Berlioz’s father, a doctor, who had a clear idea of the path he expected his son to take, discouraged him vehemently from learning the piano, a decision which Berlioz later described as both an advantage and a curse. In 1821 his father pressed home his agenda and packed him off to Medical School in Paris, but he spent most of his time either watching opera or in the library of the Paris Conservatoire copying out parts from Gluck operas. He abandoned his medical studies in 1824 and within a couple of years had gained entry to the Paris Conservatoire.
Always deeply inspired by classic poets and dramatists including Shakespeare and Byron, in 1829 he attended a performance in Paris of Hamlet and immediately fell head-over-heels for English actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. Her initial failure to reciprocate led him to produce one of his great masterpieces, the feverishly romantic and trailblazing Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. In 1833 Smithson succumbed and they were married, but the marriage was always doomed and in 1843 they separated, although Berlioz continued to provide for her until her death in 1854.
His unique imagination led him into a huge range of acclaimed works, such as Harold en Italie for viola and orchestra, (based on Byron and written for the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini), operas including Romeo et Juliette, Beatrice et Benedict (based on Much Ado About Nothing), La Damnation de Faust and the immense, Wagnerian-scale, Les Troyens (The Trojans), together with the flamboyant Grande Messe des Morts and the exquisite L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ).
We can be grateful, however that he didn’t possess the ‘Midas touch’ all the time; his opera Benvenuto Cellini, inspired by the sixteenth century sculptor and adventurer, proved to be so difficult to perform and uninspiring for audiences that it has failed to find regular performance to this day. Indeed, he wrote engagingly of his failure in his memoirs in 1834: ‘1 had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini and had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera.’ Nevertheless his overture Benvenuto Cellini passed into concert use, and in 1844, in order to make sure at least a little more of his opera would remain in regular hearing, he crystallised some of its material into the concert overture Roman Carnival. It is written for large orchestra and uses several themes from the opera, the main Allegro representing its carnival scene. The slow introduction includes one of the most famous of all solos for the cor anglais, which is taken up by the violas and then all strings in canon before the carnival arrives. There are few more flamboyant works in the whole of orchestral music!