Friday 20 September 2019

Berlioz, his Irish muse and a night to forget


Debts: Co Clare actress Harriet Smithson
Debts: Co Clare actress Harriet Smithson

George Hamilton

This was a significant date in the diary of the French composer Hector Berlioz, and not for the best of reasons.

The year was 1833. Just over seven weeks previously he'd finally married the woman who'd inspired his Symphonie Fantastique.

She was Harriet Smithson, an actress from Ennis, Co Clare. Berlioz had seen her as Ophelia in a Paris production of Shakespeare's Hamlet and was completely besotted.

An avalanche of love letters followed, but Harriet was having none of it so Berlioz threw himself into his work.

Using Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony as his example, he set up a five-movement structure to portray what he called an "Episode in the Life of an Artist" - basically, a musical portrayal of unrequited love.

Years later, Harriet was in the audience for a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique.

She was impressed, not least by the sight of the composer, long red hair flying, banging away on the timpani.

After all the frustration, then Berlioz finally got a date.

But there may have been more to it that an impressive performance on the kettle drums.

By this stage, Harriet's career was in decline. The theatre company she'd set up in Paris had flopped, not helped by the fact that a broken leg had put her out of action for some time.

She was also deep in debt, which might have encouraged her to be more receptive to the successful composer's approaches second time around.

Despite opposition from Hector's family - an impoverished Protestant actress was not who they'd have had in mind for their son - the marriage was arranged for October 3 in the British Embassy in Paris.

Fast forward seven weeks and Harriet's financial situation was so dire that Berlioz had, in his own words, to take on the painful role of fundraiser. And 185 years ago tonight, he arranged an event in the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. On the bill - drama, music, song - and his Symphonie Fantastique.

Harriet engaged the actors. Berlioz used the house orchestra, supplemented by some foreign freelancers.

But the programme was far too ambitious. It would be one in the morning before it was finished.

The night turned into a bit of a shambles. Harriet's reprisal of her role in Hamlet fell short.

Franz Liszt played Weber, and that was a success, though Berlioz regretted the "stupid impropriety" of an onstage kiss with the pianist.

But what followed was a disaster. Berlioz made a mess of conducting his cantata. And then the clock struck midnight and the house orchestra departed. Their deal meant they didn't have to play past the witching hour.

Berlioz was left with a motley crew of session musicians - five violins, two violas, four basses, and a trombone. There was no way they could play his symphony.

The audience went home, disappointed. Berlioz "was red with shame and indignation".

He counted the takings. Seven thousand francs, "which disappeared in a few days into the black hole of the debts of my wife".

Sadly, it would be several years before those debts were cleared.

The course of true love never did run smooth. The pair became estranged, though Hector continued to support his wife. Harriet died in her late 40s, and Hector remarried.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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