Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures — Hector Berlioz: Dressed To Kill

So here’s what happened.

In 1830, the 26-year-old composer Hector Berlioz fell in love with an adorable 18-year-old pianist named Camille Molke. Within a couple of weeks they were under the covers (ahem!); within a month they were unofficially engaged. Camille’s mom, however, had other ideas. She proceeded to put Berlioz through more hoops than a circus dog, finally packing him off to Rome so that he might compose an opera “worthy of her daughter”. Soon after arriving in Rome, Berlioz received a letter from Camille’s mother informing him that Camille had married a rich geezer and that he – Berlioz – should quit causing trouble and GET OVER IT.

Hector Berlioz reacted poorly.

Let us observe Berlioz’s reaction through the lens of our contemporary break-up “literature”. …

Breakup, Stage 1: The Protest Stage. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, “at this point, emotions range from despair to rage to intense love and hatred.”

Yes indeed, Berlioz’s first reaction was murderous rage. His initial plan of action: kill the entire Molke family and then commit suicide.

According to contemporary thinking, this was not an entirely constructive reaction. Men’s Health magazine recommends that Berlioz should have hit the gym instead, as cardiovascular and resistance training have been proven to reduce anger, tension, and fatigue. (Am I the only one who would love to have seen Berlioz in gym shorts?)

Breakup, Stage 2: The Obsession Stage. MRI studies have shown that the recently jilted have elevated activity in several regions of their brains, including those that control anger suppression, risk taking, and obsessive thinking.

Well, this fits Berlioz to the proverbial “T”, because obsessively brood he did. Berlioz’s brooding led him to take what he believed was a proactive stance. He acquired a pair of double-barreled pistols, some vials of poison, and had himself fitted for a French maid’s outfit(!) in which he could slip, disguised, into the Molke house.

Once again, Berlioz was at odds with contemporary “jilt” literature, which suggests that rather than plot murder and suicide, he should have joined a basketball league or softball team, or gone on a road trip with a buddy. According to the aforementioned Dr. Fisher, “Men recover by doing things with peers, not by talking it out.”

Breakup, Stage Three: The Acceptance Stage.Unless someone is truly psychotic, intense, brain-addling rage can burn for only so long before physical and mental exhaustion snuff it out. And while it is true that time wounds all heels, it is likewise true that time heals most wounds.

Berlioz’s rage-induced fire went out while he was on a stagecoach passing through Nice, about half-way back to Paris from Rome.

At this stage, the contemporary literature advises jiltees to express their feelings in a journal or in letters to friends and family. Folks are advised NOT to drunk-dial their exes as, we are told by David Sbarra, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Arizona, “Our studies show that you’ll always feel worse after making contact with your ex.”

Berlioz, luckily, did not have the means to drunk-dial Camille. But he did – as we would have advised him to do – fire off letters to friends and family announcing what had happened and assuring everyone that he was okay.

Breakup, Stage 4: The Worst is Over Stage. A University of Virginia research team found that by one month after a split, jilted men were just as happy as those still involved in relationships. While we cannot attest to Berlioz’s specific happiness level, we do know that he returned to Rome and got on with his life, which was to last another 39 years.

For the full scoop on this extraordinary episode in the life of the artist, stay tuned to “Scandalous Overtures” on Ora TV for “Hector Berlioz: Dressed to Kill!”

Watch the episode below:


  1. Learning and laughing at the same time. It’s Professir Greenberg’s fault.

  2. Loved it.