Hector Berlioz’s “To be or not to be”

Fellix vallotton kp0Peter Bloom at The Hudson Review:

Berlioz cannot be said to have been gifted at languages other than his own, of which he became a master. As a boy in the Isère, in the eighteen-naughts, he was tutored in Latin by his demanding father, a learned country doctor. Virgil became the composer’s lifelong companion (ergo Les Troyens). Berlioz spent two years in Italy in his late twenties and picked up Italian as a diligent tourist. He travelled extensively in Germany in his forties and learned nary a word. He twice visited Russia and there spoke exclusively French. He went five times to England between 1847 and 1855 and did on the first occasion mention to his father that he found himself able, to his surprise, to say what he needed to say. His love of Shakespeare derived, however, from no such practical experience. It rather developed—this is one of those things that cause us to see Berlioz as fanatique and excentrique—from love itself. Love for the Anglo-Irish actress Harriet Smithson, that is, who came to Paris in 1827 and who, during an intensive but short-lived craze for Shakespeare in English, revealed the depths of the dramas and captivated the French public with her performances of leading roles inHamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.

All of the French Romantics were smitten by Smithson—Hugo and Gautier, Dumas and Delacroix, the list goes on—but only Berlioz made it his business relentlessly to pursue the actress and eventually to persuade her, after a courtship whose vicissitudes forever confirm how truth is stranger than fiction, to become his wife.

more here.