“I feel I am dying,” Hector Berlioz wrote in one of his last letters. “I no longer believe in anything.” Indeed, by 1869, Berlioz was a frustrated man who had long ago given up his Catholic faith and who had largely given up composing for the previous several years. For many years, the limited and intermittent success of his compositions had forced him to divide his time between composing and writing musical criticism for pay. Though extremely successful as a (harsh) critic, Berlioz detested writing prose and found his work at the Journal des débats, for which he wrote for three decades, a tedious one. Several of his major works had either been outright failures (his music drama La Damnation de Faust, his opera Benvenuto Cellini—or were, in Berlioz’s view, under-appreciated by the public (his grand opera Les Troyens was never fully staged during his lifetime). “In his last years,” scholar Hugh McDonald writes, “he was a melancholy, dignified figure where before enthusiasm and mockery had jostled side by side.”
Born in La Côte-Saint-André in southeastern France, the son of a free-thinking father and a devout Roman Catholic mother, Louis-Hector Berlioz had by young adulthood come to adopt his father’s atheistic views and to scorn the Church into which he had been baptized. He was likely cemented in his views by the hostility of his devout mother to his decision to forego a career in medicine in favor of one in music. Though his father reluctantly granted his son permission to pursue a career in music, Berlioz’s mother was beside herself; she confronted Hector as he attempted to sneak off to Paris in a stage coach, begging him to stay with : “Go and wallow in the filth of Paris, sully your name and kill your father and me with sorrow and shame! I will not re-enter this house till you have left it. You are my son no longer! I curse you!”
Berlioz defied his parents’ expectations, and the odds, by becoming a successful composer. He had only received a rudimentary musical education as a boy and could play only the flute and guitar passably; unlike every major contemporary composer, he never learned to play the piano, a fact which he recognized as preventing him from employing “conventional harmonies” in his music. Yet beginning at the age of twelve, he had taught himself the art of composition by studying musical scores and reading treatises on music. He would compose several chamber works in his teens—which he later destroyed, though he preserved at least one theme for later use in his first published orchestral work, the overture Les Francs Juges. At the age of 20, he wrote a full-scale Mass, which he too later destroyed (though it was reconstructed from orchestral and vocal scores discovered in a Belgian attic in the 1990s). At 26, Berlioz won the prestigious music award, the Prix de Rome, on his fourth try; significantly he only won the French judges over by composing a more conservative piece, and today his more daring second and third attempts at the prize—the scenes for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, Herminie and La Mort de Cléopâtre—are considered by far the greater works.
Throughout his life it was music, not religion, that brought Berlioz consolation. As early as his First Communion he found his soul stirred by his hearing of liturgical music rather than by the reception of the Holy Sacrament. The music “filled me with a kind of mystical, passionate unrest which I was powerless to hide from the rest of the congregation,” Berlioz recalled in his Mémoires. “I saw Heaven open—a Heaven of love and pure delight, purer and a thousand times lovelier than the one that had so often been described to me. Such is the magic power of true expression, the incomparable beauty of melody that comes from the heart!”
In 1837, the French Ministry of the Interior commissioned Berlioz to compose a Requiem Mass for the soldiers who had died during the Revolution of 1830; it was also to be a show of support for the government of King Louis-Philippe. The premier was delayed, but it was a great success. However, Berlioz had trouble getting the government to pay him in full for his work, and the tremendous expense of putting on a performance of the Requiem prevented Berlioz from having it staged in its entirety but a few more times; a record survives of the costs of one performance, noted in Berlioz’s own hand: the total, 18,827 francs would equate to a quarter of a million dollars today. Instead, Berlioz incorporated individual movements of the work into his concerts.
Much is made of the massive forces Berlioz employed in the Requiem: a large orchestra featuring more than 100 string instruments, 16 timpani, 10 pairs of cymbals, four tam-tams, four offstage brass choirs, and more than 200 choristers (Berlioz even imagined having 800). And yet the full orchestra plays in only three of the ten sections of the work: the Dies Irae, Rex Tremendae Majestatis, and Lacrimosa. It is indeed the earth-and-heavens-shaking Dies Irae, where the timpani unleash their thunder, that is the most famous part of the Requiem. And yet the piece, like the composer himself, is “misknown” (in biographer Jacques Barzun’s phrase) for its supposed “bombast,” when in reality much of the Requiem is hushed and mysterious; the Quaerens me, for example, is set for voices alone, and the tender Sanctus features a tenor soloist singing an achingly beautiful melody with fugal responses from the choir and orchestra.
One might wonder how an atheist like Berlioz succeeded in composing such a profound religious work. Indeed, this question can be asked of other composers, for fellow agnostics/atheists like Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Giuseppe Verdi also set the Requiem Mass to music. It was also the case, as one scholar notes, that “at the beginning of his public career, Berlioz would have observed [a] shift in emphasis from sacred music intended strictly for use by the church to music rather evocative of religion and intended for use in the broad secular arena.” And yet, one wonders if it is possible for someone who truly lacks faith to reach the divine heights that Berlioz did in his Requiem; the Masses by Brahms, Saint-Saëns, and even Verdi are decidedly inferior works. Too, one must ask if a religious work—even if understood as one making use of religious drama for broader, “secular” purposes—could mean more to a truly unbelieving composer than any of his other compositions.
“If I were threatened with the destruction of all my works but one,” Berlioz once said, “I should beg mercy for the Requiem.” In weighing the significance of this declaration, one must especially keep in mind that Berlioz was fired throughout his life not by religious subjects but by secular stories and pagan themes; his idols were Shakespeare (inspiring his Roméo et Juliette symphony), Virgil (on whom he based Les Troyens), and, to a lesser extent, Byron (whence came the composer’s symphony, Harold en Italie). What was it about his Requiem that made it so dear to Berlioz? Could it have only been its musical virtues? Or does the work’s heartfelt expression indeed express the heart of the man who composed it? “It’s interesting that three of his main works—the Requiem, the Te Deum and The Childhood of Christ—are religious works,” says David Cairns, author of a monumental two-volume biography of the composer. “And I don’t think that’s accidental: They were things he wanted to write. That was because somehow the lost faith was painful to him. He’s trying to recapture the feeling of humanity down the ages and the desire to believe in God, even if there isn’t one.”
Hector Berlioz’s funeral took place in Paris on March 11 and included a large procession, including a company of the National Guard. Several composers, including Charles Gounod, were in attendance, and excerpts from some of Berlioz’s own works, including the Hostias of the Requiem, were performed. In accord with the composer’s request, he was to be laid to rest in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris between the bodies of his wives, Harriet Smithson and Marie Recio. “But before the body had reached the grave,” as Jacques Barzun tells it,
a final Berliozian incident—never to be believed had it been recorded by a Romantic of 1830—took place. Not far from the goal, the pair of mourning-coach steeds, black and tame as Paris undertakers themselves, suddenly seized the bit in their teeth, plowed through the brass band in front of them, and brought Berlioz alone within the gates.
Hector Berlioz was indeed a singular figure in the history of music: He has been called the First Romantic, and yet he eschewed the typical Romantic’s interest in the Gothic and the fantastic (despite his symphony with the latter appellation). It has been said that he is the only composer who was influenced by no one and who influenced no one who followed him. Whether or not this statement is true, there is no doubt that Berlioz’s music inhabits a unique sound-world, a fact that has worked against a proper and deep appreciation of his work for the last two centuries.
According to a friend who was present at his deathbed, Berlioz’s last words were: “They are finally going to play my music.”
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Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, two volumes, Little, Brown & Company, 1950.
Hector Berlioz, Mémoires, ed. David Cairns, Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1969.
Peter Bloom, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
David Cairns, Berlioz, two volumes, University of California Press, 2000.
Tom Huizenga, “At 92, The Man Who Wrote The Book On Berlioz Resumes His Case,” interview with David Cairns, NPR, March 8, 2019.
Hugh Macdonald, Berlioz, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from a painting of Hector Berlioz (1850), by Gustave Courbet, courtesy of Wikipedia.