Messe des Morts” 
“Romeo and Juliette” (1839)
“Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triumphale” (1840)
“Les Troyens” (1858)

Biography Timeline

Louis Hector Berlioz is born on 11th December 1803 at no 83 Rue National in La Cote Saint-Andre, France to a Doctor Loius Berlin and his wife Marie-Antoinette-Josephine Marmion. He is the eldest of five children. He is educated by his father.

1815: Berlioz learns to read Latin and translates Virgil into French.

1816: Berlioz makes his earliest attempts at musical composition.

1817: Imbert, the second violin of the Theatre de Lyon, becomes his musical tutor and Berlioz learns the flute. 

1819: Berlioz composes his first published work “Le Debit de la Burger”. 

1821: Berlioz goes to Paris to study medicine in October and sees his first opera which has a profound effect on him.

1822: He studies the scores of Gluck in the Conservatoire library and decides to devote himself to music.

1823:  He writes his first oratorio and Jean-Francois Le Sueur is impressed and takes him on as one of his pupils.

1824: He is made Bachelier ès sciences physiques (12 January). He finally abandons medicine and embarks on a career in music.

1825: Berlioz’s “Messe Solennelle” is performed at Saint Rich in July. 

1826: He is eliminated from the early rounds of the Prix de Rome but undeterred he enrols at the Conservatoire. 

1827: He becomes a singer at the Theatre des Nouveautes to supplement the allowance he gets from his father. He again enters the Prix de Rome but doesn’t win. He sees two Shakespeare plays at the Odeon theatre in Paris and is particularly taken by the Irish actress Harriet Smithson.

1828: Berlioz hears Beethoven’s third and fifth symphonies for the first time at the Conservatoire. His entrant at the Prix de Rome, the cantata “Herminie”, this time wins second prize. He reads Goethe’s Faust for the first time.

1829: Berlioz publishes his opus 1 as “Huit scènes de Faust“. His cantata “Cleopatre” fails to win anything at the Prix de Rome.

1830: He begins the composition of the “Symphonie Fantastique”. His cantata “Sardanapale” wins first prize in the Prix de Rome. The “Symphonie Fantastique” is premiered at the Conservatoire on 5th December conducted by Francois-Antoine Habeneck. Franz Liszt is at the Concert and the two become firm friends. He leaves for Italy own the 30th December as a Prix de Rome Laureate he is required to spend two years there.

1831: He finally arrives at the French Academy in Rome in March. He meets Felix Mendelssohn whilst he is there. He receives a letter from his fiancé Camille Moke’s mother informing him that she has in fact married someone else while he is away. In a fit of rage he decides to go back to Paris to kill all three protagonists but later decides against it.

1832: After a long tour though Italy he finally arrives back in Paris in November. Another concert takes place on 9th December which includes the “Symphonie Fantastique”. It is a great success and in the audience are Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Nicolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, George Sand and Harriet Smithson. He finally meets the actress a few days later.

1833: Berlioz and Harriet marry each other on 3rd October at the British Embassy in Paris although Berlioz’s family are strongly opposed to the match.

1834: Berlioz composes the symphony “Harold in Italie”. Berlioz and Harriet move to Montmartre and their son Louis is born on 14th August.

1835: To earn money for his family Berlioz becomes a music critic for the Journal des Debats.

1836: Berlioz composes the opera “Benvenuto Cellini”. Harriet appears for the last time on stage in December.

1837: The “Grande Messe des Morts” is commissioned and then given its first performance at Les Invalides on 5th December. 

1838: Berlioz’s mother dies in February. “Benvenuto Cellini” receives a hostile reception at its premiere on 10th September at the Opera. 

1839: Due to a gift of 20,000 francs given to him the previous year by Paganini he is able to devote time to composing “Romeo and Juliette”. Berlioz is made Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. Richard Wagner is present at the last performance of “Romeo and Juliette” but Paganini never hears it.

1840: The “Symphonie Funebre at Triomphale” is written by Berlioz to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution.

1841:  “Les Nuits d’Ete” is completed in September. Berlioz begins a relationship with Marie Recio a mezzo-soprano singer.

1842:  Marie accompanies him on a concert tour to Brussels and then to Germany.

1843: In Germany Berlioz meets Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Robert Schumann. He composes the overture “Le Carnival Romain” later in the year back in Paris.

1844: Berlioz and Harriet separate and Berlioz moves to live with Marie Recio, however he continues to pay for Harriet’s accommodation and expenses.

1845: Berlioz is invited to the unveiling of the statue to Beethoven in his birthplace in Bonn, Germany. He begins work on “La Damnation de Faust”.

1846: Berlioz orchestrates the Hungarian National Anthem and later incorporates it into “La Damnation de Faust” as the “Marche Hongroise”. “La Damnation de Faust” ” is given its premiere in Paris in December but it is not well received and leaves Berlioz with a significant debt.

1847: Berlioz visits Russia and meets Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein in St Petersburg. He also makes his first visit to London later in the year and conducts the orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

1848: The February Revolution breaks out in Paris. Marie Recio joins Berlioz in London. His father dies in July and Berlioz visits La Cote to see his sisters. Harriet suffers several strokes and Berlioz pays for her nursing care and visits her regularly in Paris.

1849: The “Te Deum” is completed. 

1850: Berlioz forms the Society Philharmonique de Paris and takes on the paid position of Librarian at the Conservatoire.

1851: Berlioz is rejected as a member of the Institut de France. The French Government sends him to the Great Exhibition in London to review the musical instruments.

1852: Berlioz conducts more concerts in London. Franz Liszt puts on a revival in Weimar, Germany of “Benvenuto Cellini” and it becomes known as the Weimar version.

1853: Berlioz travels to London again to produce and conduct “Benvenuto Cellini” at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It only receives one performance due to a bad reception from the audience.

1854: Harriet Smithson dies in March and is buried in Montmartre. Berlioz marries Marie Recio on 19th October. Berlioz completes “L’Enfance du Christ” and it is well received at its first performance in December.

1855: Berlioz conducts the first performance of the “Te Deum“. He meets Richard Wagner in London later in the year.

1856: Berlioz begins the composition of the opera “Les Troyens” which is based on Virgil’s “Aeneid”.

1859: Berlioz is taken ill and cancels a visit to Baden Baden in Germany.

1860:Les Troyens” receives it first performance in January. He begins composing “Béatrice et Bénédict“. 

1861: Berlioz is present at the first performance of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in Paris on 13th March.

1862: Berlioz completes “Béatrice et Bénédict” (based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing“). Marie Recio dies of a heart attack at the young age of 48 and she is buried at Montmartre Cemetery. Berlioz fails to become permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He meets a young woman called Amelie in the cemetery and becomes close friends with her. “Beatrice and Benedict” is first performed at Baden Baden in August. 

1863: Berlioz breaks off his relationship with Amélie at her request.

1864: Harriet Smithson’s remains are moved to the main cemetery in Mormartre from the smaller St Vincent which was about to be demolished. Berlioz resigns as music critic of the Journal des Débats. He is made an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur. Berlioz discovers Amelie’s grave in Montmartre and discovers she has been dead for six months. He meets Estelle Fournier his first love for the first time in 40 years in Lyon.

1865: Berlioz visits Estelle Fornier in Geneva, Switzerland.

1866: Berlioz meets Franz Liszt for the last time.

1867: His son Louis, a merchant seaman, dies of yellow fever in Havana, Cuba on 5 June. Berlioz makes another visit to Russia in November.

1868: Berlioz experiences two falls in Nice.

On 8th March 1869 Berlioz dies at No 4 Rue de Calais, Paris. He is buried next to his two wives in Montmartre Cemetery.

Further Information

List of Works by Hector Berlioz.

The following is a fantastically comprehensive site covering Berlioz compiled by the husband and wife team of Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb, both academics by profession, based in universities in Scotland. Go to site.