Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

6.8: Music of Hector Berlioz

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Hector Berlioz (b. 1803-1869) was born in France in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère near Grenoble. His father was a wealthy doctor and planned on Hector’s pur- suing the profession of a physician. At the age of eighteen, Hector was sent to study medicine in Paris. Music at the Conservatory and at the Opera, however, became the focus of his attention. A year later, his family grew alarmed when they realized that the young student had decided to study music instead of medicine.

    At this time, Paris was in a Romantic revolution. Berlioz found himself in in the company of novelist Victor Hugo and painter Delacroix. No longer receiving financial support from his parents, the young Berlioz sang in the theater choruses, performed musical chores, and gave music lessons. As a young student, Berlioz was amazed and intrigued by the works of Beethoven. Berlioz also developed interest in Shakespeare, whose popularity in Paris had recently increased with the performance of his plays by a visiting British troupe. Hector became impassioned for the Shakespearean characters of Ophelia and Juliet as they were portrayed by the alluring actress Harriet Smithson. Berlioz became obsessed with the young actress and also overwhelmed by sadness due to her lack of interest in him as a suitor. Berlioz became known for his violent mood swings, a condition known today as manic depression.

    In 1830, Berlioz earned his first recognition for his musical gift when he won the much sought-after Prix de Rome. This highly-esteemed award provided him a stipend and the opportunity to work and live in Paris, thus providing Berlioz with the chance to complete his most famous work, the Symphonie Fastastique, that year.

    Upon his return to Rome, he began his intense courtship of Harriet Smithson. Both her family and his vehemently opposed their relationship. Several violent and arduous situations occurred, one of which involved Berlioz’s unsuccessfully attempting suicide. After recovering from this attempt, Hector married Harriet. Once the previously unattainable matrimonial goal had been attained, Berlioz’s passion somewhat cooled, and he discovered that it was Harriet’s Shakespearean roles that she performed, rather than Harriet herself, that really intrigued him. The first year of their marriage was the most fruitful for him musically. By the time he was forty, he had composed most of his famous works. Bitter from giving up her acting career for marriage, Harriet became an alcoholic. The two separated in 1841 Berlioz then married his long time mistress Marie Recio, an attractive but average singer who demanded to perform in his concerts.

    To supplement his income during his career, Berlioz turned to writing as a music critic, producing a steady stream of articles and reviews. He successfully utilized this vocation as a way to support his own works by persuading the audience to accept and appreciate them. His critical writing also helped to educate audiences so they could understand his complex and innovative pieces. As a prose writer, Berlioz wrote The Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration. He also wrote ‘Les Soirées de l’Orchestre’ (Evenings with the Orchestra), a compilation of his articles on musical life in nineteenth-century France, and an autobiography entitled Mémoires. Later in life, he conducted his music in all the capitals of Europe, with the exception of Paris. It was one location where the public would not accept his work; the Paris public would read his reviews and learn to welcome lesser composers, but they would not accept Berlioz’s music. As over the years Berlioz saw his own works neglected by the public of Paris while they cheered and supported others, he became disgusted and bitter from the neglect. His last final work composed to gain acceptance by the Parisian audiences was the opera Béatrice et Bénédict with his own libretto based upon Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. But the Parisian public did not appreciate it. After this final effort, the disillusioned and embittered Berlioz composed no more in his seven remaining years, dying rejected and tormented at the age of sixty-six. Only after his death would France appreciate his achievements.

    His operas include Benvenuto Cellini, Le Troyens (to hear and view an excerpt, go to the link on, Béatrice et Bénédict, Les francs-juges (incomplete), Grande Messe des morts (Requiem) (to view and hear the tuba mirum from the Requiem, go to the link found at berlioz.html), La damnation de Faust, Te Deum, and L’enfance du Christ.

    His major orchestral compositions include Symphonie fantastique (to hear the fifth movement, go to the link on ml), Harold en Italie, Romeo et Juliette (to hear and view an excerpt, go to the link on, The Corsair, King Lear, and Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale. Berlioz is credited for changing the modern sound of orchestras.

    Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is important for several reasons: it is a pro- gram symphony, it incorporates an idée fixe (a recurring theme representing an ideology or person that provides continuity through a musical work), and it con- tains five movements rather than the four of most symphonies.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier

    Composer: Hector Berlioz
    Composition: Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14: 1st movement Reveries – Passions
    Date: 1830
    Genre: Symphony, First movement
    Form: Sonata form
    Performing Forces: large Romantic symphony orchestra

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • The largo (slow) opening is pensive and expressive, depicting the depression, the joy, and the fruitless passion Berlioz felt. It is followed by a long and very fast section with a great amount of expression, with the idée fixe (a short recurring musical theme/motive associated with a person, place or idea) indicating the appearance of his beloved.
    • The title for the movement is “Dreams, Passions.” It represents his uneasy and uncertain state of mind. The mood quickly changes as his love appears to him. He reflects on the love inspired by her. He notes the power of his enraged jealousy for her and of his religious consolation at the end.

    Other things to listen for:

    • Berlioz is known for being one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. He even wrote the first comprehensive book on orchestration. He always thought in terms of the exact sound (tone or timbre) of the orchestra and the mixture of individual sounds to blend through orchestration. He gave very detailed instructions to the conductor and individual performers in regards to articulations and how he wanted them to play. Listen to the subtleties and nuance of the performance. Berlioz left little up to chance since he was so thorough in his compositions.


    Music Measure (Bar) Numbers

    Form, Melody, and Texture



    The introductory four-bar phrase played by the violin one forms the basis for the following three phrases to bar sixteen, most of the music being played on muted strings. Here the composer portrays both depression and elation.

    fig 6.10.1

    1:45 17-71 The key changes from C major to Eb major to C minor and finally arriving to C major with a cadence in measure 62



    He sees his beloved and is overcome with many different emotions.
    First subject—ide fixe—played by the flute and first vio- lin. See the music insert 2 for idée fixe notation.

    [Subject/idée fixe, bars 72-111]
    The major key of C is established by dominant pedal point.

    fig 6.10.2

    6:33 133-149 Transition section that provides rising tension in the approach to the dominant.



    Second subject introduced and established in the key of G major at measure 160. See Music insert 3 for second subject notation.

    [Second Subject found in bars 160-166]

    fig 6.10.3



    Development Section—this section includes recapitulations and further developments. Two new motifs (musical segments) are featured in this section of the first movement. The first has become known as the “sigh motif.” This motif musically represents the sighing figure of a long note followed by a shorter note. See music insert 4 for sighing motif notation.

    fig 6.10.4

    [Sigh motif notations, measure 87.]

    The second motif has become known as the “heart beat motif.” It is heard as a pair of detached pulses/quavers. These are brought out dynamically (volume emphasis) and represent heartbeats. See music insert 5 for heart- beat motif notation.

    fig 6.10.5

    [Heartbeat motif notations, measure seventy-eight]

    9:33 232-278 Recapitulation in the dominant key of G major
    10:20 278- 311 Transitional Passage to upcoming second subject
    10:51 311-329 Second subject resolving fortissimo in C major
    11:50 358-409 Further development section continues and gradually increased tension setting up next unison section.
    12:40 410-439 The full orchestra plays the first subject in C major
    13:08 440-474 Further orchestral build up



    Coda section: The final chords musically representing the consolation of religion ending with a plagal cadence (traditional Amen progression/ending).

    This page titled 6.8: Music of Hector Berlioz is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.