What if Berlioz had never seen Harriet Smithson play Ophelia? No Symphonie Fantastique, no programme music …
John Drummond explores critical moments in the history of Western music when things might well have turned out very differently.
On 11 September 1827 a young Irish actress entered the stage at the Odéon Theatre in Paris, to play the role of Ophelia. She couldn’t have known it, when she walked onto the stage that night, but her performance would alter the course of the history of western classical music, and send it in a new direction.
The house was packed with 1700 excited spectators, including some of the great artists and writers in Paris. Alexandre Dumas was there, and Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, the painters Delacroix and Devéria. Also present, probably in a cheap seat in the gallery, was an almost totally unknown young student musician, a guitarist and composer called Hector Berlioz. What happened to him that night, when he saw Harriet Smithson walk onto the stage as Ophelia, changed his life, and that led to him changing the world of music.
His infatuation became a three-year obsession, and it included extravagantly written letters to her proposing marriage. Harriet resisted as best she could.
From a musical perspective, these three years were the years in which Berlioz developed the pathways he would follow for the rest of his life as a composer, pathways which led to him writing music that had a profound influence upon other composers. Since we owe so much to the particular moment when Berlioz first clapped eyes on Harriet Smithson, it’s worth asking ourselves this question: what if the encounter had never occurred?