French composer, conductor and writer on music. Berlioz played a decisive role in the development of program music and modern orchestration.
The overwhelming majority of Romantic composers were pianists. Many, such as Chopin and Liszt, were virtuoso performers as well as composers. Hector Berlioz was a notable exception to this rule. In fact, he never studied piano. Berlioz was born to a well-to-do family and as a child learned flute and guitar and managed to teach himself the rudiments of harmony from his reading of textbooks. His parents sent him to Paris in 1821 to study medicine (his father was a doctor), but after two years (miserable years by Berlioz's account) he left his studies behind to attend classes at the conservatory.
During his studies at the conservatory, Berlioz competed for the Prix de Rome four times, finally winning it in 1830. It was in this same year that he wrote his most famous piece, the Symphonie fantastique. During this period, he was profoundly influenced by the music of Beethoven (whom he later championed as a critic) and the writings of Shakespeare, Goethe, and the English Romantics. He also came under the spell of the famous Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson; the story behind the Symphonie fantastique is in part a reflection of his uncontrollable feelings for her. He married her after his return from Rome, but it was a short-lived and troubled marriage. Nonetheless, these years were marked by a string of exceptional and original works, including the programmatic works Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet (the first essentially a viola concerto, the second a symphony), his gigantic Requiem and the opera Benvenuto Cellini.
These works were perhaps too original. They did not receive their just recognition and Berlioz turned to musical journalism to support himself. He also began extensive tours as a conductor. Despite the demands of this schedule, he also produced a series of mature masterpieces, among them the operas Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict, the dramatic choral work The Damnation of Faust, and the oratorio L'enfance du Christ. His final years were marked by personal tragedy. This was compounded as Berlioz saw the ideals of French Romanticism overtaken by the growing influence of the new German school led by Wagner and others. He died at the age of sixty-seven.
Berlioz stands out for his innovative approach in almost all areas of composition. His Symphonie fantastique, for example, transformed the abstract form of the symphony into a fully dramatic one. His Requiem infused the ancient text with a new and purely nineteenth century meaning. It was, however, in the area of orchestration that he made his most important mark. His original manner of using and combining instruments was based not on tradition, but on an intuitive sense of what was possible and how it could be most effectively realized. He left for future generations not only the example of his works, but the first textbook of orchestration, resources that have served musicians for well over a century.