Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Hector Berlioz: from medical school to music conservatory

Michael Yafi
Houston, Texas, United States

Portrait of Hector Berlioz. Gustave Courbet. 1850. Musée d’Orsay. Via Wikimedia

Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) was born in La Côte-Saint-André, France. His father was a well-known physician in his hometown in the French Alps and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. At the age of eighteen, Hector was sent to Paris to study medicine.1 Although he was passionate about music, theatre, and literature, he had little interest in medicine.

In his memoir, he describes his feeling during his initial training experience:

“When I entered that fearful human charnel-house, littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood, with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and fled home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear that words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me.”2

While attending medical school, Hector used all his pocket money to attend concerts, theater performances, and the other cultural activities that Paris famously offered. Gradually, he distanced himself from medicine and decided to study music. Five years later, Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatory after a complicated application process. (It was rumored that Berlioz’s father had to bribe the admission officer.)3

While studying music, Hector became fascinated with Shakespeare and began to attend Shakespeare plays even though he could not understand English. This is how he fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson after attending her performances. Deeply in love, he rented an apartment near hers so he could watch her constantly. He wrote her letters and sent her flowers, but she did not even know that he existed.

While experimenting with opium4 and burning with unrequited love, Berlioz’s wrote his first masterwork. He described his Symphonie Fantastique (1830) as a piece “about an artist who is madly in love with a woman who does not know he exists.” Its five movements describe his “fixed idea” about love, passion, opium-related hallucinations, revenge, and death.

I. “Rêveries – Passions” (Reveries – passions)

II. “Un bal” (A ball)

III. “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the fields)

IV. “Marche au supplice” (March to the scaffold)

V. “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of a witches’ sabbath)

When Harriet Smithson was told that the symphony was about her, she agreed to meet him and later she married him. There are many stories about their marriage, including one that Hector swallowed a lethal dose of opium in front of Harriet to convince her to marry him (replicating the imaginary story of his music). When she agreed, he took the antidote, which he had already prepared (probably using his experience from medical school).5

Hector Berlioz and Harriet Smithson were married in 1833 and had one child. Although they eventually separated, Hector continued to support her. They are buried together in Montmartre Cemetery.

As a composer, Berlioz contributed to the development of the horn as a symphony instrument. In the published score of Symphonie Fantastique, at the beginning of the fourth movement, the horns are to “produce the stopped tones with the hand without using the valves.” And his experiences as a medical student likely shaped his music. Although he realized early in his life that he would never be a doctor, his exposure to morgues and bodies helped him to realistically portray fear and death in his Symphonie Fantastique. This music has been used for decades in horror movies.


  1. O’Neill D. Hector Berlioz, étudiant de médicine. J R Soc Med. 1989;82(9):548-551.
  2. Vallery-Radot P. Un Carabin R’ecalcitrant, Hector Berlioz, Par Lui-Meme [A Recalcitrant Medical Student, Hector Berlioz, In His Own Words]. Presse Med. 1964 Jul 25;72:2074-7. French. PMID: 14165257.
  3. Greenberg R. Music-history-monday-a-marriage-not-made-in-heaven/ https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-marriage-not-made-in-heaven/
  4. Wolf, P. Hector Berlioz and other famous artists with opium abuse. Front Neurol Neurosci. 2010;27:84-91. doi: 10.1159/000311193. Epub 2010 Apr 6
  5. https://www.pbs.org/keepingscore/berlioz-symphonie-fantastique.html#:

MICHAEL YAFI, MD, is a Professor and Director for The Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at UTHealth, (The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).

Spring 2021



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