Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Hector Berlioz

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. 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 […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Dressed to Kill

We mark the death on March 8, 1869 – 152 years ago today – of the French composer and conductor Hector Berlioz, in Paris at the age of 65. We will use this anniversary of Berlioz’ death for a two-day Berlioz wallow. Today’s Music History Monday post will frame Berlioz as a founding member of the Romantic movement and will tell a wonderful story that conveys to us much of what we need to know about Berlioz the man: his passion, his impulsiveness, and in the end, his good sense. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will delve more deeply into his biography and his proclivity for compositional gigantism, using his Requiem Mass of 1837 as an example. Background: The Romantic Era Cult (really, fetish) of Individual Expression An idealized image of the middle-class “individual” dominated the thought and art of the second half of the eighteenth century, a period generally referred to as the Enlightenment and, in music history, the Classical Era. This Enlightenment elevation of an idealized “individual person” saw its political denouement in the French Revolution (1789-1795) and its musical denouement in Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and the subsequent Romantic era cult of individual expression. Whereas Classical era […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: A Marriage Not Made in Heaven

On this date in 1833 the 29 year-old French composer Hector Berlioz married the 33 year-old Anglo-Irish actress Harriet Smithson. They tied the knot at the British embassy in Paris; the wedding was officially witnessed by Berlioz’ good bud, the pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Berlioz had moved to Paris from his hometown in the French Alps in 1822, presumably to study medicine. His passport described the 18 year-old Berlioz as being: “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.” What that passport description does not mention is that Berlioz burned with passion for pretty much everything except medicine, in particular music, theater, and literature. Predictably, he washed out of medical school within a matter of months. Unwilling to return home, he bounced around Paris living in poverty, and—when he had a little money in his pocket—he attended the opera standing room and took a few music lessons. After a rather difficult application process (it was rumored that Berlioz’ father had to bribe the admissions officer), the now 23 year-old Hector Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatory, a full five years older that most […]

Continue Reading