The Composer and His Muse: Harriet Smithson and Hector Berlioz

In 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet given by a troupe of British actors at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. There, the 24-year-old composer became infatuated with the Ophelia of the production, an Irishwoman named Harriet Smithson. His obsession grew over the next three years; when in 1830 he heard rumors that the object of his affection was having an affair with her manager, floods of emotion burst forth in the form of a sprawling, programmatic symphony that took the young firebrand only six weeks to compose in the heat of passion.

In Symphonie fantastique Berlioz imagines himself, the lovelorn artist, attempting suicide by opium poisoning. He doesn’t administer a lethal dose as intended, but instead succumbs to a deranged, drug-fueled dream in which he has killed his beloved and faces execution for the crime.

When Berlioz finally met Harriet in 1832, she was unaware that she had been the inspiration for this grandiose, grisly vision. They were married the following year and produced a son, but the reality was somewhat different to the fantasist and they separated in 1844.

Source: Limelight Magazine

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