Sunday, November 13, 2011

Booty Call from Berlioz: It's Fantastique!
(A Few Fun Facts on Hector Berlioz)

By Debra Krein of Fein Violins

I think it's probably safe to say, that at one point or another, we've all done something crazy in the name of "love" (and/or "lust," as the case may be).

Composers are, of course, no different. Why, one might even venture to say that, due to the creative nature of a composer, they may be prone to even crazier actions, done in the name of love, than say, a rocket scientist. But that's all based upon stereotypes, and not much else. (And we all know that stereotypes are always completely factual.)

So, without further ado, I present to you a few fun facts on Hector Berlioz, and the crazy things he did for love. (Trust me, this is fun stuff!)

Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 - March 8, 1869) was a French composer of the Romantic era (quite apropos, no?), most famous for his piece, Symphonie Fantastique.

Hector Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
What a handsome bloke.

In 1827, Berlioz watched Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, at the Odéon Theatre, where she played the parts of Ophelia and Juliet, in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, respectively.

Fun Facts on Hector Berlioz

Infatuation, then Rejection
This led to Hector's intense infatuation with Harriet, and he began sending her numerous letters, introducing himself and expressing his romantic interest. But alas, Harriet found Hector's persistent love letters to be overzealous and, quite frankly, just a little desperate; and she turned up her nose to the idea of any romantic goings-on with the composer.

Being a man who knew how to take a hint, Berlioz gave up on Harriet Smithson... at least for the time being.

If at first you don't succeed... well, just write a symphony
Moving right along, now. In 1830, Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique, a piece fueled by his obsession with Harriet Smithson. (So much for getting over her.) As anyone, wise in the ways of love, is aware, the best way to obtain the one you desire, is to outwardly appear as though you care-eth not about him or her, and to stir within them an intense jealousy... by dating someone else. Or, if you're really committed to the whole jealousy thing, you dive right in, and make plans to marry that "someone else". Everybody likes a good challenge, after all.

As we are beginning to see, Berlioz is a man who never does anything without fully committing, so he went ahead, and began a relationship with - and became engaged to, Camille Moke. (All of this, in 1830; quite the fun-filled year for Berlioz.)

He began and finished the composition of the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, a work which would bring Berlioz much fame and notoriety. He entered into a relationship with – and subsequently became engaged to – Camille Moke, despite the symphony being inspired by Berlioz' obsession with Harriet Smithson (it was essentially his "booty call" symphony).

This is where the story really gets fun!
However, Berlioz would soon be informed, by Camille Moke's mother, that Camille was breaking off the engagement, and was now betrothed to marry a man richer than Berlioz. And, bonus: her new beloved shared the same first name as her! Camille Moke's new man was Camille Pleyel. (Isn't that just precious?)

This enraged Berlioz immensely and, being a man of passion, he came up with a fun little plot to kill Camille, Camille, and Camille M's mother. Berlioz' plot, as any good murder plot does, included a costume. Berlioz planned to shoot the whole lot of them, while dressed in full drag, and he even purchased a dress, wig, and a hat with a veil (umm, total fashion faux pas alert!).

Simply beside himself, Berlioz figured "Ahh, to heck with it!" (or something like that), and planned to off himself as well, after offing the other three wretched folk.

Hector even had a back-up plan to poison the Camilles and Camille's mother, in case his pistol jammed... but his careful planning could not account for his own human error, and mid-journey, Berlioz realized that he had left his disguise in the side-pocket of a carriage. This gave Berlioz a chance to cool off; he gathered his thoughts, and decided his whole murder-suicide plan was a bit reckless, and decided to skip it all. (Ahh, too bad, it sounded like such fun!)

But wait! The fun doesn't stop there...
So, after Berlioz decided not to carry out his murder plot, he moved back to Paris, in 1832. Upon his return, there was a concert, which included Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique; and who should be in the audience? Why, none other that Harriet Smithson!

A few days after this concert, Harriet and Hector were finally introduced, and soon began a lovely courtship... even though Hector could not understand spoken English and Harriet knew no French (minor details!).

The couple married on October 3, 1833, and the very next year, Harriet gave birth to the couple's only child, Louis Berlioz; who, reportedly, was a source of initial disappointment, anxiety, and eventually pride, to Hector. (Does anyone else find this amusing?)

Many exciting events followed, including the receipt of a gift of 20,000 francs from Niccolò Paganini, who commissioned Berlioz' Harold en Italie, a symphony for viola and orchestra; which Paganini initially disproved of, later changing his mind, and declaring Berlioz "a genius and heir to Beethoven".

He's still got it!
Ever the ladies' man, Berlioz found himself a mistress, in 1842 - one Marie Recio, an opera singer, who would later become his second wife.

In 1844, Hector officially separated from the original lady of his heart, Harriet, who had turned to the bottle, in order to soothe her sadness over her failed acting career. However, even after their separation, Hector continued to support Harriet financially (what a stand-up guy!), until her death, in 1854.

One year later, Berlioz married his mistress, Marie Recio, writing to his son, that, after having lived with her for so long, it was his duty to do so. (Good chap, jolly good chap.)

However, this happiness was also short-lived, and Marie died unexpectedly, on June 13, 1862, at the age of 48, from a stroke.

But don't cry for Berlioz, because he soon met a 24-year-old woman, Amélie, at Montmartre Cemetery (because cemeteries are the best place to meet people!), and they developed a very "close relationship".

That's pretty much where the fun stuff stopped for Berlioz. After that, it was largely just depression and death of loved ones. Ahh, but such is life.

Hector Berlioz died on March 8, 1869, at his home in France, surrounded by loved ones, and all that good stuff.


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  1. Thanks for these facts! They're very useful and interesting.

  2. Wow! Thanks for this information! It was very useful for finding out about Berlioz's background information with Symphony Fantastique :)