Of Music and Muses: Hector Berlioz’s Obsessive Love

Of Music and Muses: Hector Berlioz’s Obsessive Love
It can often be said that love has no limits or boundaries, but obsession does. This is no more true than in the relationship between the French composer, Hector Berlioz, and the Shakespearean actress, Harriet Smithson. In the years following the French Revolution (1789), a new movement called Romanticism flourished in France. Romantics were devoted to the pursuit of beauty, passion, love, spontaneity, feelings and emotions, rather than reason and logic. Among the most renowned proponents of French Romanticism were the painter Eugène Delacroix, the writer Victor Hugo, and the composer Hector Berlioz. Berlioz and Smithson’s love story remains the most representative of French Romanticism. Louis-Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803 in La Côte-Saint-André in Isère, near Grenoble. His father was a doctor and his mother a devout Catholic. As a young man he studied medicine in Paris, but his passion for music eclipsed his parent’s desire for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Under the tutelage of the French composers Antoine Reicha and Jean-François Lesueur, he became a master of the symphony. Reicha had rubbed shoulders with Haydn and Beethoven in Vienna, and trained with Antonio Salieri, while Lesueur was Napoléon Bonaparte’s court composer and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory. Dosed with genius, Berlioz modernized the musical forms of his contemporaries Beethoven and Haydn, particularly with his extravagant and imaginative orchestral epic, Symphonie fantastique. The symphony tells the story of the composer’s self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman, by describing his desperate anguish and wild dreams with lyrical ecstasy and melancholic despair. That woman was Harriet Smithson. Portrait of Harriet Smithson, Irish actress and wife of Hector Berlioz, 19th c. Public Domain Berlioz was just 24 years old when a troupe of English actors came to Paris and gave a performance of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Odéon Theatre, which he attended. Though the play was performed in English, and Berlioz didn’t understand a single word, the aspiring young composer became completely besotted both by the playwright’s skill and by the young Irish actress, Harriett Smithson, who portrayed Ophelia. “Shakespeare, falling thus unexpectedly upon me, dismayed and astounded me. His lightning, in opening to me the firmament of art with a sublime thunderclap, illuminated the most distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, dramatic truth…. My heart and whole being were possessed by a fierce, desperate passion in which love of the artist and the art were interfused, each intensifying the other.” After the play he wandered the streets of Paris, lost in a torrent of emotions.

Lead photo credit : Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Public Domain

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.