Harriet Smithson (Harriet Smithson)

Harriet Smithson

Actress. The first wife of composer Hector Berlioz, how she inspired him to write his “Symphonie fantastique” (1830) is one of the most famous tales in classical music. Born in Ennis, Ireland, the daughter of a theatre manager, in 1815 she made her performing debut in Dublin in “The Will” and three years later bowed in London, England with “The Belle’s Strategem”. She was reportedly a fine tragic actress with haunting eyes, but she had a rather weak voice that limited her success in larger venues such as Drury Lane. In September 1827, the English Shakespeare Company, starring Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble and Smithson, began a year-long engagement at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, France. Among her roles were Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”, Ophelia in “Hamlet”, Desdemona in “Othello”, Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth”, and the title role of Nicholas Rowe’s “Jane Shore”. The cream of the French Romantic movement, including Victor Hugo, Eugène Delacroix, Alexander Dumas and Théophile Gautier, were enthusiastic and dubbed Smithson “The Irish Belle”. Berlioz, then an impetuous music student, also attended the early performances and was instantly smitten with the actress. His friends at the time described him wandering the streets in a daze over “the fair Ophelia”. He stalked her at the theatre, sent violent love letters, and took an apartment across from hers to spy on her comings and goings. Smithson was understandably disturbed by this and she left Paris in September 1828 without meeting him. False rumors that she was having an affair with her manager helped bring Berlioz back down to earth, and he decided to pour his unrequited feelings into a symphony unlike any written before. The “Symphonie fantastique” was premiered at the Paris Conservatory on December 5, 1830. The explicit program for the music chronicles how “a vibrant young musician…sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her”. She takes the form of a recurring melody (which Berlioz called an “idée fixe”) that haunts him wherever he goes – at a festive ball, in the countryside. In despair over this hopeless passion, the musician overdoses on opium and is plunged into a nightmare-filled sleep. He dreams he has murdered his beloved and witnesses his own execution on the guillotine; he then finds himself in hell, where a witches’ sabbath is taking place. The “idée fixe” is transformed into a mocking dance tune as his beloved joins the witches, and the work ends in a frenzy. A landmark of Romantic era music, the “Symphonie fantastique” established Berlioz and is still popular today. As his star rose, Smithson’s was setting. Her acclaim in Paris backlashed on her return to London, where critics haughtily asserted that the French had overrated a good but not great actress. They panned her 1829 Covent Garden debut, and later reviews were so vicious Smithson vowed to leave England forever. In 1832 she was back in Paris, deeply in debt – and surprised that her onetime obsessed fan was now a famous composer. Out of curiosity she attended a performance of the “Symphonie fantastique” conducted by Berlioz; the gossip and the symphony’s program left little doubt it was about her. The two were finally introduced the next day and within weeks they were an item. It was a tumultuous courtship marked by breakups and reconciliations. They hardly knew each other’s language, Berlioz’s father didn’t approve, and Smithson had a meddlesome mother and sister the future husband would also have to support. When Smithson accused her fiancee of not loving her, he swallowed an overdose of laudanum in her presence. The couple were married at the British Embassy in Paris on October 3, 1833, with Franz Liszt as a witness. They had one son, Louis-Thomas (1834-1867). “What an improbable romance life is!” Berlioz  mused, with more foresight than he imagined. The vogue for English-language drama in Paris had ended. Smithson’s lack of fluency in French hindered her comeback attempts, as did a broken leg from a carriage accident, which left her with a permanent limp. And she gained a great deal of weight following her pregnancy. Berlioz even tried to get Victor Hugo to tailor a play for her. After appearing in a tawdry flop of a pantomime, “The Last Hour of the Condemned” (1834), she had no choice but to call it a career. Her domestic life deteriorated as she became an alcoholic recluse, helpless in the shadow of her husband’s fame and fiercely jealous of his female admirers. In the end Berlioz felt sorry for her more than anything else.   They separated in the early 1840s, but not before she had inspired two more Berlioz masterpieces. Memories of Smithson in 1827 are at the heart of the symphony “Romeo and Juliet” (1839). The song cycle “Les nuits d’été” (“Summer Nights”, 1841), on poems by Theophile Gautier, deals with loss of love and was written just as the Berlioz-Smithson marriage was falling apart. In her last years a series of strokes left Smithson paralyzed and unable to speak. Rejecting advice that he put her in a convalescent home, Berlioz hired nurses to care for her and visited whenever he could. She died peacefully moments after he saw her last. Liszt sent the composer his condolences: “She inspired you, you loved her and sang your love for her, her mission was fulfilled”. Smithson was originally buried in the small St. Vincent Cemetery near her home, in a grave on a northern slope facing England. In 1864 part of St. Vincent’s was demolished for street-widening and her remains were reinterred at Montmartre Cemetery. Berlioz had to witness the exhumation and described it with painful vividness in his memoirs. Today she rests with Berlioz and his second wife beneath a modern monument, her name inscribed on the side almost as an afterthought. Apart from being a key figure in Berlioz literature, she is the subject of Peter Raby’s biography “Fair Ophelia: A Life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz” (2003). (bio by: Bobb Edwards)  Family links:  Spouse:  Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)


  • January, 01, 1970
  • Ireland


  • March, 03, 1854
  • France


  • Cimetiere de Montmartre
  • France

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