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THIS HEADLINE IS right up there with “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar,” and, what’s more, it’s no less an exaggeration. Nineteenth-century French composer Hector Berlioz came close to pulling off a triple murder followed by suicide, all because of his love for a woman named Moke, specifically Camille née Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke. It would be difficult to imagine a more bizarre tale.
Irreverence comes early in this book: David Groover’s dedication is a warm, lengthy remembrance of being introduced to opera as a kid getting Saturday afternoon haircuts, no doubt accompanied by the Met’s radio broadcasts. C.C. Conner’s is rather more succinct: “To my mother, who knows little about opera, but who’ll buy this book anyway.”
“The Drag-nation of Faust.” The authors’ Berlioz tale begins in mid-April 1831 at a couturiere’s salon in Florence, Italy: “… in the dressing area in the back, who should be standing there being fitted in a fetching maid’s outfit—dress, hat, green veil, and the rest—but Hector Berlioz!”
Medicine, then Music. Hector Berlioz was a physician’s son forced into a medical degree despite an aversion to dissecting bodies. The University of Paris, though, was the venue, and an ample allowance gave Hector access to the city’s many cultural attractions.
Berlioz turned to music with studies at the Paris Conservatoire and a quest to win France’s premier arts prize, the Prix de Rome. He failed in his first three submissions, but then his cantata La Mort de Sardanapale proved successful in 1830. Berlioz was elated to be spending two years studying in Rome.
Les Amours. Wikipedia recounts his love life, at first unrequited: Berloiz “conceived a passion” for actress Harriet Smithson; “his biographer Hugh Macdonald calls it ‘emotional derangement.’ She refused even to meet him.”
Then Berlioz “fell in love with a nineteen-year pianist, Marie (‘Camille’) Moke. His feelings were reciprocated, and the couple planned to be married.”
The “Dear Hector” Letter. We return to Groover and Conner: Berlioz’s fetching maid’s outfit in Florence “was part of his elaborate scheme to return to Paris and shoot not only his fiancee, Camille Moke, who had just sent him a ‘Dear Hector’ letter, but also her nettlesome mother [whom he called l’hippopotame] and Monsieur Pleyel, his replacement for Mme. Moke’s affections.”
Our authors continue: “In the guise of a certain lady’s personal maid conveying an urgent message for the family, Hector would enter the house at 9 p.m., when the happy trio would be gathered for supper. When the bogus letter was being read, he would draw his double-barreled pistols and blow their brains out. He would then pay his respects to himself in similar manner, or drink the two vials of laudanum and strychnine that he had brought along for that very purpose.”
Oops. Groover and Conner write, “Discreetly hiding his distaff attire in the door pocket of the mail coach bearing him out of Florence, he forgot to take the parcel with him when he changed coaches at Pietrasanta for Genoa.” Berlioz had to struggle in Genoa to refurbish.
Revolution! “While Berlioz was straightening his seams,” Groover and Conner relate, “the Sardinian police, on the lookout for suspicious Parisians who might be cohorts of the Carbonari, those instigators of the July 1830 Revolution who advocated the overthrow of Austrian and Papal rule in Italy, cast a raised eyebrow in Berlioz’s direction and refused him a visa for Turin. Instead, they ordered him to detour south toward Nice and Saint-Tropez, obviously mistaking him for one of the infamous Cagelles.”
A Change of Heart. Our authors conclude, “Although he fervently desired to send that nymphomaniacal concert pianist, Mme. Moke, off to Hades, he realized that he had music inside him, important music, aching to be written. The sea and balmy breezes of Nice brought him to his senses. He returned to Italy to complete the studies granted him for winning the Prix de Rome and put Mme. Moke out of his mind. Great music lay ahead. And just when he had mastered how to walk in heels.”
Berlioz was 28 in 1831. He died in 1869 at the age of 65, having composed a significant array of musical and literary works. Marie née Moke Pleyel became the chair of the piano department at the Brussels Conservatoire in 1848; she died at age 64 in 1875. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
Truth can be stranger than fiction …