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Timeline: Hector Berlioz

U.S. Public Domain
Hector Berlioz was brash and opinionated, isolating others and himself. Yet his work and writings have influenced generations of composers.

Hector Berlioz was passionate about music, love and literature. He was brash and opinionated, isolating others and ultimately himself. Although he was unappreciated during his lifetime, today he stands as the quintessential French Romantic composer of the 19th Century.

Berlioz was the eldest child of a respected doctor in La Cote. He received the bulk of his education from his father and was self-taught in music from an early age. His childhood was lived vicariously through romantic literature; everything he knew came from books. Unlike his contemporaries, he never learned to play the piano

At 17, his father convinced him to follow in his footsteps and study medicine, sending Berlioz to Paris.  But Hector’s heart was in music.

In his “Memoires” he wrote that his father wanted him to “Become a doctor! Study anatomy! Dissect! Take part in horrible operations – instead of giving myself body and soul to music… Forsake the highest heaven for the wretchedest regions of earth… No, No! It seemed to me the reversal of the whole natural order of my existence”. Yet he did it, for two years.

But the call of music was too powerful to ignore. He was in Paris, after all, and for the first time he was hearing the operas of Salieri and Gluck. He tried his hand at writing music for the stage; early success encouraged him to leave the study of medicine. This created a rift between Hector and his family. They were no longer going to support him financially. He was forced to borrow and piece together a living from teaching and writing articles for the local press. His writing later became a primary source of income.

Berlioz didn’t see rigid lines between musical genres. His work blurred cantata and opera, song and symphony together.  For instance, in 1828 Berlioz heard Beethoven’s 3rd and 5th symphonies for the first time, inspiring him to write his “Symphonie Fantastique” a dramatic work that stretches the definition of a symphony. Later Berlioz was commissioned by the virtuoso Niccolo Paganini to write a viola concerto which became his “Harold in Italy”.

Berlioz wrote the book on instrumentation, influencing generations to come in the art of orchestration. His work was a source of inspiration for the next generation of composers including Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and later Debussy and Ravel.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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