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 Search Beat > Arts > Music > Styles > Classical Music > Featured Composer > Hector Berlioz


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biography - Louis Hector Berlioz

Louis Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 - March 8, 1869), French Romantic composer best known for the work Symphonie Fantastique, subtitled “An episode in the life of an artist,” first performed in 1830. He was born in the south of France at La Cote-St. Andre near Grenoble. In 1869 he died in Paris and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre.

He became involved early on with the French romantic movement in Paris. Among his friends were writers such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. Later, Theophile Gautier would write:

“Hector Berlioz seems to me to form with Hugo and Delacroix the Trinity of Romantic Art”

Berlioz is said to have been innately romantic; experiencing emotions deeply from early childhood. This manifested itself in his weeping at passages of Virgil as a child, and later in a series of love affairs. Several times his affections were unrequited: his love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson was the inspiration for his Symphonie Fantastique. He planned to murder Marie Moke, another of his loves, and then commit suicide, after he heard that she was to marry the piano maker Pleyel. However, Berlioz was residing in Rome at the time under a Prix de Rome scholarship, and she was in Paris. He got as far as Nice before giving up the idea.

Hector Berlioz is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre with his two wives, Harriet Smithson (died 1854) and Marie Recio (died 1862). Berlioz's remains are due to be moved to the The Panthéon in 2003, the year of the bicentenary of his birth.

The The Hector Berlioz Website is to be found at www.hberlioz.com.




The music of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is characterized by irregular phrase lengths, odd rhythms, and vivid dramatic expression. As a pivotal early Romantic figure, he wrote many works that fell outside the known and accepted musical forms of his time.

recommended recordings
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique / Davis, Concertgebouw
Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Ensemble: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Uni/Philips - #11425 / July 7, 1987

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Sir Colin Davis's 1974 account of the Symphonie fantastique with the Concertgebouw Orchestra has ranked among the best since the day it was made: refined, sensitive, and full of passionate reverie, it's a high-voltage performance that never seems overdriven. Avoiding the tendency of many conductors to treat the work in episodic terms, Davis presides over a reading that is sustained by a firm sense of structure and argument. He elicits fine playing from the Concertgebouw orchestra, whose...Read more


  Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, etc / Paray, Detroit SO
Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Paul Paray
Ensemble: Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Uni/Mercury Classics - #34328 / February 16, 1993

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This classic from 1960 is among Paul Paray's best recorded efforts, and that is at dizzying heights. The artist sticks to the score closely, yet utilizes the wide range of the conductor's art to mesmerizing effect. The waltz is demonic, the Sabbath manaical, the reveries and passions neurotic to the point that we have a portrait of Berlioz himself with all his obsessions. Paray is really the only conductor to give us all this and not have the work run away from him. Throughout, the Detroit Symphony revels in its virtuosity, with power to burn, tossing off wind passages in particular as if they were bon-mots. For my taste, this is one of the finest Berlioz recordings of all time.


Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette / Davis, Borodina, Moser, Miles
Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Performer: Olga Borodina, Alastair Miles, et al.
Ensemble: Bavarian Radio Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Uni/Philips - #42134 / July 23, 1996

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Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette is a typical hybrid. While it seems that Berlioz was absolutely incapable of writing music that was not inspired by literature, he was just as incapable of sticking to the story once his inspiration got flowing. His version of Shakespeare's drama has a "reconciliation" ending nowhere to be found in the original, and Berlioz spends a good part of the work illustrating incidental scenes completely irrelevant to the main thread of the plot (like Queen Mab, for...Read more


Ravel: Schéhérazade, Berlioz: Nuits d'été / Norman, Davis
Composer: Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Performer: Jessye Norman
Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Uni/Philips - #12493 / July 7, 1987

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The most important thing to remember about Les Nuits d'été is that there's only one quick song and one moderate one to balance out three long, slow ones. Although the work is not a cycle in any coherent sense, most performers do the pieces in Berlioz's final order: the quick one first, then the three slow ones, then the moderate one. This makes for a very long middle. Norman's rich, dark voice might be thought a bit heavy for this particular order, but she has another card up her sleeve: Her...Read more


  Berlioz: Les Nuits d'été; et al / Crespin, Ansermet

Composer: Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel, et al.
Conductor: Ernest Ansermet
Performer: Régine Crespin, John Wustman
Ensemble: Suisse Romande Orchestra
Uni/Decca - #460973 / August 10, 1999

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Here is a great French artist singing the songs of her native country in her native language, with the natural inflection and empathy of one to the manner born. Her voice is beautiful, pure throughout a huge range, focused, intense, infinitely nuanced; she can make it float ethereally or glow with a shimmering radiance, brighten and darken it and carry on two-way conversations. Identifying complete with each song, she communicates its mood, atmosphere, character, expression. She captures the pensive dreaminess, plaintive yearning, outpouring of grief and lamentation, as well as the gaiety and lighthearted teasing of Berlioz' many-faceted Les Nuits d'Été. In Ravel's Shéhérazade, her voice becomes part of the exotic, languidly oriental atmosphere created by the lush, sensuous, glittering orchestration, surging up with the sweeping buildups to thrilling climactic high Gs and B-flats, matching the tremulous flute solo in the second song. The orchestra plays wonderfully, exploiting Ravel's infinitely imaginative, vivid coloration to the utmost. Crespin evokes the secretive intimacy, dream-drugged passion and ice-bound rigidity of Debussy's Songs of Bilitis. In the Poulenc songs, the contrast between the almost tear-choked mournfulness and the frolicking humor is riveting. John Wustman's splendid partnering adds greatly to the enchantment of this delightful recording. --Edith Eisler

The Royal Edition - Berlioz: Requiem, etc / Bernstein
Hector Berlioz(Composer), et al
Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Performer: Stuart Burrows, Jennie Tourel
Ensemble: French National Radio Chorus, ORTF National Orchestra, et al.
Sony Classics - #47526 / July 28, 1992

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Berlioz' Requiem needs a performance of spontaneous brilliance and almost manic intensity to come off. The reason is simple. The big movements--the Dies Irae sequence and Lachrymosa--use a huge chorus and a full orchestra including four brass bands (stationed in the four corners of the concert hall), eight sets of timpani (10 players), and additional percussion. After that, everything else sounds anti-climatic, unless the conductor somehow manages to keep the tension flowing through the quiet...Read more


Berlioz: Les Troyens / Dutoit, Lakes, Pollet, Voigt, et al

Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Performer: John Mark Ainsley, Michel Beauchemin, et al.
Ensemble: Montreal Symphony Chorus, Montreal Symphony Orchestra
Uni/London Classics - #43693 / October 18, 1994

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In the absence of Colin Davis's pioneering Les Troyens recording on Philips (temporary, one hopes), Charles Dutoit's more recent 1993 outing with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gives a vital, idiomatically French account of the opera, despite mixed success with the singers. Few operas are as nightmarish to cast as this epic about the Trojan War and its aftermath, and it would have been better made either a few years earlier when Plácido Domingo and Jessye Norman were still...Read more


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