If you know anything about Hector Berlioz, it is probably that he fell in love with an Irish Shakespearean actress when he saw her playing Ophelia, and that when she spurned his advances he wrote the Symphonie fantastique with its dreams of passion and nightmares of a witch’s sabbath.
What is less well known is that he started training as a doctor. He came from a small town in hills of eastern France. His father was a doctor and wanted his only son to follow in his footsteps. But young Hector - in post-revolutionary France it was still fashionable to call your children after classical heroes – knew that his future lay in music. As a boy he had found a flageolet in the back of a cupboard and learned to play it. His father was not hostile to the arts: he gave him a guitar, though he appears to have put a stop to the lessons when Hector failed his baccalauréat. And a new flute was the reward Hector received when, miserably, he agreed to pursue a career in medicine.
Berlioz arrived in Paris in 1821. Like many medical students, he was distracted from study by the wealth of diversions the big city offered. The orchestral concerts, and even more the spectacle of the opera, overwhelmed a passionate 18-year old who had never before heard anything more than the band of his home town. His partner in the anatomy room tried to keep Hector’s mind on study; after all they had paid for the body they were dissecting. Horrified by the smell and the rats and the sparrows squabbling over the body parts they threw over their shoulders when they had finished with them, Hector jumped out of the window. Duty to his father forced him to return, but it was to be politics that saved him. Riots closed the medical school for five months, and by the time it reopened he had signed on as a pupil of musical composition at the Conservatoire.
And that was the end of Hector Berlioz’s medical career, though not the end of his conflict with his father. And it was only the beginning of a rollercoaster of emotional and professional ups and downs. To enjoy such a colourful life story, you don’t have to be a fan. Though you may find yourself seeking out concerts to hear the passions and frustrations pouring out in his vividly orchestrated music.
David Cairns’ two volume biography ‘Berlioz’ was published in paperback by Penguin in 2000.
First published in NASGP Newsletter 'The Sessional GP' February/March 2006