It was infinite ecstasy with ”la belle dame sans merci”. By the time of Berlioz’s ”Symphonie Fantastique” , he had won the Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome, a five year fellowship that entailed two years of residence at the French Academy in Rome. He had dropped his stage door passion for Harriet Smithson in favor of a more promising courtship with a young pianist, Camille Moke, and when he left for Italy early in 1831, he considered himself engaged to be married. When the news came that she had jilted him for the piano manufacturer Pleyel, Berlioz came as close to committing suicide as the hero of his symphony.
But though Berlioz felt ”fierce as a chained dog” at the Villa Medici, the Italian spring quickly dispelled his misery. Armed only with his trusty guitar, he went hiking through the Campagna and the mountains of the Abruzzi, developing a taste for the roughest kind of folk music. What he liked best was ” a leather-lunged peasant roaring out a love song under the window of his girl , to the accompaniment of a huge mandolin, a bagpipe and a little iron instrument like a triangle…” He was storing up enough scenic and sonic impressions to last a lifetime. Not only his next symphony, ”Harold in Italy” , but all his dramatic works , with the exception of ”Faust” , were henceforth to have a Mediterranean setting.
Back in paris in 1832, he learned that Miss Smithson was now starring with her own company and piling up ruinous deficits at the box office. Returning to his original ”idee fixe” , he sent her a ticket to his next orchestral concert. When the actress entered the box that evening, she may have been the only person in the audience who was unaware that she herself figured as the heroine of the program; all she knew was that the composer had once been in love with her.
The ”Fantastique” began the program. As Berlioz writes, ”the passionate character of the work, its burning melodies, its cries of love, its accesses of fury, and the violent vibrations of such an orchestra heard close by, were bound to produce an impression.” This is the comment of an aural erotic, a man in love with sound both for its own sake and for the effect it has on others. Harriet heard his violent vibrations and asked herself, ”What if he loves me still?”
Next on the program came ”Lelio ou la Retour a la Vie” , a sequel to the ”Fantastique” that Berlioz had patched together from various miscellaneous choral and orchestral sketches. On stage they were linked together by an actor declaimimg spoken monologues. When Harriet heard him apostrophize ”Shakespeare, Shakespeare!” and call upon ”this Juliet, this Ophelia whom my heart is ever seeking,” she could no longer doubt what was happening.
The room began going around in circles; she went home in a trance. The next day, Berlioz was formally introduced to her at last; it was December 10, 1832, and more than five years had elapsed since the night he had first seen her as Ophelia. They were married at the British embassy the following October, with Liszt as witness, but against the wishes of both families. He was not yet thirty; Harriet was thirty-three.
To pay her theatre debts and to provide for his growing family, a son, Louis, was born in 1834; Berlioz commenced his Augean labors as a critic. Even so, in the first years of his marriage he produced some of his finest works. ”Harold in Italy” reviews his Italian experiences, ostensibly the subject is Byron’s ”Childe Harolde”, one of the ” wanderers o’er Eternity’, and focuses on a kind of interior monologue. Nowhere in the whole orchestral repertoire is there a more subtle or breathtaking piece of music than the slow movement, where the melancholy solo viola is interwoven with the evening hymn of a passing pilgrim band.