Hector Berlioz

Education and Passions

Medicine and Music

Since Berlioz's father was a well-respected physician, it was natural for him to wish the young Berlioz to enter the profession of medicine as well. In 1821, at the age of 18, Berlioz left his home for Paris to enter medical school. Here is a passage from Berlioz's Memoirs describing his first impression of the dissecting in a hospital:

So much for a career in medicine! Thus disgusted at the sight of corpses and hospitals, Berlioz was naturally inclined to seek a different track for a career. He continued to study at the medical school for a year or so, however, at the respect of his father's wishes. During that time, though, Berlioz had become acquainted with the Parisian Operas and instantly fell in love with it. He attended performances at the Operas Houses regularly and often neglected his work at the medical school.

When Berlioz's father found out about Berlioz's decision to abandone medicine and go into music, he was furious and would not allow Berlioz to leave medicine as a career. Nevertheless, Berlioz started composing his own music pieces. After he showed them to a noted composer Lesueur, he was accepted as Lesueur's pupil. Eventually, Berlioz became a student at the Paris Conservatoire, thus offically choosing music as a career choice.


Berlioz was a very passionate man in every way. This is especially apparent when it comes to the loves of his life. Berlioz usually expresses his feelings for those he loved strongly and directly. For example, when Berlioz was 12, he became seriously infatuated with a neighboring 18-year-old girl named Estelle. The following passage from Berlioz's Memoirs, describing his feelings for Estelle, will immediately demonstrate how much of an emotional and passionate person Berlioz was, even at such a young age!

Another important figure in Berlioz's romantic life was Harriet Smithson. Smithson was a popular actress playing in various Shakespeare stageworks around 1827. Berlioz first saw her as Ophelia in Hamlet when Shakespeare was first introduced to the Parisian public. Fell instantly and completely in love with Smithson, Berlioz sent letters to her and declared openly his undying true love for her. Faced with such strong feelings, Smithson was frightened by Berlioz and rejected him. Berlioz became very depressed but he eventually came over it.

Berlioz would meet other women before he met Smithson again in 1832. (These "other women" include Camille Moke, who agreed to marry Berlioz but instead married a rich man while Berlioz was away in Italy.) This second encounter with Smithson rekindled Berlioz's passion for her. By then, Smithson's popularity was falling rapidly and she needed someone to support her. At that time, Berlioz had already composed his Symphonie Fantastique, a work that tells the story of a fantasy of a young artist falling in love with a girl of his dream. The symphany supposedly represented Berlioz's love for Smithson. When the work was performed, Smithson was deeply impressed. Berlioz continued to express his deep love for her, and they eventually married.

Shakespeare and Beethoven

The introduction of the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven had tremendous effects on Romantic artists of the 19th century France. Berlioz was particularly influenced by these. Berlioz wrote of Shakespeare's Hamlet in his Memoirs:

When Berlioz encountered Beethoven, the impact was almost as great, as Berlioz describes: "The shock was almost as great as that of Shakespeare had been. Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry."

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Jason C. Lee