Berlioz, Hector

1803-1869

Indomitable is the word which should be emphasized in any review of the life of Hector Berlioz. In the adoption of music, as a profession, Berlioz had to go against the dearest wish of his father, and deep-rooted prejudices of his mother, and give up a life of comfort and ease for a Bohemian existence, whose freedom was rather dearly bought at times. And as leader in a new movement, Berlioz followed during his entire life the rock-strewn path of the reformer. Hector Berlioz was born Dec. 11, 1803, at Cote-Saint-Andre, France, a little town near Grenoble. His father was a country doctor of very considerable reputation and a well-established practice, and what more natural than that the son should be expected to follow where the father had been so successful? " Never, perhaps, was there a more unfortunate milieu for a man of genius. Handel, who was also a doctor s son, found one staunch supporter at home; Schiller, after a long struggle succeeded in conciliating his mother's antagonism, but Berlioz had both battles to fight at the same time. No opportune ally came to carry him off, as Frankh carried off Haydn; no Crown Prince surrounded his early efforts with the splendors of imperial patronage; alone and unaided he had to scale an immovable earthwork of argument under a galling fire of appeal and invective."

But there was a pleasant, sunny childhood, though mention might be made of the precocious sad love affair; the lad of eleven enamored with the maid of eighteen, Estelle of the " shining eyes " and " pink shoes." And mention might be made of the fact that a half-century later, Estelle, a half-century older, still had power to move the heart of Hector Berlioz. Some little instruction in music Berlioz received as a boy, learning to play on the flageolet, flute and guitar, his father believing in music as an accomplishment if not as an vocation. By himself, he made some study of harmony, and certain fragments of composition mark this period. Enthusiasm for the great world of music was fired by the reading of the biographies of musicians, and the discovery in his father's library of some bits of Gluck's Orfeo. It was with anxiety that the father noticed this enthusiasm, and with all haste sent off young Hector to the Medical School in Paris.

But the Academy saw more of him than the Medical School. And attendance at the opera bringing back remembrances of Orfeo, Berlioz took to haunting the Conservatory library, spending his days in the study of Gluck's scores. He now wrote his father that he had fully made up his mind to become a musician. The heated argument that came in reply did not change this decision; neither did the cutting-off of his allowance that finally resulted. He lived in a garret, on a fare of bread and dates, taught what pupils he could get, and when in extremity hired out as chorus-singer at the Theatre de Nouveautes.

Berlioz, who had applied for lessons of Lesueur, after some preliminary training had become his pupil. This inspiring teacher first treated Berlioz with consideration, and he made rapid progress, at the end of a few months of study being able to compose a mass for the Church of St. Roch. In 1823, through Lesueur, he was admitted as a regular pupil at the Conservatory; here, impatient of academic method, he came into friction with various professors, and between him and Cnerubini, the director, there arose an active hostility. A pioneer in the Romantic movement, Berlioz was looked upon as a rebel, but amid all the opposition of conservative leaders he very seldom faltered; he believed in himself and held to his ideals with unfaltering courage.

The Mass of St. Roch, which on the day of full rehearsal proved impossible of performance, Berlioz rewrote; then borrowed money of a friend to pay concert expenses, and with it scored a well-deserved success. The mass was succeeded by the following compositions: Eight scenes from Faust, the overtures Les Franc-Juges and Waverley, Symphonic Fantastique and Fantasie on Shakespeare's Tempest. But it was not until the appearance of his cantata, La Mort de Sardanapale, that the judges of the day were ready to give him the stamp of their approval. Once and again he had tried for the Prize of Rome, the winning of which meant several years of freedom from the harassment of poverty; the third time of trial, he won the second prize, consisting of a laurel wreath, a gold medal, and a free pass to the opera; a fourth time, and kept out by conservatism and hostility, Berlioz was now in actual want; a fifth time, and at last the prize was gained, with the cantata Sardanapalus. At the presentation of La Mort de Sardanapale, Franz Liszt was present and applauded with most generous enthusiasm.