‘My idea was to rush back to Paris, in order to mercilessly kill two guilty women and an innocent man. Having done that, I would, of course, proceed to kill myself.’ Over-wrought emotions, from the pages of a melodramatic romantic novel? No. The lines are from Hector Berlioz’s Memoirs, and are in essence true – at one point in his psychologically turbulent young manhood, the flamboyant French composer was indeed intending to initiate a mass shooting incident.
The catalyst was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a woman. Camille Moke was just 18 when Berlioz first met her, and already one of the most brilliant pianists of her generation. Berlioz was eight years older, and reeling from a disastrous attraction to the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, an infatuation which fuelled the heady imaginings of his Symphonie fantastique.
Camille fell quickly for the brooding, impressionable Berlioz but he, immersed in composing the Symphonie, did not immediately reciprocate. Camille persisted, though, and her ‘slim and graceful figure, magnificent black hair and large blue eyes’ (Berlioz’s description) could not forever be resisted. ‘I yielded,’ Berlioz wrote, ‘and let myself find consolation for all my sorrows in a new passion.’
From that point on, things moved with dizzying rapidity. The couple declared their intention to marry, rendering Camille’s mother furious. Berlioz was penniless, she objected. At the very least he must have an opera performed successfully before the marriage could happen. Worse was to follow, when an alternative proposal of marriage arrived at the Moke household from ‘someone with a large fortune’. Though Madame Moke told Berlioz she wouldn’t force Camille to marry against her inclination, storm clouds were ominously gathering.
They broke in April 1831 when Berlioz was in Italy, fulfilling a condition of the Prix de Rome scholarship he’d won eight months previously. While in Florence, a letter from Mme Moke arrived: Camille, she wrote, would be marrying Camille Pleyel, heir to the prestigious piano manufacturing company and 30 years her senior.
At one fell swoop, Berlioz’s hopes of happiness were completely shattered. With the ‘restless, sickly air of a mad dog’, he loaded up a pair of double-barrelled pistols and, bizarrely, bought some women’s clothing to disguise himself when he returned to Paris. There, it seems, he fully intended to shoot dead the faithless Moke, her ‘hippopotamus’ mother, Pleyel and then himself, in a crime passionnel of spectacular proportions.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. En route to the French capital, he lost the housemaid’s outfit, and nearly drowned by falling off the city ramparts at Genoa. And by the time he stopped at Nice on 20 April, his boiling rage was abating, as thoughts of his family, and the works that would remain unwritten should the bloodbath actually happen, ate at his conscience. ‘Love of life and art whispered a thousand sweet promises to me,’ Berlioz wrote later in his Memoirs. ‘I let them speak, and even found a certain pleasure in listening.’
And so Moke, her mother, Pleyel and Berlioz himself were spared this broiling crisis of the composer’s mid-twenties. He stayed on a while in Nice before returning to Rome, writing the King Lear overture, walking through the orange groves and bathing in the sea – ‘the 20 happiest days of my life’, he called them.
As for Moke, she married Pleyel, but they separated just four years later. Further emotional upheavals lay in Berlioz’s future too, but none of them was quite so traumatic as l’affaire Moke of April 1831. It was a torrid episode, frightening to live through and reflect on afterwards. ‘But now I’m saved,’ Berlioz wrote to his family. ‘I shall live.’
Find out more about Berlioz and his works here
Top image by Getty Images