Berlioz’s idea of love

Hector Berlioz c.1850, by Courbet

The journal 19th-Century Music has just published my latest article, ‘Berlioz, love, and Béatrice et Bénédict’, 19th-Century Music 39, no. 1 (2015): 3–24. In this piece I focus, as in much of my recent work, on the conjunction of ideological critique and tonal music. In this case, the emphasis is a range of ideological constructions of love in modernity. Since Berlioz’s opera is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the investigation reaches back to the turn of the seventeenth century, and early modern attitudes to marriage. But since Berlioz’s opera was written after the publication of Madame Bovary, vital elements of the play’s presentations of sex, marriage, and adultery have become transformed. Both Shakespeare’s and Berlioz’s works are subjected to a psychoanalytically informed scrutiny. The music – in whose events and processes Berlioz’s ideology critique takes place – is analysed using an analytical system which (irrespective of its inventor, Heinrich Schenker’s, intentions) shows how ideology works in tonal music. My argument is, in part, that Berlioz’s idea of love, which developed throughout his career to this culminating point at the end of it, is more radical than Shakespeare’s, and still poses a challenge to the new forms of conservatism manifested even in the ‘radical’ sexual politics of the early twenty-first century. The abstract published in the journal follows below, and the article can be read in PDF form here.


Berlioz’s final opera, Béatrice et Bénédict (1860–62) has generally been considered a light-hearted work, revelling in the simple joys of love. Yet his final development of the theme of love, which had preoccupied him at least since the Symphonie fantastique (1830), makes this opéra comique more serious than it might appear to be. Drawing on theories of the human subject by Badiou, Žižek, and Lacan, as well as on the resources of Schenkerian theory, this article invites a new attention on the ideological violence done both by conventional models of love (in this case, on the main characters in the opera) and by the language of tonality. Evaluation of the musical means by which Berlioz psychoanalyzes the characters of a masochist, Héro, and a hysteric, Béatrice, ultimately reveals a surprisingly provocative work of vivid psychological drama.

2 thoughts on “Berlioz’s idea of love

  1. Congratulations — on knocking 20 years off the age of 19th-Century Music! 39, not 19 … I have emended a certain encyclopedia entry accordingly.

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