Representing the fullest embodiment of the Romantic spirit, Berlioz's music is linked inextricably with the composer's personality and emotionally turbulent life. Although he his now recognised as one of the leading composers of his day, his reputation suffered for many years, especially in his native France.
Born in La Côte-Saint-André on 11 December 1803 and educated mainly by his father, a local doctor, Berlioz quickly demonstrated an ability for literature and music, playing the flute and guitar. Unusually for a composer, he never learned to play the piano, and his basic knowledge of harmony was thus gained entirely through the treatises of Rameau and Catel.
Although wanting to devote his life to music, he was sent to Paris to study medicine. He continued his medical studies until January 1824 having already immersed himself in the musical life of the city, attending performances of Gluck at the Opéra and, in 1822, joining Le Sueur's composition class.
Having abandoned medicine, much to his father's chagrin, Berlioz suffered a period of severe hardship, during which he formally entered the Conservatoire in 1826. While at the Conservatoire, he began entering compositions for the coveted Prix de Rome, which he eventually won on his fourth attempt in 1830 after moderating his style to ensure victory.
In the meantime, Berlioz had been exposed to the music of Beethoven and had discovered Goethe and Shakespeare. The plays of the great bard were to form the basis of three of his major works: Roméo et Juliette, Béatrice et Bénédict and the Roi Lear overture; and he would read and quote Shakespeare for the rest of his life. Beethoven had a similarly earth-shattering effect on Berlioz's musical outlook, introducing him to purely instrumental forms.
In 1827 while watching a performance of Hamlet, Berlioz developed an obsessional infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson. The emotional turmoil generated by this attraction would eventually find its way into the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830.
Another typically passionate relationship with Camile Moke almost ended in disaster. When her affections for the composer, resident in Italy at the time as part of the Prix de Rome conditions, wavered in favour of the piano manufacturer Pleyel, Berlioz swore revenge and was intent on murdering the couple until common sense prevailed.
Returning to Paris after absorbing the colour and sunny atmosphere of Italy into his music, Berlioz finally met and married Harriet Smithson. Despite giving him a son, she could not live up to Berlioz's idealised view of her and by 1842, the couple had drifted apart.
Berlioz made virtually no money as a composer throughout the 1830s and was forced to work as a critic. Despite a steady flow of major compositions, his work was dismissed as 'eccentric' and he was offered no posts worthy of his abilities. However, from 1841 he gained a steadily expanding international reputation and spent much of the next twenty years travelling.
Although he would often consider living abroad where his music was appreciated, he always returned to Paris, where it was not. He continued to make regular trips to England and Germany and began to piece together his Mémoires along with a treatise on orchestration.
The new regime in France after 1848 only isolated him further, and after 1850 he took consolation in the works of Gluck, turning away from the new schools of Liszt and Wagner. During this time, he also became a celebrated conductor and, in the spiritual tranquillity of his isolation, composed masterpieces like L’enfance du Christ and Les Troyens.
In 1863, Berlioz retired from composition and criticism and, suffering from intestinal neuralgia, became morose, preoccupied with thoughts of death. Only a revival of a childhood devotion to Estelle Duboeuf, another idealised heroine, gave him any pleasure in later years; he visited and corresponded with her regularly.
Aside from completing his Mémoires, his last years were spent conducting, though his skills were diminishing. Continuing to undertake foreign conducting tours, his strength weakened and, hastened by the death of his son, he finally died on 8 March 1869.
Berlioz's story, even after his death, is essentially one of rejection. In France, perhaps only Saint-Saens and Massenet absorbed elements of his style. His influence abroad was much greater, Liszt, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov all owing something to his music, but he remained an isolated figure, not fully appreciated until the twentieth century.