Berlioz, the passionate, ardent, irrepressible genius of French Romanticism, left a rich and original oeuvre which exerted a profound influence on nineteenth century music. Berlioz developed a profound affinity toward music and literature as a child. Sent to Paris at 17 to study medicine, he was enchanted by Gluck's operas, firmly deciding to become a composer. With his father's reluctant consent, Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1826. His originality was already apparent and disconcerting — a competition cantata, Cléopâtre (1829), looms as his first sustained masterpiece — and he won the Prix de Rome in 1830 amid the turmoil of the July Revolution. Meanwhile, a performance of Hamlet in September 1827, with Harriet Smithson as Ophelia, provoked an overwhelming but unrequited passion, whose aftermath may be heard in the Symphonie fantastique (1830).
Returning from Rome, Berlioz organized a concert in 1832, featuring his symphony. Harriet Smithson was in the audience. They were introduced days later and married on October 3, 1833.
Berlioz settled into a career pattern which he maintained for more than a decade, writing reviews, organizing concerts, and composing a series of visionary masterpieces: Harold en Italie (1834), the monumental Requiem (1837), and an opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1838), a crushing fiasco. At year's end, the dying Paganini made Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs, enabling him to devote nearly a year to the composition of his "dramatic symphony," Roméo et Juliette (1839). And then, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the July Revolution, came the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840).
Iridescently scored, an exquisite collection of six Gautier settings, Les nuits d'été, opened the new decade. This was a difficult time for Berlioz, as his marriage failed to bring him the happiness he desired. Concert tours to Brussels, many German cities, Vienna, Pesth, Prague, and London occupied him through most of the 1840s. He composed La Damnation de Faust, en route, offering the new work to a half-empty house in Paris, December 6, 1846. Expenses were catastrophic, and only a successful concert tour to St. Petersburg saved him.
He sat out the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 in London, returning to Paris in July. The massive Te Deum — a "little brother" to the Requiem — was largely composed over 1849, though it would not be heard until 1855. L'Enfance du Christ, scored an immediate and enduring success from its first performance on December 10, 1854. Elected to the Institut de France in 1855, he started receiving a members' stipend, and this provided him with a modicum of financial security. Consequently, Berlioz was able to devote himself to the summa of his career, his vast opera, Les Troyens, based on Virgil's Aeneid, the Roman poet's unfinished epic masterpiece. The opera was completed in 1858. As he negotiated for its performance, he composed a comique adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which met with a rapturous Baden première, on August 9, 1862. Unfortunately, only the third, fourth, and fifth acts of Les Troyens were mounted by the Théatre-Lyrique, a successful premiere, on November 4, 1863, and a run of 21 performances notwithstanding. This lopsided production stemmed from a compromise (bitterly regretted by the composer) that Berlioz had made with the Théâtre-Lyrique.
Though frail and ailing, Berlioz conducted his works in Vienna and Cologne in 1866, traveling to St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1867-1868. Despondent and tortured by self-doubt, the composer received a triumphant welcome in Russia. Back in Paris in March 1868, he was but a walking shadow as paralysis slowly overcame him.