His times: Born half-a-dozen years before Mendelssohn and Schumann, Hector Berlioz arrived on the musical scene just as Romanticism in all its passion and glory was beginning to take flight. Music was becoming ever more emotional; orchestras were expanding to embrace new colours and sonorities; composers were looking increasingly to other art-forms for inspiration. This spirit of individualism and emotionalism spurred Berlioz on – the time was right for him to pursue his personal and musical ambitions and, in his eyes, to realise his destiny.
His music: Many of Berlioz’s contemporaries were dumbfounded by his music, including Mendelssohn and Chopin, who thought him reckless and lacking in talent. What might have seemed grossly-orchestrated, loosely structured and messy works on the surface were actually conceived with a pioneering knowledge of orchestral sound – both aesthetic and scientific. This Berlioz combined with a heart-on-sleeve sense of narrative often forged on the anvil of his own life experience. The composer’s ability to transfer concepts, feelings and stories from real life and from other art forms into music was unique. His operas, choral works, tone-poems and symphonies are unmistakable and striking. Many of them were conceived on an epic scale and made huge technical demands on their performers.
Himself: Berlioz was a larger-than-life character: unusually tall, extraordinarily determined and career-threateningly impulsive – especially when it came to women. The great German poet Heinrich Heine described the Frenchman as ‘like an immense nightingale, a lark as great as an eagle’. Intriguingly though, Berlioz remains perhaps the only major composers never to have mastered a musical instrument.