Hector Berlioz: Biography & Music

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

Hector Berlioz was a French composer whose radical music was inseparable from his radical life-story. Read on to learn how this med school dropout helped influence a generation of composers to adopt a musical style called Romanticism.


Most of us have had a celebrity crush at some point - there's nothing odd about a little heart flutter at the sight your favorite film star. But most of us don't invent a new music genre and change the course of history just to get the attention of a celebrity we've never met. That's exactly what Hector Berlioz did in 1830, when he composed the autobiographical musical love-letter he entitled Symphonie fantastique.

Hector Berlioz, photographed in 1863.
Hector Berlioz

It was the first time a composer had used a symphony to tell a story - and a passionate, over-the-top story at that! Today, we consider Berlioz one of the groundbreaking composers of the Romantic Period: a chunk of music history that lasted from around 1820-1900. The Romantic Period was a time when storytelling and passionate emotion became popular in European music. Read on to learn how Berlioz's wild, experimental music helped fuel the trend of musical Romanticism.

Berlioz's Early Life

Hector Berlioz was born in southern France in 1803. As a child, he learned how to play the flute and guitar, but his parents quashed his desire to become a professional musician. They sent Berlioz to a Parisian medical school when he was 18, so he could become a respected doctor like his father.

Berlioz hated med school. In his autobiography, he claims (with his typical sense of drama) that the first time he entered a dissecting room for an anatomy lesson, he saw bloody body parts, freaked out, and jumped from the classroom window.

The young Hector Berlioz
Young Hector Berlioz

Much to his parents' chagrin, Berlioz dropped out of medical school. Instead, he spent his time at opera performances and taking composition lessons at the Paris Conservatory. He developed a reputation around Paris as an opinionated, radical guy who was eager to push new ideas in music.

One of Berlioz's favorite ideas was that music should be combined with literature. His fascination with literature was fed by productions of Shakespeare's plays that were touring in Paris at the time. Berlioz developed a massive crush on Harriet Smithson, the star of these productions. He utterly failed to attract Harriet's interest - possibly because he bombarded her with creepy love letters rather than introducing himself.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in 1827
Harriet Smithson

Symphonie fantastique: Berlioz's Most Famous Work

In 1830, Berlioz cemented his reputation as a musical radical (and as a stalker) with the premiere of his Symphonie fantastique (Fantastic Symphony). This work embodied Berlioz's desire to combine music with literature. Traditionally, symphonies were abstract works for orchestra, structured around contrasting musical themes. But with the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz invented a new genre called program symphony: a symphony that can tell a story.

A program symphony is a large orchestral work accompanied by a written program explaining its meaning. Berlioz's program tells the story of 'An Artist' (i.e., Berlioz), who meets his ideal 'Beloved' (i.e., Harriet), then travels from hope, to despair, to a terrible opium trip.

Throughout the symphony, one melody keeps re-appearing: a lilting, delicate tune that Berlioz's program calls the idée fixe . The term means 'fixed idea,' and it's pronounced 'EE-day-eh FEES'. The tune represents Harriet, wandering in and out of The Artist's consciousness.

It was a brilliant way for Berlioz to tie his whole symphonic story together - so brilliant that composers use similar methods today. For example, in John Williams' score to the Star Wars movies, you'll remember the impressive 'Imperial March,' a recurring musical theme that appears whenever Darth Vader stalks onto the screen. Film composers often use recurring themes to represent ideas and characters in movies. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique was one of the first pieces to pioneer the technique.

Unbelievably, when Harriet Smithson attended a performance of the Symphonie fantastique in 1832, she agreed to date Berlioz. To be honest, I'm not sure why, since the symphony implies that Berlioz murders her, and also depicts her as a ghostly witch dancing at his funeral. The two endured a miserable marriage, in which Berlioz drove Harriet crazy by renaming her 'Henriette.'

Berlioz's Later Career and Compositions

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