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Behind the Music

By Stephanie — October 25, 2016

Working for a symphony orchestra, I come across a lot of interesting characters. From the musicians who make up the orchestra to the patrons who attend our concerts, the full spectrum of humanity’s quirks are on full display.


But one of my favorite parts of my job is reading and writing about the people who wrote the music we perform today. From Beethoven’s hearing loss to Mozart’s mysterious patron requesting what would be his final Requiem, the real life stories of the composers whose genius birthed the greatest music we’ve ever known is often stranger than fiction.

For example, this past weekend, my orchestra performed a piece called Symphonie fantastique, by French composer Hector Berlioz. While the music itself is beautiful, haunting, and bewitching (especially the final movement), it is the story behind it that is the stuff novels are written from.

In 1827, Berlioz was a 24-year-old struggling composer in Paris. After attending a performance of Hamlet put on by a troupe of traveling English actors, he fell immediately in love with the play’s Ophelia, a beautiful young actress named Harriet Smithson. Berlioz wrote her countless love letters, to the point of filling her dressing room with them, but the actress, frightened of this obsessed stalker’s fan’s attentions, never answered them.


For three years, Berlioz held on to his unrequited passion for a woman he had never met, despite becoming engaged to another young woman who ultimately broke it off (Berlioz actually planned to kill his former fiance and her mother, but got cold feet. That’s a story for ANOTHER day.). The composer eventually found an outlet by writing Symphonie fantastique, the story of a young artist in love with a beautiful woman. The artist attempts to kill himself through opium, instead producing a horrible vision in which the artist kills his beloved and is surrounded by a hideous throng of sorcerers and devils before he awakens (cheery stuff, eh?).

When the work premiered in 1832, Smithson just happened to be in the audience. Upon realizing the piece was written for her, and that Berlioz still loved her, she relented and met the composer the next day. Get this: Smithson and Berlioz ended up getting married a year later. Crazy, right? (FYI, they didn’t live happily ever after, since Berlioz didn’t speak English and Smithson didn’t speak French, and apparently Berlioz eventually realized that worshipping his lady love from afar was much more fun that actually living with her.)


Take another composer, Franz Liszt. Insanely talented as a pianist and composer, Liszt gave concerts across Europe, often four or five a week, and was showered with honors and adulations. A true showman who had a mesmerizing stage presence, Liszt’s audiences adored him. Women fought over silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves that Liszt had worn. Broken piano strings from his concerts were made into bracelets. Swarming fans tried to attain locks of his hair, and even fought over his coffee dregs and cigar stumps. Women fainted and went into hysterics in his presence (kind of like the reception Elvis had in his day).

Medical professionals even coined a term for the hysteria in 1842: “Lisztomania.” Unlike “Beatlemania” of the ’60s, Lisztomania was believed to be an actual contagion, and doctors sought to immunize the public against it. Of course, Liszt was just the rock star of his day, and much like “Bieber Fever,” it died out when his popularity waned.

I just adore learning the stories behind classical masterpieces and the people who created them, much like finding out what inspired my favorite authors to write my favorite books. Since I’m writing a symphonic murder mystery, I’ve considered having a blog on my future website dedicated to anecdotes about composers. I’d love to call it The Decomposing Composer. What do you think?


About Author

Stephanie Ludwig is a former reporter turned public relations professional who loves Jesus and writing about mysteries, music, and murder. She is an avid L.M. Montgomery fan, and collects anything having to do with Anne of Green Gables.

View all Stephanie posts.

(14) Readers Comments

  1. October 25, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Love the idea for The Decomposing Composer! And that name is so very clever. :) I found both of these composers' histories to be fascinating. The word "stalker" really seemed to fit him. And how interesting about Liszt. I thought that music mania's were a 20th Century phenomenon. Now I know it's simply human.

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 9:38 am

      Thanks, Brenda! One of the highlights of my day job is finding out the story behind the music, and I agree about Berlioz-- quite a stalker! Honestly, today he might be diagnosed as having some sort of mental instability (the rest of his life was pretty rocky, too) but interesting how this one obsession fueled his creativity and produced a gorgeous piece of music. As for Liszt, I think he might have been the original music "idol."

  2. October 25, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Fascinating!! I knew there were some rich stories, but this was better than I could imagine. Truth is stranger than fiction.

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 10:18 am

      One of my favorite parts about writing about the music we perform is finding out the backstories!

  3. Shari Barr
    October 25, 2016 at 11:09 am

    I never would have thought the symphony and composers would be such a gold mine for story starters, especially mystery and suspense. Very interesting.

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Shari, there is some GOOD stuff buried amid those symphonies. It's inspiration central!

  4. Kav
    October 25, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Fascinating stuff, Stephanie...a bit creepy too. Perfect for the week before Halloween. LOL I did not know any of that history but I'll be sure to fit it into a conversation sometime soon. :-)

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 1:16 pm

      The 5th movement sounds like the soundtrack of a creepy movie. The Chicago Symphony has a great video on YouTube of the whole thing, but here is the 5th movement for a listen: https://youtu.be/g2Kky5BC9Uk?t=46m1s

  5. October 25, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Aren't we artistic types CRAZY though??? :) I want more.

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      It can be argued that their creative genius was fueled by bumpy personal lives!

  6. October 25, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Ohmygoodness, now I want to know ALL the stories behind these classical pieces and composers!!! This was a fantastic little taste! <3

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      Thanks, Mikal! I love finding these stories. Makes the music much more interesting.

  7. Jenny Carlisle
    October 25, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Fascinating! Hard to believe that actress married her stalker. He must have been quite a charming wacko!

    • Stephanie
      October 25, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      Jenny, I agree! Berlioz and Harriet Smithson had one child together but ended up separating after a while. She turned into an alcoholic and died after a series of strokes, while he had a handful of mistresses and married again, a woman much younger than himself. Crazy stuff!

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