Berlioz: a thrilling comeback by the master of the grand gesture

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The verdict on the composer Hector Berlioz when he died 150 years ago was decidedly mixed. Respected by some, dismissed by others, his music was loved by only a few. It would take the passing many anniversaries for Berlioz’s star to rise in his native France, although he became increasingly appreciated abroad, notably here in the UK. When his opera The Trojans was finally premiered complete in Paris it was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. But, amazingly, that was not until 2003.

Berlioz had an acute musical ear and an extraordinary, teeming imagination. His music could be thrilling, but also unsettling, ten indefinable. The French couldn’t pin him down, so they explained him away: he was brash, opinionated, given to extravagant experiments and crazy projects. They caricatured him as a bushy-haired, wild-eyed necromancer presiding over vast orchestras with massive ranks brass and percussion. But that was far from the whole story: size was never for size’s sake. It was only part a quest by Berlioz for something that would touch us most dramatically and proundly – because music matters. “Music and love,” he said, “are the wings the soul.”

Berlioz lived his life at a high level drama and controversy, documented with style and wit in his sparkling Memoirs. He was also for many years the trenchant music critic a leading newspaper, the Journal des Débats. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he could also be disarmingly genial. Eliot Gardiner sums him up succinctly: “He would have been a wonderful person to share a bottle wine with – though he’d first have placed his two pistols on the table. He was never without them!”

Berlioz: a thrilling comeback by the master  the grand gesture


Those pistols date from Berlioz’s hot-headed youth, when he raced back to Paris from Rome intent on murder because his fiancee had broken f their engagement. Fortunately, he only got as far as Nice, where he abandoned the idea and instead composed an overture based on King Lear. Berlioz’s passion for Shakespeare was fuelled by his infatuation for the Irish actor Harriet Smithson whom he saw play Juliet and Ophelia. Smithson became the elusive muse for his cinematic Symphonie Fantastique – a hallucinatory tale unrequited love. She did eventually consent to marry him, but it didn’t end well …

In his pressional life, Berlioz both railed against the establishment and aspired to join it, seeking election to the prestigious Institut de France. As a musician, however, his views were unequivocal. He advised all composers to become good conductors, so that their works would not be mangled by incompetents – pointing the finger at François Habeneck the Paris Opera, his particular bête noire. Berlioz admired others his contemporaries, however, and revered notable composers who had gone before, especially Gluck, Mozart, Weber and Beethoven. His landmark Treatise on Orchestration is full examples from their works, as well as from his own.

When we marked Berlioz’s anniversary on BBC Radio 3 earlier this year, we wanted to celebrate his genius in writing for an orchestra. So we abandoned the usual broadcast schedule for a weekend and created a festival live broadcast concerts across the UK with all the BBC Orchestras, Choirs, BBC Singers, and Ulster Orchestra. It was an appropriate tribute to the master the grand gesture! The Proms, too, have picked up the Berlioz baton this summer with the gentler aspects on his art in evidence in Les Nuits d’été and The Childhood Christ – both available on BBC Sounds. Still to come is Benevenuto Cellini and the Symphonie fantastique. We are promised an “orchestral theatre staging” for the symphony, and the Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon will be performing it from memory. Berlioz would surely have been amazed, given the problems he had just trying to get his musicians to read the notes on the page.

Berlioz: a thrilling comeback by the master  the grand gesture


Benvenuto Cellini was Berlioz’s first opera and a resounding failure at its premiere in Paris. The novelty the music proved too much a challenge for performers (led by Habeneck) and audience alike, and it’s still rarely performed. The plot is loosely based on the turbulent life Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor Cellini and concerns the casting his famous statue Perseus. Towards the end, the desperate Cellini hurls every last available bit metal he can find into the furnace to complete the casting. It’s a defining moment – a metaphor for Berlioz himself, fearlessly throwing everything he had into his life and art.

Cellini emerges triumphant with his masterpiece, wins the girl he loves, and is blessed by the Pope. For Berlioz the rewards were not so immediate, but he has undoubtedly emerged triumphant. His is a truly unique musical voice, crafted with distinctive shapings melody, spacings harmony, juxtapositions instruments – and an urgency to communicate. “To render my works properly,” he said, “you need a combination extreme precision and irresistible verve, regulated vehemence, dreamy tenderness, and an almost morbid melancholy.”

Benevenuto Cellini is at the Proms on 2 September and the Symphonie fantastique on 12 September. All Proms are available to listen to live on Radio 3 and then on BBC Sounds for 30 days. Edward Blakeman is head music, BBC Radio 3.