The man and his achievements

Hector 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, composed when he was only 26, gave ample early evidence of his originality. It was followed by equally groundbreaking works, such as the Requiem with its stupendous passages for multiple brass groups contrasted with extended sections of otherworldly contemplation; or his operas – particularly, perhaps, his great masterpiece The Trojans. Retelling the 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 and Mozart in parallel with his use of a revolutionary sound palette.

Even his 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".

He knew a wide variety of great and influential artists including Balakirev, Balzac, Chopin, Delacroix, Dumas, Glinka, Hugo, Ingres, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Rimsky-Korsakov, George Sand and Wagner. The story of his life is central to the cultural history of the 19th century.

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.

The single most thorough website for all things Berliozian is the Hector Berlioz website. It is a treasure trove covering all aspects of his life and work, whilst remaining very accessible.


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