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Hector & Harriet: love, tragedy and the Bard

Tue Feb 14 2012

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It’s Valentine’s day (well it was when I wrote this….).  It can be a rather grim, over-commercialised affair, but in an attempt to redress the balance, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the romantic trials and tribulations of Hector Berlioz, one of the nineteenth century’s great composers.  He was a man whose deep-seated love for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, coloured his adult-life with both ecstasy and tragedy, and this is reflected in some of his finest works, including his ‘symphonie dramatique’, Roméo et Juliette.

Shakespeare was a fundamental influence on Berlioz all his life – it was in his plays that Berlioz discovered ‘the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth’.  However, it was also through Shakespeare that Miss Smithson was revealed to him.  He wrote that he could not compare the effect ‘produced by her….dramatic genius, on my imagination and heart’.

He first saw Smithson perform at the Odéon Theatre, Paris in 1827 as the ‘fair Ophelia’, and some months later he beheld her in Romeo and Juliet.  Contrary to Berlioz’s own recollection of seeing her as Juliet, it was reported in the Illustrated London News that on seeing her he exclaimed, ‘I will marry that woman! And I will write my greatest symphony on that play!’

Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson as Romeo and Juliet

Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson as Romeo and Juliet

He pursued Smithson for five years.  She never met him in this time, and never wrote a line in reply to his voluminous letters.  She first set eyes on him in another of her performances as Juliet.  Berlioz, so moved, ‘gave a loud cry and rushed out of the theatre, wildly wringing [his] hands.’  She was undoubtedly somewhat disturbed by this fit, and asked fellow actors to ensure he was kept at a distance, as ‘she did not like the look of [his] eyes’.  Her troupe removed to Amsterdam, leaving Berlioz to wallow in dejection, saying that, ‘even Shakespeare has never painted the horrible gnawing at the heart’ that he felt.

Berlioz’s friends long suffered his ravings about Harriet.  They complained that on walks through Paris he would ‘fill the unsympathetic boulevards and the adjacent streets with his love laments.’ Girard, a conductor and friend, wrote that ‘if it were anyone else, I would show him the door’.  Berlioz’s letters to friends betray his almost delirious state – ‘today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time.  Oh!  Unhappy woman!  How I loved you….trembling I write, HOW I LOVE YOU.’

Finally, in 1832, after hearing Berlioz’s Lélio, whose monologues make it clear the piece was intended for her, Harriet granted him an audience.  It took further months to convince her of his love – at one point he obtained a passport, threatening to quit Paris forever and move to Germany.  In a rather more extreme gesture, he staged a suicide attempt, the effect of which was to leave him vomiting for two hours owing to the quantity of opium he had ingested.  Nevertheless, after overcoming opposition from their families, they were wed in 1833.  Berlioz remembered that ‘on the day of our marriage she had nothing in the world but debts, and the fear of never again being able to appear to advantage on the stage.  My property consisted of three hundred francs, borrowed from my friend Gounet, and a fresh quarrel with my parents….But she was mine, and I defied the world.’

They had one son, Louis, but by 1840, the couple were separated.  In 1854, paralysed, Harriet died in Monmartre. On travelling in his cab to fetch the Protestant pastor for the funeral ceremonies, he passed the Odéon where, he lamented, ‘I saw Juliet for the first and last time.’

There is no doubt that Berlioz’s relationship with Smithson significantly affected his artistic output.  On Saturday, there will be the chance to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz’s homage to two of his great sources of inspiration, Shakespeare and Smithson.

We perform berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Festival Hall on 18 February, at the Anvil, Basingstoke on 23 February, extracts as a Night Shift at the Roundhouse on 24 February and at the Théatre des Champs Elysées, Paris on Sunday 25 February.

Victor Khadem, Communications Assistant

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