Berlioz was a woman - by Len Mullenger
At his fifth attempt, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome in 1830. As part of the prize he left Paris to spend two years in Italy. This meant he had to leave his fiancé, Camille Moke, in Paris and for several weeks after arriving in Rome he heard nothing from her.
After recovering from a bout of tonsillitis he ventured to the Post Office to discover a letter from Madame Moke informing him that Camille had become engaged to the piano manufacturer, Pleyel.
Beside himself with rage and grief, Berlioz resolved to journey to Paris with the intention of murdering Camille, her Mother and her fiancé! Naturally this would also necessitate his own death by suicide.
Aware that Camille might anticipate his return he realised that he would have to use disguise. He booked a seat on the evening coach, leaving himself only six hours to arrange a disguise. By paying whatever was asked he was able to persuade a dressmaker to alter a maid's dress and to provide a hat with a thick green veil.
He packed, taking a pair of double-barrelled pistols and enough bullets for them all. He also took a bottle of strychnine in case he missed!
On boarding, he hid the dress in a side pocket of the coach and sat clutching the pistols. Being quite beside himself with emotion and rage, and having travelled for twelve hours without drink, food or sleep, it is not surprising that at Genoa he realised that he had left the costume behind when he had earlier changed coaches.
With six hours before the connecting coach left, he once again searched and found a dressmaker willing to help. Meanwhile, the local police, now suspicious that he was an agent of the Revolution, refused his visa to travel via Turin but agreed that he could proceed via Nice.
On this stage of the journey he rehearsed his plan to gain entrance to the drawing room, draw the pistols from beneath his skirt and blow the brains out of the three of them finally turning the last barrel on himself.
As daylight crept across the sky it gradually registered how unfortunate it was that he would have to kill himself. What a loss to the World. He had still to finish his Symphonie Fantastiqueand many other works were pounding in his brain. As he drew nearer to Nice his resolve faltered and sanity returned once he realised just how hungry he was.
Eventually it was revealed that Harriet Smithson was to be his true passion and to inspire the completion of the Symphonie.
The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1865); Gollancz 1969
This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society
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