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Harriet Smithson Berlioz

Harriet Smithson was born in Ennis, in 1800. Her father managed a theatre in Cook’s Lane off present-day O’Connell St. and her mother performed minor acting roles. Harriet took up acting as a result of her fathers ill-health and made her first appearance on stage at the Cron Street Theatre in Dublin.

In 1817 she went to England and although lacking in experience she attracted attention and by 1818 she was appearing in Drury Lane. Although she was a fine actress, her voice lacked the power necessary for her to achieve outstanding success in the vast Drury Lane Theatre. It was in France, however, that she really achieved acclaim.

In Paris, as leading lady in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, she stirred packed audiences which included celebrities such as Hugo, Delacroix, Deschamps, Gautier and Dumas, and of course, the rising young composer, Berlioz, who was not only enchanted by the play, but was later to fall in love with the leading lady. Berlioz did not try to hide his feelings. She, however, did not return his affection and the two were not to meet again for some years. It was during this time, having failed to win her over, that he composed his Symphonie Fantastique.

They met again some years later at a concert in Paris. This time a more friendly and closer relationship developed. During October of the same year they were quietly married in Paris, where Liszt was a witness. The following year they moved to Montmartre where a son, Louis, was born to them on August 1834.

However some years later, the marriage between Harriet and her husband became strained, largely due to Harriet’s failure as an actress and her jealousy of her husband’s success and his popularity with the women he met in the course of his work. Ten years later they separated, and Harriet began to suffer from a paralysis which left her unable to talk or move. On 3rd March 1854, Harriet, the actress who gained international renown, died. The inscription on the vault at Montmartre reads as follow: Henriette Constance Berlioz Smithson, nee a Ennis en Irlande, mort a Montmartre le 3 mars 1854.

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