Fantastic Romantic Berlioz
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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) lived life as a drama and cast himself as its tragic, poetic hero, struggling toward truth and beauty in the midst of a crude and uncomprehending society. Which is to say, Berlioz was the quintessential Romantic. You’ll hear it This Week at the MSO, when music director Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra take up Berlioz’s greatest hit, the Symphonie fantastique. The symphony tells a fevered story, about a young man consumed by passionate love and jealousy. He takes opium to try to forget the woman who has spurned him, but instead falls into a druggish nightmare in which he murders the girl and hangs for it. Pretty juicy, but not as juicy as the real-life back story. Let’s start way back: Berlioz, the son of a small-town physician, grew up reading overheated Romantic literature from his father’s library. Jean Pierre Claris de Florian’s Estelle et Némorin (1788) made a particular impression on him as a child and perhaps led Berlioz into his life-long habit of mixing up art and life. When Berlioz was 12, he went completely nuts over an 18-year-old girl who lived in his town. By all accounts, she was a lovely creature, but here’s what drove Berlioz mad: Her name was Estelle. As in Estelle. “The moment I beheld her, I was conscious of an electric shock; I loved her,” Berlioz wrote years later, in his autobiography. “From then on, I lived in a daze… I lay awake whole nights disconsolate. By day I hid myself in maize fields or in the secret corners of my grandfather’s orchard, like a wounded bird, mute, suffering. Jealousy plagued me.” It wouldn’t be the last time. Estelle Fornier of course moved on with her life, but she never was entirely rid of Hector Berlioz. (More on Estelle later). Fast-forward to Paris, 1827. Young Hector had quit the medical training his father had planned for him and was studying counterpoint and composition at the Paris Conservatory. He was determined to be a composer and conductor. He was a controversial troublemaker, of course.
But the Symphonie fantastique began not in the Conservatory, but at the theater. Shakespeare, at the time, was little known in France. An English company had traveled to Paris to stage Hamlet. Berlioz attended on opening night. Of course his first Hamlet stirred the young fellow, but one Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) affected him more than the Bard of Avon. The young actress entered as Ophelia, and Berlioz lost it. Berlioz had a bit of a reputation around Paris as a rising young wild man composer, but Smithson had never heard of him. He sent her letters during the company’s extended stay in Paris and got himself and his music out in public as much as he could to try to get her attention. He even stalked her. But they never met, and Smithson and the company returned to England in 1829. A trifle such as failure to meet the woman was not about to extinguish Berlioz’s ardor. “I have just been plunged again into all the tortures of an endless and unquenchable passion, without cause, without purpose,” Berlioz wrote, to a confidante. “She is still in London, and yet I seem to feel her around me. I hear my heart pounding, and its beats set me going like the piston strokes of a steam engine. Oh! Unhappy woman! If she could for one moment conceive all the poetry, all the infinity of such a love, she would fly to my arms, even if she must die from my embrace.” That is the stuff of the Fantastic Symphony. Also in that letter, written in February of 1830: “I was on the point of beginning my grand symphony, in which the development of my infernal passion is to be depicted; I have it all in my head, but I can write nothing.” Well, he did write something, after he heard (later discounted) rumors that Smithson was carrying on with her manager. That bitter pill cured him to the point that he wrote out the dramatic scenario of the piece that we know today and to start getting the music onto paper. In April of 1830, Berlioz outlined the drama in another letter to his confidante: “Here is how I have put together my novel, or rather my tale, whose hero you will have no difficulty in recognizing. Imagine that an artist… as the result of an odd whim, whenever the image of the loved one appears before his mind’s eye it is accompanied by a musical thought in whose character he finds a grace and nobility akin to those he attributes to his beloved. This double idée fixe pursues him incessantly; that is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the chief melody of the first allegro.” It goes like this. So art bleeds into life. And vice-versa. And it gets better.
Berlioz, on the rebound from a non-existent affair with Smithson, became engaged to Camille Moke (1811-1875), a pianist, before he left for Italy for his Prix de Rome fellowship in 1831. Soon after, he heard that Moke had thrown him over for Camille Pleyel, a wealthy piano manufacturer. He flew into a rage and dashed back to Paris, planning to murder them both and Moke’s mother, and then to kill himself. When he arrived in Nice, he calmed down and decided that serial murder might not be the best course of action. Instead, he used it as inspiration for the piece that would eventually become Lelio. (And again, art and love and life get all mixed up.) Berlioz returned to Italy where, among other things, he revised Symphonie fantastique, which had been given a public performance as a work in progress in Paris in December of 1830.
He returned to Paris to stay in November of 1832. Guess who was back in town? Berlioz by utter chance rented the apartment that Harriet Smithson had just given up in favor of new Paris digs. From the autobiography: “I stood aghast at the extraordinary series of coincidences. It was fate. I saw it was no longer possible to struggle against it. For two years I had heard nothing of the fair Ophelia… and we had just missed each other in the same house. “If I went to the English theater and saw her again before I had given my concert, the old delirium tremens would inevitably seize me. …I would be incapable of the attention and concentrated effort which the enterprise demanded. Let me first give my concert. Afterwards I would see her, whether as Ophelia or as Juliet, even if it killed me. I would give myself up to the destiny which seemed to pursue me.”
Remember, Berlioz is a dim figure in her consciousness, and she knows nothing of his music. In any case, she did not know until she arrived at the concert that Berlioz was the star composer for the evening. But she could sense the buzz of excitement in the crowd when she appeared in her box. Everyone in the joint knew that she had inspired the music — everyone knew but Smithson. She caught on during Lelio, in which text spoken by a narrator made it pretty clear: “Oh, if I could only find her, the Juliet, the Ophelia for whom my heart cries out! If I could drink deep of the mingled joy and sadness that real love offers us, and one autumn evening on some wild heath with the north wind blowing, lie in her arms and sleep a last, long sorrowful sleep!” It’s corny, and Lelio was really more about Moke, but it worked. Smithson and Berlioz married in the fall of 1833. Soon, they were miserable. Small-r romantic marriages tend to work out better than Romantic ones. Smithson and Berlioz separated in 1844. When Harriet died, in 1854, Berlioz married singer Marie Recio, his long-time mistress. She died, in 1862, and Berlioz began to withdraw from criticism, which was a big part of his later career, from composing and from conducting. His circle of friends narrowed to just a few. In 1864, he returned to his hometown, Meylan. He heard that Estelle Fornier, now a widow of 67, was living in Lyon. She agreed to receive him. “My soul leapt out towards its idol the moment I saw her, as if she had still been in the splendor of her beauty,” Berlioz wrote. He spent the next three summers with her in Geneva, where Estelle had gone to live with her son. How Romantic is that? Sources: Fantastic Symphony, An Authoritative Score with Historical Background, Analysis, Views and Comments, by Edward T. Cone, W.W. Norton and Company, 1971; Oxford Music Online/Grove Music Online; HBerlioz Online; A History of Western Music, by Donald Jay Grout, W.W. Norton, 1973.
The MSO will perform the Symphonie fantastique, Delius’ The Walk to the Paradise Garden and William Walton‘s Violin Concerto at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 10-11, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Gil Shaham will be the violin soloist. Tickets are $25-$95 at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414 291-7605) and at the Marcus Center box office.