Hector Berlioz

Born - Dec 11, 1803   |   Died - Mar 8, 1869   |   Genres - Music, Crime, Drama

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This highly original composer, one of the lights of the Romantic era, advanced the cause of French music, as a conductor, critic, and composer, at a time when the German model predominated. The largely autodidact Berlioz is renowned for his brilliant orchestrations with their rich timbres from unusual combinations, and his employment of such instruments as the saxophone, bass clarinet, suspended cymbals, valve trumpet, orchestral pianos, tuned cymbals, Turkish crescent, and sistrum. His sudden changes of tempi and mood heightened the powerful programmatic content of his operas and symphonies. Probably the best known of his works is the often quoted five-movement Symphonie fantastique (1830), subtitled Episode in an Artist's Life, which contains an idée fixe-like melodic phrase called "Theme of the Beloved," which transforms constantly in "the uneasy and nervous" mind of a young musician "endowed with vivid imagination (who) has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair" (from the composer's program notes).

In Sleeping With the Enemy (1991), Laura (Julia Roberts) is married to the brutal, controlling Martin Burney (Patrick Bergin), who hassles her for having the bathroom towels out of order. Whenever he grabs her to have sex, he has to put on the Witches Sabbath movement (in which the artist hallucinates he has killed his beloved) from the Symphonie Fantastique, with its ominous brass intonation of the ancient Catholic Church chant called the Dies Irae (The Wrath of God), in order to excite himself. A few scenes later, Martin hits and kicks Laura because he imagines that she has been trying to attract a doctor he met at the dock. The three go out sailing at night, although Laura is afraid of the water and supposedly can't swim; a storm comes up, and Laura fakes falling overboard in order to escape. In fact, she has been secretly taking swimming lessons at the Y. She catches a bus to Cedar Falls, IA, rents a house, and takes a job as a librarian. Later, when she visits her new next-door neighbor Ben (Kevin Anderson), a local theater dramatics teacher, for dinner, he asks her if she would like to hear some music and she says "anything but Berlioz...the Symphony Fantastique gives me the chills." (As it turns out, Ben likes classic rock and Van Morrison.) Of course, Martin eventually tracks down Laura. One evening she comes back from a date with Ben, and, after he leaves, the Witches Sabbath fades in as Laura finds that the towels in the bathroom and the cans of food in the kitchen cabinets have been arranged symmetrically. Behind Laura, Martin enters with a gun; Ben rushes in and tries to wrest it away from him, Martin hits him in the head. Laura eventually shoots Martin and embraces Ben as the wonderful original Jerry Goldsmith score (brilliantly orchestrated by Alexander Courage) fades in.

The Dies Irae theme from Berlioz's work also ominously introduces Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), and in the historically inaccurate and rather mundane biopic of the composer, La Symphonie fantastique (1942).

Berlioz's magnificent opera Les Troyens à Carthage (The Trojans at Carthage, 1863) has been produced for American television (1983) with Tatiana Troyanos, Jessye Norman, and Plácido Domingo. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) quotes the aria "Vallon sonore" from this opera. Berlioz's exquisite opera La Damnation de Faust received a Japanese TV production in 1999. Seventeen other features quote Berlioz including À double tour (1959) (Romeo et Juliette), and the Hungarian drama Rákóczi induló (Rakoczi March, 1933).