Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Hector Berlioz: Requiem

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was not just a great composer, but a wonderful writer as well. He left behind a not-insignificant body of prose. In the 1830s he made much of his living writing reviews and essays (and continued to write reviews almost to the end of his life, even when he no longer needed the income). He wrote a famous book on orchestration which was first published in 1844; and in 1865 he completed his Memoirs at the age of 62. His writing is remarkable for its devastating wit, incision, clarity, and stylistic elegance.

Hector Berlioz in 1863 by Pierre Petit
Hector Berlioz in 1863, soon after completing his Memoirs

Berlioz begins his Memoirs with the following passage. His sense of irony, his ego and his self-deprecatory/facetious sense of humor are all on immediate display:

“I was born on the 11th of December 1803 at La Cote Saint André, a very small town in France situated between Vienne, Grenoble, and Lyon. During the months that preceded my birth, my mother never dreamt, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a branch of laurel. However painful to my beloved mother this confession may be, I ought to add that neither did she imagine, like Olympias, the mother of Alexander, that she bore within her a fiery brand. Strange, I admit, but true. I came into the world quite naturally, unheralded by any of the signs which, in poetic ages, preceded the advent of remarkable personages.”

Berlioz grew up in post-Revolutionary France. He was 24 years old when Ludwig van Beethoven died and as such he was of that first generation of composers whose “inheritance” included Beethoven’s proto-Romantic legacy of self-expression and originality.

As a child, Berlioz was neither a prodigy nor even a particularly gifted musician. He taught himself to play the flute and guitar, but had, overall, only the very spottiest of musical “educations” (if we can dignify it by even calling it an “education”).

As we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the problem with “autodidacts” – the problem with the “self-taught” – is that they usually have lousy teachers. It’s a statement we can’t really argue with. But as it turned out for the late-blooming Berlioz, ignorance was bliss. As a composer, his approach to form, orchestration, harmony and counterpoint were self-evolved. Having never learned to do things the “right” way, he was able to make conceptual leaps and take creative risks that a “proper” music education would almost surely have inhibited him from doing.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Because, despite his passion for music, it was understood that he would follow in his father’s professional footsteps: he would go to medical school in Paris and then return home to go into the family practice. Very much against his wishes, Berlioz was packed off to medical school in Paris in 1822 at the age of 18. His passport – which he obtained at the age of 18 in order to travel to Paris – contains the following physical description:

“About five foot three or five foot four in height, red hair, red eyebrows, beginning to grow a beard, forehead ordinary, eyes gray, complexion high.”

We’ll let Berlioz himself describe his arrival at medical school:

“When I arrived in Paris in 1822 with my fellow student, Alphonse Robert, I gave myself up entirely to the career which had been forced upon me, and faithfully kept the promise given to my father at parting. But I was sorely tried when Robert announced one morning that he had bought a subject, a corpse, and asked me to accompany him to the dissecting room at the [hospital].

When I entered that fearful, human charnel house littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corner gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window and fled home, as if death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was 24 hours before I recovered from the shock, utterly refusing to hear the words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me!”

So much for medical school. Unwilling to return home in disgrace, Hector Berlioz – med school washout – bounced around Paris and lived in poverty.

In 1823, he began attending the Paris opera in standing room, and when he had some money he would take a few music lessons. Meanwhile, back at home, his parents assumed that sooner or later their wayward son would come to his senses, realize that he had no real talent for or future in music, and that he’d return to medical school.

(We’ve all heard this before: a kid drops out of college after a year or two, deciding that, “like, this is not who I am, man”. He gets a job at a bike shop or waiting tables while his parents despair; “When is he going to grow up, smarten up, come to his senses? What a waste!” That’s Hector Berlioz and his parents, right there.)

In 1826, after four years of knocking around and now back at home, that Berlioz’ parents finally blinked. Again, it’s best to let Berlioz tell the story himself… continue reading, only on Patreon!

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