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Hector Berlioz

French composer (1803-1869)

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Berlioz, HECTOR, French composer, b. at La Cote Saint-Andre, near Grenoble, December 11, 1803; d. at Paris, March 8, 1869. His father, a physician, wished Hector to follow his own profession, and for that purpose sent him to the Medical School in Paris. Young Berlioz soon changed the dissecting room for the library of the Conservatoire, where he sought to acquaint himself with the scores of the masters of music. Heretofore his musical studies had been confined to a rudimentary knowledge of the flute and of the guitar. After studying harmony with Lesveur for a few months, Berlioz composed a mass, which was performed in the church of St. Roch. Being admitted to the Conservatoire in 1823, be became noted not only for his great talent, but also for his rebellion against academic traditions. For the pure classicism of Cherubini, the head of the school, he had no respect, nor did he ever learn to understand and appreciate Palestrina, Handel, or Bach. Bent on giving expression to his teeming ideas in his own fashion, Berlioz, like the romanticists in literature, proceeded by violating or ignoring every established rule. As a consequence he never fully mastered the various forms of composition. With his “Fantastic Symphony”, a cantata called “La mort de Sardanapale” which won for him the “Prix de Rome” (carrying with it a five years’ pension), and a number of lesser works, Berlioz laid the foundation of the new school of composition which is known as the school of program music. It is the endeavor of composers of this school to express by means of music definite ideas and moods and even to relate definite events. Although Berlioz has written a number of works on liturgical texts, hardly any of them have the liturgical character. His “Requiem”, written for double chorus, an enormous orchestra, four military bands, and organ, suggests Michelangelo in its gigantic conception. While it strikes terror into the heart of the hearer, it does not inspire devotion. A “Te Deum” is built on equally large scale, and is more notable for its pomp and splendor than for its prayerfulness. Although Berlioz was a child of his time and in his music gave expression to every passion of man, he did not lose the Catholic sense, as is shown by the attraction liturgical texts had for him, and also by numerous other traits. Thus in his “Damnation de Faust” he sends Faust to eternal perdition accompanied by most gruesome music, instead of ultimately saving him in accordance with the pantheistic creed of Goethe. Berlioz is one of the most striking examples of modern subjectivism, and the numerous works he has left behind—symphonies with and with-out chorus, operas, an oratorio, “The Childhood of Christ”, songs, choruses, etc.—give us an idea of what he might have been had he remained faithful to Catholic ideals.


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