Berlioz’ Headlong Love


Hector Berlioz expressed himself in a grand way, both musically and romantically. In 1828 he was smitten with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who was playing Juliet and Ophelia with an English theater company in Paris. Full of unrequited love, Berlioz wrote to his friend Humbert Ferand in February 1830:

“Again, without warning and without reason my ill-fated passion awakens. She is still in London, yet I feel her presence all around me. I listen to my heartbeat. It’s like a sledgehammer. If only she could dream of the poetry, the infinite extent of a love like mine, she would fly into my arms, even though she would die in my embrace.

“I was just going to begin my symphony “Episode in the Life of an Artist” to portray the course of this misbegotten love of mine. I have it all in my head but I can’t write down a thing.

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“Can you tell me what it is—this overwhelming emotion, this flair for suffering which is killing me? Wait a minute—my fire is going out.

“Oh, my friend, to re-light it I have burned the manuscript of my elegy! Always tears, sympathetic tears. I see Ophelia shedding them. I hear her tragic voice. The rays from her sublime eyes consume me.

“I have spent quite awhile drying the floods that have fallen from my eyes, while I saw Beethoven looking at me severely, [Spontini, far above worries like mine, regards me with pity and indulgence, and Weber speaks in my ear like a familiar spirit, waiting to console me in a happy land.]

“All of this is crazy—completely crazy, from the viewpoint of a domino player in the Café de la Regence or a member of the Institute.

“No, I still intend to live. Music is a heavenly art, nothing surpasses it but true love. The one will always make me as unhappy as the other, but at least I shall have lived.”

Berlioz did live—long enough to marry Harriet Smithson. The marriage proved unhappy for both.