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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Beginning of a “Grand Passion”

By Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

From Berlioz’s Autobiography

I HAVE now come to the grand drama of my life; but I shall not relate all its painful details. It is enough to say that an English company came over to perform Shakespeare’s plays, then entirely unknown in France, at the Odéon. I was present at the first performance of ‘Hamlet,’ and there, in the part of Ophelia, I saw Miss Smithson, whom I married five years afterward. I can only compare the effect produced by her wonderful talent, or rather her dramatic genius, on my imagination and heart, with the convulsion produced on my mind by the work of the great poet whom she interpreted. It is impossible to say more.

This sudden and unexpected revelation of Shakespeare overwhelmed me. The lightning-flash of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me, illuminating its remotest depths in a single flash. I recognized the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth; and I also realized the utter absurdity of the ideas circulated by Voltaire in France about Shakespeare, and the pitiful pettiness of our old poetic school, the offspring of pedagogues and frères ignorantins.

But the shock was too great, and it was a long while before I recovered from it. I became possessed by an intense, overpowering sense of sadness, that in my then sickly, nervous state produced a mental condition adequately to describe which would take a great physiologist. I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favorite studies became distasteful to me, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs. During that long period of suffering, I can only recall four occasions on which I slept, and then it was the heavy, death-like sleep produced by complete physical exhaustion. These were one night when I had thrown myself down on some sheaves in a field near Ville-Juif; one day in a meadow in the neighborhood of Sceaux; once on the snow on the banks of the frozen Seine, near Neuilly; and lastly, on a table in the Café du Cardinal at the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Rue Richelieu, where I slept for five hours, to the terror of the garçons, who thought I was dead and were afraid to come near me.

It was on my return from one of these wanderings, in which I must have seemed like one seeking his soul, that my eyes fell on Moore’s ‘Irish Melodies,’ lying open on my table at the song beginning “When he who adores thee.” I seized my pen, and then and there wrote the music to that heart-rending farewell, which is published at the end of my collection of songs, ‘Irlande,’ under the title of ‘Elégie.’ This is the only occasion on which I have been able to vent any strong feeling in music while still under its influence. And I think that I have rarely reached such intense truth of musical expression, combined with so much realistic power of harmony.