Berlioz: Romantic music's great original

Christopher Follett of the Berlioz Society introduces the vision and romanticism of the French master

According to the poet Théophile Gautier, French Romanticism’s trilogy consisted of Victor Hugo in literature, Eugène Delacroix in painting and Hector Berlioz in music. Born on the fringes of the Alps in southeast France, near Grenoble, Berlioz lived from 1803 to 1869, embracing the new Romantic movement sweeping Europe from the 1820s onwards and articulating it through his remarkable compositions. The Symphonie fantastique, premiered in 1830, when he was only 27, just three years after Beethoven’s death, gave ample early evidence of his originality. It was followed by equally groundbreaking works, such as the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) with its stupendous passages for multiple brass groups contrasted with extended sections of otherworldly contemplation; or his three operas – particularly, perhaps, his great masterpiece the five-act, four-hour long The Trojans (Les Troyens). Retelling Virgil’s tragic story of the fall of Troy and the ill-fated lovers Dido and Aeneas, it combines nineteenth-century Romanticism with his love of the classics and emphasises Berlioz's ability to create the musical clarity worthy of Gluck in parallel with his use of a revolutionary sound palette. As for many romantics, Shakespeare was Berlioz’s god (Berlioz even went as far as to marry a Shakespearean actress!), but he also worshipped Goethe, Byron and Sir Walter Scott, while composers Beethoven, Weber and Gluck exercised great influence over him.

Hector BerliozEven Berlioz’s detractors could not deny his incredible mastery of the orchestra, using hitherto unheard-of instrumental combinations to create whole new tonal colours. In tandem with this, he devised new musical forms to suit his unique vision, such as his symphonic, semi-choral treatment of Romeo and Juliet; the "sacred trilogy" The Childhood of Christ; and the "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust. Of this last piece, Sir Thomas Beecham once said it contains "a bunch of the loveliest tunes in existence" – a claim equally valid for many other of Berlioz's works.

"Only Berlioz dared mix his genres as Shakespeare did", said the conductor Sir Colin Davis, "and only Berlioz, I think, comes near to Shakespeare in his ability to suspend the forward motion of time by the creation of unbelievable and scarcely bearable beauty".

Resident in Paris most of his life, Berlioz knew a wide variety of great and influential artists including Balakirev, Balzac, Chopin, Delacroix, Dumas, Glinka, Hugo, Ingres, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, George Sand and Wagner. The story of his life is central to the cultural history of the 19th century. Famed as a master orchestrator and conductor, Berlioz achieved greater renown abroad in his lifetime than in France, travelling and performing extensively in Germany and eastern Europe, visiting Russia on two occasions and London five times.

Perennially thwarted in his search for a permanent and well-paid position in French musical life, he earned his living much of the time from his pen, writing countless articles of musical criticism and a number of books, culminating in Memoirs as vivid as his best music. He was one of the most literary of all composers, and one of the most accomplished writers about music there has ever been. Thanks to the power of his prose, we can form a full and vivid picture of his life.

On his death bed Berlioz’s last words were reportedly: "They are now finally going to play my music". Full recognition finally came in the 1960s and 70s when Berlioz’s music began finally to be appreciated by concert audiences in a major revival led notably by the conductors Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Colin Davis in Britain and Charles Munch and Serge Baudo in France.

To mark the 150th anniversary of Berlioz's death, the Three Choirs Festival is to perform three of the French master's works in Gloucester in 2019:

Saturday 27 July (evening concert)
La Damnation de Faust with Susan Bickley, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and David Ireland

Tuesday 30 July (evening concert)
Le Carnaval Romain overture with works by Elgar and Joubert, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Thursday 1 August (evening concert)
Les Nuits d'été song cycle, sung by Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Click here to find out more about the Berlioz Society

Christopher Follett