Monday, December 3, 2007

Berlioz and His Lady

The Washington Post has a review of a new novel by Jude Morgan about the composer Hector Berlioz and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who became his torment, his inspiration and his wife.
True story: In 1827 a young French composer went to see two Shakespeare plays at the Odeon in Paris: "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." He fell instantly and passionately in love with the Irish actress who played both Ophelia and Juliet. On fire, he composed a masterpiece. He pursued the actress. Their relationship was fraught and tempestuous. They married, but within a few years their union dissolved into depression and mayhem; yet, despite everything, they loved each other until their deaths.

That tale could make for a torrid romance novel, but the brilliant historical novelist Jude Morgan has turned it into a deeply empathic exploration of obsession and art, genius and madness. The author's narrative flows musically. The text is scored for many voices, the operatic cast is large, and Morgan's ability to bring each character to life is virtuosic.

Harriet Smithson was the Irish actress who inspired perhaps the most iconic orchestral work of the 19th century: "Symphonie Fantastique," by Hector Berlioz. From an impoverished theatrical family, Harriet is reluctantly led into a life as a "player," but instead of sleeping her way to success (the usual path for an actress of her era) she remains pure and, therefore, obscure.



Brantigny said...

Interestingly, upon my way home from teaching my class on Monday night WCPE (Raleigh) at 9:PM was playing Berlioz.

I had read your blog in the morning and the announcer was reading sections of it over the air. Hmmm...

Unfortunately he also orchestrated La Marseillaise... Pity

elena maria vidal said...

What a coincidence!