Hector Berlioz

As a boy Hector Berlioz learned the flute, guitar and, from treatises alone, harmony; his first compositions were "romances" and small chamber pieces. After two unhappy years as a medical student in Paris he abandoned the career chosen for him by his father and turned decisively to music, attending Le Sueur's composition class at the Conservatoire. He entered for the Prix de Rome four times and finally won. Among the most powerful influences on him were Shakespeare, whose plays were to inspire three major works, and the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he idolized, pursued and, after a bizarre courtship, eventually married . Beethoven's symphonies too made a strong impact, along with Goethe's "Faust" and the works of Moore, Scott and Byron. The most important product of this time was his startlingly original, five-movement Symphonie fantastique.

A lofty idealist with a leaping imagination, Hector Berlioz was subject to violent emotional changes from enthusiasm to misery; only his sharp wit saved him from morbid self-pity over the disappointments in his private and professional life. The intensity of the personality is inextricably woven into the music: all his works reflect something in himself expressed through poetry, literature, religion or drama. Sincere expression is the key - matching means to expressive ends, often to the point of mixing forms and media, ignoring pre-set schemes. In Les troyens, his grand opera on Virgil's "Aeneid," for example, aspects of the monumental and the intimate, the symphonic and the operatic, the decorative and the solemn converge. Similarly his symphonies, from the explicitly dramatic Symphonie fantastique with its "idée fixe", to the picturesque Harold en Italie with its concerto element, to the operatic choral symphony tone poem Roméo et Juliette, are all characteristic in their mixture of genres. Of his other orchestral works, the overture Le carnaval romain stands out as one of the most extrovert and brilliant. Among the choral works, Faust and L'enfance du Christ combine dramatic action and philosophic reflection, while the Requiem and Te Deum exploit to the full Berlioz's most spacious, ceremonial style.