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Letters of the composer’s family

At the Hector Berlioz Museum


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Contents of this page

The Chapot collection and the Reboul collection  
Transcription, spelling and writing  
Correspondence and history  

This page is also available in French

Related pages

Note: all the following pages are in French

Table of letters  
Images of letters  

Letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat: literal transcriptions I; literal transcriptions II; literal transcriptions III  
Letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat: corrected versions I; corrected versions II; corrected versions III  
Letters of Berlioz’s parents: literal transcriptions  
Letters of Berlioz’s parents: corrected versions  
Letters of Berlioz’s wives: literal transcriptions and corrected versions  
Letters of the Marmion family: literal transcriptions  
Letters of the Marmion family: corrected versions  
Letters of the Pal family: literal transcriptions  
Letters of the Pal family: corrected versions  
Letters of the Suat family (except Adèle Berlioz-Suat): literal transcriptions  
Letters of the Suat family (except Adèle Berlioz-Suat): corrected versions  
Letters of various correspondents: literal transcriptions  
Letters of various correspondents:  corrected versions  

© Musée Hector-Berlioz for the text and images of the letters
© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for the commentary and presentation

See also:

Supplementary note

Letters of the composer’s family at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in French, with introduction in English) [referred to below as BnF]
Letters of the composer at the Hector Berlioz Museum - Chronological tables (in French, with introduction in English)
Letters of the composer at the Hector Berlioz Museum - Dating (in French, with introduction in English)


    Among the many documents preserved at the Hector Berlioz Museum in La Côte-Saint-André are numerous letters: letters of the composer, of his son Louis, of members of his family — his maternal grandfather Nicolas Marmion, his father and mother, his two wives Harriet Smithson-Berlioz and Marie Recio-Berlioz, his uncle Félix Marmion, his sisters Adèle and Nancy, their husbands Marc Suat and Camille Pal, and their daughters Joséphine and Nancy Suat, and Mathilde Pal. There are also letters of several friends of the Berlioz family, as well as letters addressed to the composer or which concern him. These letters come from two different collections, the Chapot collection and the Reboul collection, which go back to the two sisters of the composer, and were passed down by them to their descendants: the Chapot collection goes back to Adèle Berlioz-Suat, his younger sister (1814-1860), who celebrated her bicentenary in 2014, and the Reboul collection to his elder sister Nancy Berlioz-Pal (1806-1850). Of the two the Chapot collection is the more ancient: it was given to the Museum in 1981 by abbé Robert Chapot, grandson of Joséphine Chapot-Suat, niece of Berlioz and first daughter of his younger sister Adèle. A number of documents from the Chapot collection were given to the Museum even before this date, and others have been donated subsequently. The Reboul collection reached the Museum later, as a result of the bequest made at her death in 2010 by Catherine Reboul-Vercier of her collection of documents, which formed part of a once larger collection that was divided between the three heirs of Admiral Georges Reboul, grandson of Mathilde Masclet-Pal, niece of Berlioz and only daughter of his elder sister Nancy. This bequest entered the Museum in 2011. Concerning the original Reboul collection the reader is referred to the fundamental study by David Cairns, ‘The Reboul-Berlioz Collection’, in Berlioz Studies ed. Peter Bloom (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 1-16.

    Both collections had long been known to researchers and specialists and were used by them, as for example by the authors of the collected correspondence of the composer (Correspondance générale, of which 8 volumes appeared between 1972 and 2003; hereafter abbreviated CG), and by David Cairns, author of the article just mentioned and of the great two-volume biography of the composer (1999; French edition, 2002). The letters of the composer and of his son Louis have already been published in Correspondance générale and later in the volume entitled Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz which appeared in 2016; they will not be reproduced here. But the numerous letters of other members of his family, though known to researchers and sometimes cited by them, remain as a whole as yet unpublished (see also the supplementary note).

    At the invitation of the Hector Berlioz Museum, which was made to us in December 2013 and implemented barely a year later (11 December 2014), we are now publishing in full on this site all the letters preserved at the Museum which were written by members of the family of Hector Berlioz. We cannot thank too much Chantal Spillemaecker, Directrice du Musée Hector-Berlioz, and Antoine Troncy, Assistant de conservation au Musée, for the trust they have placed in us and for making available so generously the exceptional resources of the Museum. It goes without saying that the Museum retains the exclusive copyright for all the texts and images of the letters that are published here.

    The texts are all published in the original French, with commentary in French; only this introductory page is available in English. It would not have been realistic to publish the letters, or even a selection of them, in English translation: altogether the text of all the letters amounts to some 175,000 words, of which the letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat add up to no less than 90,000.

    The present publication comprises 244 texts in all, the majority of them letters, the first of which dates from 1823 and the last from 1878; the majority of texts date from the 1830s to the 1860s, and cover four generations of the Berlioz family (including grandfather Nicolas Marmion). To this group of letters have been added a few texts which do not emanate from the family circle proper, but which are sufficiently closely related to merit publication at the same time. A separate page provides tables giving complete listings of all the letters published here, arranged first in chronological order and then by groups (parents, wives, the different families etc.). In every case each letter or text is identified and referred to by its inventory number in the Hector Berlioz Museum. The origin of the various texts (from the Chapot collection or the Reboul collection) is easily identified by the inventory numbers. The texts from the Chapot collection have the class-mark R96 followed by identifying numbers (name of the writer, followed by the number of the letter if there is more than one from that writer): thus the two letters of Marie Recio-Berlioz have the class-mark R96.855.1 and R96.855.2, in which the figure 855 is the identifying number of Marie Recio-Berlioz. On the other hand the texts from the Reboul collection are all numbered consecutively and begin with the class-mark 2011.02; this is followed by a three-figure number which is that of the letter or text, but there is no identifying number for the writer of the letter. Thus the first letter of Adèle Berlioz-Suat in the inventory has the class-mark 2011.02.116 and the last the class-mark 2011.02.265.

The Chapot collection and the Reboul collection

    Though comparable in their origin from within the families of the two sisters, the two collections differ in many ways, particularly as regards the texts presented here. They differ first in size: though the Reboul collection is only part of a once larger collection, it represents some three quarters of the texts published here, as against only a quarter for the Chapot collection. They differ also in their chronological distribution, as becomes quickly apparent when perusing the tables of letters: the texts from the Reboul collection spread over almost the whole of the period covered here, from 1823 to 1869, whereas the majority of texts of the Chapot collection are concentrated around two key years, 1839 and 1858.

    An important observation follows: the Reboul collection, even in its partial state, represents what remains of a genuine collection which was continuous in time, whereas the Chapot collection as it now exists at the Hector Berlioz Museum, is only a selection made from a larger whole which was probably more extensive, and may have been initially comparable in scope to the Reboul collection. Hence an imbalance between the two collections, which a few figures will illustrate. The letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat represent half of the texts presented here, 123 out of 244 (or more exactly 122, since one of the texts, R96.856.2 from the Chapot collection, is clearly not a letter but a memorandum or an excerpt from a diary). Out of these 122 letters two-thirds, 80 in all, are addressed to the sister of Adèle, Nancy Berlioz-Pal, and cover a period from 1828 to 1848; 16 are addressed to the daughter of Nancy, Mathilde Pal-Masclet, the first in 1846 and the rest between 1854 and 1858. Nancy, and Mathilde after her, did therefore preserve a large number of the letters which they received from Adèle.

    On the other hand, if one searches for the counterpart to these letters in the Chapot collection at the Museum, one finds a total of only 6 letters of Nancy to Adèle, which all date from 1839. More striking still is the case of Mathilde Pal-Masclet: besides the 16 letters of Adèle in the Reboul collection, there are a further 10 addressed to her from her cousin Joséphine Suat and 4 by her other cousin Nancy Suat. But at present there is not a single letter of Mathilde Pal-Masclet in the collections of the Hector Berlioz Museum. And yet it was Mathilde who, as the only child of Nancy and Camille Pal, played a fundamental role in the preservation and transmission of the collection of documents from her family, a collection which was kept for many years at the family estate of the château of St Vincent near Grenoble, a château which with its shaded park is frequently mentioned in the letters published here.

The Chapot collection

    What then is the significance of these two years, 1839 and 1858, in the selection which has taken place with the letters of the Chapot collection?

    The explanation for the year 1839 is probably straightforward: 1839 was for Adèle a ‘memorable year’ (2011.02.139), the year of her wedding with Marc Suat, after which they settled at St Chamond, where their two children Joséphine and Nancy were born in 1840 and 1842. It was also the year they visited Paris from mid-May to June, when Adèle saw again her brother Hector for the first time since his marriage in 1833; the marriage had caused an uproar in the Berlioz family and Adèle was the only one to take her brother’s side. In Paris the Suats met Hector’s wife Harriet Smithson-Berlioz and their young son Louis, and became friendly with them. The affection of the Suats for Louis Berlioz is a theme that runs through the letters of Adèle of the 1840s and 1850s, and continued in the 1860s with her daughters. Adèle may well have wished to preserve carefully a collection of letters which related to this happy year, letters from her father, uncle, sister, brother, and Harriet Smithson-Berlioz, but also letters from friends outside the family circle such as Louise Boutaud, Nancy Clappier and Pauline Berthier; all these letters are reproduced here (see the table of letters for the year 1839).

    The survival of letters of 1858, or more exactly of letters of November-December 1858, is perhaps more difficult to explain. They consist of a group of 21 which, with the exception of one from Adèle (2011.02.260), all come from the Chapot collection and relate to events concerning the Suat family which otherwise would be almost completely unknown. The main event was a long stay of over six weeks, from the middle of November 1858 to the beginning of January 1859, on the part of young Nancy Suat, then aged 16, away from her family; she stayed with her uncle Félix Marmion at Tournon, and, at the end of this period, with a family friend, Louise Boutaud. During this period her sister Joséphine had been unwell for many months. This group of letters is discussed in detail in the Chronology page. The episode had no significance whatever outside the family circle, and it is striking that these letters should have survived whereas many others have disappeared. The preserved letters in this group include 11 of Nancy Suat to her family, 5 of her uncle and aunt, 3 of Louise Boutaud, and one from a friend, Eugénie Blachier, plus the letter of Adèle. Nancy Suat was thus the central character in this small family event which must have been a landmark of her early years: it was the first time that she had been away from the family home. It might be suggested that it was not only her parents but Nancy Suat herself who would have wished to preserve this group of letters. A detail on the autographs supports this hypothesis. The last letter of Nancy carries at the top of the first page the complete date ‘31 dec 1858’ (R96.858.4). The 3 previous letters (R96.858.1 to 3) also carry a date, but it was clearly added later in a different ink, though the handwriting is that of Nancy Suat herself (the 7 previous letters of Nancy are only dated by the day of the week, and are consequently difficult to date precisely). One might suggest that Nancy, back in the family home in January 1859, made a point of adding the exact date to the more recent letters which she could still remember. But if the episode had personal significance for Nancy, and presumably also for her parents and her sister Joséphine, it is more difficult to understand how it could have been of interest to later descendants in the family, not least because at her death in 1880 Nancy did not leave any children from her marriage to Gilbert de Colonjon.

    It would be tedious to try to account in detail for the presence in the Chapot collection of other letters outside these two groups of 1839 and 1858; there will be opportunities to return to the subject later, notably in connection with the letters of Marie Recio-Berlioz and several documents which relate to her (see the commentary on R96.855.1). But it should be pointed out, first, that Adèle and her descendants certainly did preserve with great care a large number of other letters addressed to her or to her family, and in particular the numerous letters of her brother Hector which are now at the Museum (this will be discussed further below), and second, that numerous other letters, such as those of Nancy and Mathilde Pal, have disappeared or been destroyed. When and how this happened is by no means clear.

The Reboul collection

    Another difference between the two collections should be mentioned first; it concerns the envelopes of the letters.

    Here it is necessary to go back in time. In the early 19th century envelopes were not used for sending letters. The address was written on the last page, at the centre of the page and usually vertically in relation to the rest of the letter; the letter was then folded in four around the address and the whole was sealed with wax. The post office of departure would place its mark on the address, and the post office of arrival, and occasionally also those of intermediary stages, would do so on the other side. This was the normal method for all letters written up to the 1830s, and the practice continued till at least the 1860s. There are numerous illustrations of this in the letters published here, such as the very first letter of Adèle Berlioz in this collection which dates from 1828 (2011.02.116 with its image; there is no postal stamp in this case, as the letter was probably carried by hand). From some time towards the end of the 1830s the use of envelopes was introduced. Envelopes had two advantages, saving space for text, and protecting the letter: the wax seals often resulted in obliterating a few words of the letter or making them illegible, and also forced the recipient to risk damaging the letter when breaking the seals. The first certain example of an envelope in this collection is a letter of Adèle Berlioz-Suat of the end of 1839 (2011.02.240 with the image of the envelope), but the practice may well have started earlier: the letter of Adèle 2011.02.133 which dates very probably from the end of 1837 and which is complete, does not have any address or postal stamps, which implies the use of an envelope which is now lost. But the old method continued to be used for many years, as can be seen with letters of Adèle dating from after 1839. The latest letter from this collection to use the old method is the letter of Monique Nety, the old servant of the Berlioz family at La Côte-Saint-André; it dates from June 1854 (2011.02.309). During the course of the 1850s the use of envelopes probably became the normal practice, though the old method continued to be used from time to time, as shown by a few letters of Berlioz himself at the Museum at La Côte (R96.397 [CG no. 2806], in 1863; R96.437 [CG no. 3189], in 1866; R96.450 [CG no. 3267], in 1867).

    This is where there is a difference between the Reboul and Chapot collections: there does not seem to be a single envelope from the latter. All the preserved envelopes are to be found in the Reboul collection, where they are fairly numerous after the early 1840s (29 envelopes just for the letters of Adèle). It seems therefore that Nancy Pal and her daughter Mathilde preserved the letters they received together with their envelopes, whereas Adèle Suat and her daughters kept the letters but without the envelopes. One might adduce here a practice that can be observed for the numerous letters of Hector Berlioz which were addressed to the Suats — Adèle, her husband Marc, and their two daughters Joséphine and Nancy — letters which are preserved at the Hector Berlioz Museum and which constitute the most remarkable part of the Chapot donation which was mentioned above (a complete listing of these letters is given on another page of this site). From April 1849 at the latest Adèle started to write in her own hand the exact date of every letter of her brother at the top of the first page, if her brother had not written it already. If he had written a date, but without the year, she would add the year. Even when he had written a complete date, but only at the end of the letter, as he often did, she took care to add the complete date at the top of the first page; the letter of Hector to his nieces of 1st January 1857 (CG no. 2198) is an illustration of this which we reproduce here. After Adèle’s death in 1860 her daughter Joséphine continued her practice. A separate page on this site summarises in table form all the manuscript additions made by the two to clarify the dates of the letters sent by Berlioz to the Suat family. This practice implies a method of classification in which the letters were preserved, but without their envelopes, in boxes, drawers or on the shelves of a wardrobe or cupboard, flat and face up, which made it easy to find the required text. Nancy Pal and her daughter used a different method of classification which made use of the envelopes, and therefore of the postal stamps which gave the dates (Nancy Pal did preserve envelopes of letters from her two Suat cousins).

    Generally speaking the content of the Reboul collection is self-explanatory: it comprises in the first instance the letters received by Nancy Pal (and sometimes her husband Camille), and then after her by her daughter Mathilde, letters which they preserved and then passed on to their descendants. These form the largest part of the total of letters: 94 letters sent to Nancy Pal, the majority (80) by her sister Adèle, 32 sent to her daughter Mathilde, almost all of them by the Suat family (Adèle or her daughters Joséphine and Nancy), and 5 to Camille Pal; in all 127 letters. But there is another interesting group of letters: those sent by Adèle to her parents at La Côte-Saint-André, 10 to her father dating from 1828 to 1847, and 5 to her mother from 1828 to 1834. It might have been expected that they would end up as of right not in the Reboul collection but in the Chapot collection, but the opposite is the case. It seems that after the death of Dr Berlioz in 1848 it was Nancy as the eldest daughter and not Adèle who took over the vast collection of letters and other documents which were in the family home, including letters written by Adèle and sent to La Côte, notably those to her parents. This collection comprised other texts, such as for example the letter of grandfather Nicolas Marmion to his daughter Joséphine Berlioz (2011.02.334), as well as letters addressed to Adèle at a time when she was living at La Côte: this is the case with a number of letters written to her by the Pal, 4 of Nancy (1830, 1832, 1833, 1838) and one of Camille Pal (1833). One must assume that an understanding had been reached between the two sisters on this point.

    Another interesting case is that of the letters sent by the Pals, and in particular by Nancy, but which form part of the Reboul collection. The majority of cases are self-explanatory: they are drafts of letters which were not sent (3 letters to Hector Berlioz in 1825, 1826 and 1830, and one to Adèle in 1843). A small group apart is that of the 5 letters to a close friend of Nancy, Rosanne Golety who lived at Bourg in the department of the Ain (between 1828 and 1848); it may be the case that after the death of Nancy the Golety family made a point of returning her letters to the Pals. But in other cases it is not known exactly how the letters returned to the Pal family: an example is the letter of Adèle to Hector on the occasion of his election to the Institut de France in 1856 (2011.02.246), which should have come back to the family of Adèle.

Transcription, spelling and writing

    An initial transcription of the texts from the Reboul collection was carried out at the Hector Berlioz Museum between 2011 and 2013 by a team comprising Céline Ageron-Prez, Lucien Chamard-Bois, Christopher Follet, and Michel Austin. Michel Austin took charge of the transcription of the great majority of letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat, which constitute half of the present publication; in addition he transcribed all the texts from the Chapot collection that are published here. He then checked every single text from both collections against the originals at the Museum, and took in hand the analysis and presentation of all the documents. He would like to thank the other members of the team for their work, which has been of great value to him, but he must take full responsibility for what is published here. 

    While preparing the texts for publication it quickly became apparent that in order to remain faithful to the 19th century originals while at the same time facilitating the task of the reader a century and a half later, it was necessary to present not just one version of each text, as is usually done, but two: first a literal transcription which, while not pretending to be the equivalent of a facsimile, would attempt to reproduce the original text as accurately as possible, with all its errors and imperfections; and then a corrected version intended to make the text accessible to the reader. The two versions of each text are presented in two series of separate pages, one of literal transcriptions set out according to the numerical order of the Museum’s inventories, and the other of corrected texts arranged in chronological order. A complete listing of all these pages is given above

    At the top of each letter, whether in literal transcription or in its corrected version, is displayed the inventory number of the letter, its date (with occasionally a link to a discussion in the Chronology page, if the date of the letter is in doubt), the name of the addressee, a link to the other version of the letter (literal or corrected), and sometimes also a link to an image of that letter. A little over a quarter of the letters are illustrated with images, and the reader will in some cases be able to compare directly an image of the original with the two versions offered. A separate page gives a complete listing of the texts that are illustrated, with links to the two versions of each letter and to its image.

Literal transcriptions

    On the pages of letters in literal transcription each letter is preceded by a rubric which gives a brief description of the text as it stands (number of pages, condition of the original, writing), as well as a summary of the evidence provided by the postal stamps, an important source of information not only for the dating of the letters but also for the working of the postal system of the time. The literal transcriptions aim at reproducing as exactly as possible what can be read, or what one believes can be read, on each page of the original. Pages are numbered consecutively and page divisions indicated. The transcription also specifies whenever the text is not written horizontally in the main part of the page as normally, but was added by the writer vertically in one or other of the margins, which is often the case. Addresses are always transcribed in full, whether they are given at the end of the letter, as was the practice earlier in the century, or on a separate envelope (see above). Words underlined in the original are underlined in the transcription. Words or letters of which the reading is uncertain are highlighted in yellow, and those which could not be deciphered are indicated with asterisks *** highlighted in green. Words that have been crossed out are transcribed when they can be read and indicated as such, otherwise they are replaced with a mention in brackets such as [mot biffé]. Gaps in the text are indicated by dots in brackets […].

    It goes without saying that no transcription can claim to be exact in every detail, and anyone who has transcribed texts of another age will be aware of the risk of incorrect readings and mistaken interpretations, particularly in the case of handwritings and originals that are difficult to read, as is often the case. The transcriptions provided here must contain errors; publication online has at least the advantage of making it possible to correct the text subsequently. But it is hoped that the reader will accept that what may strike him or her as oddities in the text should not be attributed solely to the absent-mindedness of the transcribers.

Corrected texts

    On the pages of letters in a corrected version some texts are preceded by a brief commentary, or by references to other letters or to other pages on this site; other letters do not have any commentary at the moment. It will always be possible to develop the commentary later should this be necessary.

    The texts presented here are ‘corrected’ with the sole purpose of making them more accessible to the reader, but it must be emphasized that the text of the original has not been modified in any way nor has its meaning been changed. The vocabulary of the original letters has been left as it is, even if it may seem at times rather old-fashioned. The corrections made to the original affect only spelling, the use of capital letters, and punctuation. More will be said on the subject of spelling and writing below. Mistakes in spelling, which are numerous in the originals, have been corrected and spelling has been modernised (for example longtemps is used instead of long-temps or long-tems). Punctuation has been added, removed or adapted whenever this seemed necessary to bring out more clearly the sense of the original; for example the very long sentences characteristic of the letters of the two sisters Adèle and Nancy have often been divided into several shorter ones. The use of capital letters, which is very erratic in the originals, has been modified to conform to modern usage. The division in paragraphs of the originals has been respected (where paragraphs can be distinguished, which is not always the case), but layout has been made to follow a standard scheme (first line of every paragraph indented, greetings and signature at the end of letters normally centred). Words underlined in the original are reproduced in italics. Words omitted in the original or restored are placed [in brackets]. Where the sense or the reading seems doubtful this is indicated with [?]. The pages of corrected texts are not numbered, and addresses have been omitted, as have all erasures.

    It goes without saying that any ‘correction’ made to the text is bound to be arbitrary to some extent and risks betraying the spirit and feel of the original. In a few extreme cases the originals with all their errors are infinitely more eloquent than a version that has been flatly corrected; examples are the distressing letter of Harriet Smithson-Berlioz to her son Louis, written in very poor French (R96.854 with its image), or the letter of the ironer Mme Mallet to the same Louis Berlioz, a letter almost devoid of proper spelling but written, it should be said, with the greatest care (2011.02.299 and see the image of the letter). At the other end some letters are almost faultless as they stand and can be reproduced with hardly any correction, such as the letters of Marie Recio-Berlioz or those of Joséphine Suat-Chapot. But in any case the reader always has the option of reverting to the literal transcription of the original.

Spelling and writing

    The perusal of texts of the 19th C is full of surprises for a reader of a century and a half later: language and spelling have greatly changed since. Therein lies in part the interest of these letters: in addition to all the information they provide on those who wrote them and the society of the time, they give an insight into the language that was written by the provincial bourgeoisie from which Hector Berlioz came. Hence the decision to present these texts in literal transcriptions as well as versions adapted to the norms of a later age. It has not seemed useful to keep drawing attention with a sic to the numerous oddities of spelling that may surprise a modern reader. It should be mentioned incidentally that in the present publication there are very few letters that originate from outside the bourgeois class: the letters of the servant Monique Nety (2011.02.309) and the ironer Mme Mallet (2011.02.299) are exceptions in this group. 

    Readers will quickly notice the distance that separates the language of the time from that of later periods, but they will also become aware of the evolution that took place over the three generations represented by these letters, from the 1820s to the 1860s: language was constantly evolving. For example, at the start of the century the imperfect tense was written with endings in -ois, -oit, -oient and not in -ais, -ait, -aient (je disois, il faisoit, etc.): this is how Joséphine Berlioz, the mother of Hector, wrote, as did Camille Pal in his earlier letters, but the practice disappeared thereafter. Another example is the spelling of the names of days: in the 1820s and early 1830s they were still frequently written with a y (lundy, mardy etc.), even though the use of the i was already spreading.  Joséphine Berlioz, born in 1784, normally wrote lundy, samedy etc. but she also wrote vendredi at the top of one of her letters (2011.02.307 and 308). Her daughter Nancy, born in 1806, writes lundy, mardy, mercredy, samedy up to March 1832 (2011.02.270, 271, 277, 278), but in November 1832 she suddenly starts to write lundi, vendredi, samedi (2011.02.280); in December 1832 she writes again samedy (BnF), but thereafter keeps to the spelling with an i. This becomes the norm in almost all the letters subsequently, though it is always possible to come across unexpected exceptions: in 1858 Thérèse Marmion, born in 1797, continues to write the days of the week with a y (R96.860.1 and 2).

    There certainly existed at the time, at least from the generation of Nancy and Adèle Berlioz and probably earlier, a conception of what constituted ‘good spelling’: it was assumed that norms existed. In December 1843, when receiving a letter from her nephew Louis Berlioz, Adèle writes: ‘the writing and spelling surprised me for his age’ (2011.02.192), and in September 1844 she says the same about her niece Mathilde: ‘I was amazed by her spelling even more than by her writing’ (2011.02.169). Yet a modern reader may be struck by the carelessness and lack of rigour as regards spelling that characterises so many of these letters. It might be assumed that a distinction should be drawn here between men and women: generally speaking greater importance was attached to the education of sons than of daughters, and the spelling of the latter suffered as a result. This is true to some extent, but from the evidence of these letters, only up to a point: while the spelling of Joséphine Berlioz and Thérèse Marmion often makes the reader smile, that of Dr Berlioz, of Camille Pal, a judge, and Marc Suat, a solicitor, are anything but flawless, and among men it is probably colonel Marmion whose spelling is the most frequently correct.

    It is as though spelling was often a matter of personal taste, at least during the first two generations, those of Dr Berlioz and his children: it was almost a free-for-all. Adèle Berlioz-Suat normally writes encore, while her sister Nancy prefers to write encor. Nancy always writes août (there is a single example of aoust in letter 2011.02.274, but this date is in a hand other than Nancy’s, possibly that of Adèle, and was probably added later; see the image). Adèle on her side writes aoust for years up till 1844 (the last example seems to be 2011.02.185), but thereafter août (2011.02.231, in 1854, and there are other examples later). The high number of letters of Adèle Berlioz-Suat that have survived may give the impression that her spelling was particularly erratic, and a long and tedious list could be drawn up of all the oddities and errors in her letters. But her sister Nancy was not much better. One example among many: she uses the two spellings tems and temps several times interchangeably within the same letter, where the phrase de temps en tems is found, then a little later de tems en tems (2011.02.280). And this in spite of her literary ambitions and the search for style that is manifest in some of her letters, particularly those of her younger years with their allusions to famous writers: Boileau, Homer, Virgil (2011.02.270), Cervantes (2011.02.273), the letters of Napoleon (2011.02.274). ‘Mme Sand … is among all our celebrities the one who excites my curiosity most’, she writes in 1839 (R96.861.2).

    On this subject it may be pointed out that publishers at the time each had their own house-style for the spelling used in their publications. The books published by Berlioz with the publisher Michel Lévy (the Soirées de l’orchestre, 1852 and 1854; A Travers chants, 1862; the Mémoires, 1870) make use on some points of different spelling conventions than are found in the feuilletons that Berlioz published between 1834 and 1863 in the Journal des Débats.

    A few characteristics that recur in many of the letters published here may be mentioned briefly:

1. Frequent confusions between words which sound the same but have a different meaning: notably between a and à, ou and , quant and quand. The writer seems at times to be thinking phonetically, as it were, and forgets his words (an extreme example is the letter of Mme Mallet, 2011.02.299, in which much of the spelling is clearly phonetic).

2. Superfluous accents: prémier, éxacte, éxagération, éffets, éffort, éssayer, éxiger, éxiste etc. (very frequent with Adèle, but the same tendency is found in the Livre de Raison of her father Dr Berlioz); chôse, dispôse, ôffre, propôse, pôsitivement, repôse, suppôse etc. (very frequent again with Adèle); brâvement, grâvement, grâve. In Adèle’s letters î with a circumflex is often found when i would suffice, as in vîte for vite etc. 

3. Missing accents:  chere (chère), meme (même), pere (père), tres (très), voila (voilà), etc. In his (her) haste, the writer often forgets about accents altogether, or sometimes puts the wrong accent, grave for acute or vice-versa, etc.

4. Carelessness in the use of capital letters: they are often missing at the beginning of sentences, but also turn up with words where they are not expected. In addition it is not always certain whether capitals are intended or not, as in the letters of Adèle where it is frequently unclear whether she meant to write Chère Sœur or chère sœur — hence numerous uncertainties in transcription. A habit which may surprise the modern reader is the apparent indifference with proper names, in which the first letter is often written in lower case: for example Marc Suat writes hector, adèle, paris, but he also writes Lecourt, Morel. Félix Marmion is no better.

5. Carelessness in the spelling of proper names: numerous examples. Adèle always called herself Adèle, but her own sister Nancy calls her Adelle in several letters, including on the address at the end (2011.02.274 and 278; see the image of the first letter; see also 2016.04.01); from 1833 onwards she always calls her Adèle. Camille Pal follows at first the example of Nancy and writes Adelle in 1831 (2011.02.296), but then writes Adèle in 1833 (2011.02.290). In 1839 Dr Berlioz addresses two letters to his daughter Adèle at St Chammont, though the postal stamp above gives the correct spelling St Chamond (R96.853.3 and 4; see the image of the latter).

    A few individual mannerisms may also be mentioned:

Adèle Suat usually crosses her t’s with vigour, but sometimes also forgets to do so; as a result they can resemble the letter l. For example, what looks on paper like celle is clearly meant from the context to be cette.

Marc Suat often adds a dash (—) in the right-hand margin at the end of his lines, even when it interrupts the sense. A transcription of the text in html format cannot obviously reproduce the effect, but it can be seen on the image of letter R96.857.1, for example. His daughter Joséphine seems to have picked up the habit from her father, but more discreetly, all the more so as her handwriting is extremely fine (see the image of letter 2011.02.324).

Félix Marmion: two particular mannerisms to note. First, he likes to underline almost mechanically proper names (see the images of his letters). Second, he twice calls Nancy Pal Nanci (2011.02.406 in 1833, 2011.023.302 in 1835), whereas elsewhere he calls her Nancy (R96.859.2, 3 and 6; see also BnF). Similarly he calls Nancy Suat once Nanci in R96.859.12, whereas his wife Thérèse Marmion calls her Nancy in the same letter. It will be recalled that Nancy Pal and Nancy Suat are frequently given in modern writing about Berlioz the first name of Nanci: but in all the letters here they are invariably called Nancy by everyone, including themselves, and it is only Hector Berlioz (and probably also his father) who systematically writes their first name with an i and not a y. That is probably what has given rise to the current practice.

Nancy Suat loves to decorate her capital letters. One can see here the difference between her generation and that of her parents, who often wrote capital letters with care only at the start of their letters, or when writing the address of their correspondent: it was essential that the letter should reach its destination. In Nancy’s case, it is as though having been enlightened by her teacher about the difference between capital and lower case letters she took delight in this new discovery by giving free rein to her creative fantasy (see the images of her letters). In a letter of 11 December 1862 her uncle Hector praises her ‘lovely little handwriting’ (CG no. 2679; R96.388 at the Hector Berlioz Museum).

    Nancy and her sister Joséphine Suat illustrate the distance that had been covered over three generations as regards writing and spelling. Their mother Adèle and her sister Nancy wrote better than their own mother; Nancy and Joséphine Suat wrote better than their own parents, who had taken great care to give their children a good education. The letters of Joséphine in particular are virtually flawless, whether as regards layout and presentation (with a clear margin on the left), writing, spelling, the use of capital letters and punctuation. Her uncle Hector reproaches her in one letter for writing too small: ‘When you write to me could you do me a favour and use darker ink and a less fine pen, as I have the greatest difficulty in deciphering your minute handwriting’ (CG no. 2815, 24 December 1863; R96.399 at the Hector Berlioz Museum). It is true that the handwriting of Joséphine is very fine and sometimes requires the use of a magnifying glass… but one might point out to her demanding uncle that her handwriting is always very regular over a period of some fifteen years and that her letters are invariably carefully drawn. In another letter nearly ten years earlier this same uncle paid tribute to his niece’s excellent French: ‘To heal as best you can the wound you have inflicted on my self-esteem, I demand that your next letter should contain a good dozen spelling mistakes and four or five large examples of bad French, exactly like a page of writing by M. Scribe, a member of the Academy you may have heard of’ (CG no. 1853, 19 December 1854; see the image of this letter).


    For the publication of this group of letters it seemed worthwhile to try out a new formula, that of online publication on the internet. Compared to publication in print this has some advantages: speed of publication, instant dissemination worldwide, and the possibility of changing at any moment what is online, which is never fixed in a permanent state. It is always possible to modify the text of the letters if reading errors are detected, move letters that have been wrongly dated, expand the commentary, add new texts, and so forth. The method adopted for the presentation of the letters in two formats, literal transcription and corrected version, was explained above. Publication online has the added advantage of greater flexibility in use thanks to the html format. It is easy to go from one version of a letter to the other, from the text of the letter to the image (when available), from the commentary on a letter to another part of the site which gives additional information, then return to the starting point, etc.

    The  page of images gives direct access to all the letters that are illustrated, which amounts to a little over a quarter of the whole. The aim was to give examples of all the handwritings represented, even when there is only a single letter from its writer; experts in graphology may find useful material here. The illustrated letters of Adèle cover some 30 years of her life, from the young girl of 14 in 1828 to the adult woman of 1858, two years before her death; it is thus possible to trace the development of her handwriting during this period. A detail should be noted here which may merit further investigation: after she was withdrawn from the boarding-school in Grenoble in which she was languishing in 1828, Adèle’s handwriting changed, and it is suggested that her way of writing the letter p (or one of her ways, the one which became characteristic of her handwriting after 1828), may have been influenced by that of her father. Adèle’s spelling, it was noted above, does in fact have similarities with that of her father as it can be seen in the Livre de Raison of Dr Berlioz which is kept at the Hector Berlioz Museum, notably in the frequent use of the acute accent (é as in prémier, prémière, etc.), which is very characteristic of the spelling of Adèle’s letters.

    The page on chronology serves two purposes. It presents first a chronological table which covers the whole of the period of the letters; this table includes the principal dates in the life of the people concerned (dates of birth, marriage, and death), and also a summary of the main events that are referred to in the letters, with links to the relevant letters: family events, episodes in the career of Hector Berlioz who often figures in the background, external events, such as the great political upheavals of 1848 in France and elsewhere in Europe, to which two letters of Adèle allude (2011.02.222, 2011.02.250). The page on chronology provides in addition a series of detailed notes on the dating of a number of letters which were not dated precisely by their writers, and for which postal stamps are not available or are illegible. These notes are arranged in two groups, one for each collection of letters, with the Chapot collection coming before the Reboul collection; in each case the notes are set out according to the numerical order of the inventories, with links to the two versions of each letter which allow the reader to return to the texts directly.

    The search facility allows the readers to search the letters in different ways, more quickly and comprehensively than any printed index could do: they may for example search for proper names, whether of people or of places; they may wish to study the vocabulary of the letters, though with the proviso that the pages of literal transcriptions have been excluded from the indexing to avoid duplication and overloading the index; they may search for keywords depending on the subject they wish to investigate. If for example the readers are interested in seeing what light the letters shed on the evolution of transport at the time, they might search the words chemin de fer, cheval, diligence, or voiture. If they wish to study the place of servants in the households of the provincial bourgeoisie in the 19th century, a topic which recurs frequently in the letters, they might search for bonne, cuisinière, or domestique, as well as the names of a few individuals whose names are often mentioned, such as those of Marguerite, the servant of the Suat family for several years, or that of  Monique (Nety), the faithful servant of the Berlioz family for almost the whole of her life until her death in 1857. The reader will have no difficulty in devising many other possible lines of enquiry.

Correspondence and history

    Every text, however banal, has a story to tell; every text is a historical document on its writer and its period. In the 19th century there was a considerable amount of letter-writing: before the invention of the telephone, and later of the many different forms of electronic communication, the only way to stay in touch at a distance was to write letters. The writing of letters consequently played a major role in everyday life, at least as far as the literate classes were concerned, to which all the members of the Berlioz family belonged, as well as their friends. ‘I have my days for letters, my days for visits, and my free days’, says Adèle Berlioz-Suat in 1840 (2011.02.148). In another letter she confesses: ‘I have letters that are overdue and which fill me with deep remorse’ (2011.02.169, in 1844). In January 1846 she laments on returning home: ‘I had five urgent letters to write’ (2011.02.253 and 254). In a letter of 1854 she spells it out to her niece Mathilde: ‘this is the fourth letter I am writing this morning’ (2011.02.227). It is well known how her illustrious brother would often write half a dozen letters to his friends, after a concert and in spite of his fatigue, in order to inform them of his latest triumphs. And while people wrote numerous letters, they also preserved them in large numbers, as was seen above with reference to the origins of the collections of the two sisters. But what has survived is evidently only a small fraction of a once much larger whole.

    The reader will quickly notice the preponderance of women among the letters that are presented here: out of a total of 244 texts, 199 are letters written by women, very often to other women, and they therefore reflect a feminine perspective. This is partly because in the Berlioz family there were more women than men: two sisters as against one brother (leaving aside the young Prosper, born in 1820 and who died in early 1839), and the two sisters between them had three daughters and no son. But it seems that in written correspondence women played in any case a more active role than men, and for several reasons. Unlike their husbands they did not have a professional activity to keep them busy all day. As for domestic work, it was taken for granted at the time that any bourgeois household would have at least one female servant on a full-time basis, who lived at home and was almost part of the family: she would often look after the children. It was also assumed that there would be a female cook: the lady of the house would keep an eye on the kitchen but would not normally do the cooking herself. In September 1844 Adèle notes: ‘I am becoming something of a cook myself out of necessity; on pain of dying of hunger I often have to get involved in the kitchen, and in all honesty I am surprising myself!’ (2011.02.188). In May 1868 her daughter Joséphine, after her marriage with Auguste Chapot, was busy organising her new household: ‘At last I have been able to find a servant; she is still rather inexperienced as a cook, and I am trying to train her step by step with the very limited knowledge I have’ (2011.02.322).

    In the 1840s Adèle sometimes complains of being overworked and unable to keep pace with her numerous commitments (2011.02.177, 2011.02.179, 2011.02.169 etc.). But in practice the lady of the house was not short of leisure-time to develop her own field of activity in her social relations; written correspondence was an essential part of this. It was seen above how Adèle played an active role in the preservation of the numerous letters sent by her brother to her family: it was without doubt her, and not her husband Marc Suat, who took charge of this. The same is probably true for the collection built up by her sister Nancy and after her by Mathilde Pal. One possibly significant detail may be mentioned here: the personal stamps that women sometimes used on their letter paper. On several letters of Adèle the initials AS can be seen embossed (but not printed in ink) on the paper she used (see the image of letter 2011.02.247, of August 1857). For her letter of 1848 Louise Boutaud used letter paper printed with her initials L.B. (see the image of letter 2011.02.385). Joséphine Suat did this even before her marriage; she had not only letter paper but also envelopes made with the initials JS, and continued the practice after her marriage, but now with the initials JC (see the images of letters 2011.02.320, 2011.02.322 and 2011.02.324). To judge from the letters published here the practice of men was somewhat different: when they wished to identify themselves they did so not as individuals but in relation to their professional activity. In a letter of 1848 Camille Pal uses letter paper with the heading Tribunal de première instance de Grenoble (see the image of letter 2011.02.291). On the point of retiring in 1847 Félix Marmion proudly proclaimed himself ‘Colonel du 11e Dragons’ and put a special stamp on the reverse of the envelope, with the same title but without his initials (see the image of letter 2011.02.304; see also already BnF, in 1845). Dr Berlioz did not use any personal stamp on his letters, but on several of these he signed his name at the end followed by the letters dmed, which seems to be an abbreviation for ‘docteur médecin’ (see the image of letter R96.853.2), the designation he gave himself on the title page of his Livre de Raison.

Berlioz as seen by his family

    One cannot avoid a sense of unease when intruding uninvited into the private lives of people who could not know in advance that they were destined to become part of the history of the 19th century, as a result of their connection with one of the great geniuses of the age. For it is thanks to Hector Berlioz that the members of his family acquire importance in the eyes of later generations, and the reader may well be curious in the first instance to know what light these letters shed on the career of the composer and his relations with his family.

    They can only provide a fragmentary view, and this is unavoidable; it must be realised at the outset that they do not provide the counterpart to all the letters that Berlioz wrote to his family. Of these, if our calculations are correct, more than 600 have been published in the 8 volumes of the composer’s correspondence in Correspondance générale: 55 to his father, 22 to his mother, 23 to his uncle Marmion, 89 to his sister Nancy Pal, 92 to Camille Pal her husband, 5 to their daughter Mathilde, 185 to his other sister Adèle Suat, 66 to her husband Marc Suat, and 67 to their two daughters Joséphine and Nancy. The majority of the letters Berlioz wrote to the Suat family is kept at the Hector Berlioz Museum, thanks to the Chapot donation mentioned above. In comparison the number of letters addressed by members of his family to the composer seems disappointingly small: 3 letters of his sister Nancy (2011.02.267, 2011.02.268, 2011.02.275), 3 of his other sister Adèle (R96.856.1, 2011.02.246, R96.856.3), 1 of his uncle Marmion (R96.859.9), 1 of Marc Suat (R96.857.1), and 2 of Camille Pal (2011.02.294 and 295). The three letters of Nancy, and two of those of Adèle, are drafts that were not sent. This raises a question which arises for much of the composer’s correspondence, that of the non-survival of the letters that were addressed to him, as compared with the some 4000 letters of Berlioz which are known and of which a very large number has been published. This question is particularly troubling as regards the hundreds of letters from members of his family which must have existed but which seem to have disappeared, and it is discussed further in a note below.

    What the letters therefore tell us about is not what the members of his family said to him, but what they said about him when they wrote to each other. The reading of the letters confirms what was known from the composer’s own writings: throughout his career he craved for the approval of his family, and especially of his father, but his genius was never properly understood and appreciated by them; if on occasion they rejoiced at his successes, what mattered for them was the material aspect, as though art could be reduced to a question of money. In October 1856, while composing the poem for les Troyens, Berlioz wrote to Adèle, the closest to him from among the members of his family: ‘I have always suffered in silence a great deal from seeing all of you (with the exception of your husband), paying attention only to the final outcome of my efforts and artistic dreams. This lack of sympathy and understanding, this isolation of yours from the intellectual world in which I live, caused me dreadful pain. Unfortunately you do not know music; but now at least the literary side of my work (do not laugh at this ambitious title) serves for you as a means of communication, and opens a window through which you can look into my garden’ (CG no. 2181). The letters bring out simultaneously the bonds that united Berlioz to his family and the distance that separated them.

    In spite of numerous gaps, many of the main stages in the career of Berlioz are reflected in this group of letters, from his beginnings in Paris in the 1820s to his death in 1869. There is no need to list these here: the page on chronology includes a summary of the main events mentioned, with links to the letters that touch on them. Very often the references are in the form of brief asides mixed up with quantities of other information that was of equivalent or greater interest to the recipients. Thus concerning a concert given by Berlioz on 4 May 1844 at the Théâtre Italien with the participation of the pianists Liszt and Döhler, it is only at the very end of a long letter of Adèle to her sister that she writes:  ‘Do you known that Hector is giving a concert this week in which Liszt and Döhler will be heard ? If you hear of the result of the concert, please write to me without delay’ (2011.02.180). A few days later, in connection with this same concert, she writes by the way at the end of a letter to her father: ‘The latest concert of Hector had a brilliant and ringing [i.e. profitable] result, according to les Débats ; I imagine that your attention will have been drawn to this on this occasion’ (2011.02.182). More than twenty years later, in December 1866, in a letter of Joséphine Suat to her cousin Mathilde Pal-Masclet, a brief paragraph reads: ‘Do you know that our uncle Hector is in Austria, and that last Sunday he gave a great concert in Vienna ? We await impatiently news of his successes’ (2011.02.320). The concert in question was a performance of la Damnation de Faust in Vienna on 16 December, the last performance of this work in his career.

    On the other hand there are times when Berlioz is the main subject of the letter, as for example the letter in May 1823 of grandfather Nicolas Marmion to his daughter Joséphine, in which he attempts to reassure her about the future of her son Hector in Paris: ‘He will not occupy himself exclusively with music, his taste for the higher branches of science will incite him to cultivate them in the only country where it is possible to find masters and encouragement’ (2011.02.334). Berlioz’s success at the Prix de Rome in 1830 was enthusiastically received (letter of Nancy, 2011.02.274), but the passion he conceived for Harriet Smithson in the wake of the concert of 9 December 1832 was a disaster for the family: to want to marry an Irish actress who was heavily in debt offended all the most deep-rooted prejudices of provincial bourgeoisie and provoked a lengthy crisis (letters of Camille Pal, 2011.02.290; of Nancy Pal 2011.02.281 and 282; of Félix Marmion, 2011.02.406). Adèle was the only one to take her brother’s side and stay in touch with him; after her marriage Harriet Smithson wrote a letter of thanks to her (2003.01.03, in English, with a French translation by Hector). There then follows a silence of several years on the career of Berlioz, as a result of the small number of letters available at this time.

    Thanks to the letters relating to the marriage of Adèle in 1839 and to Adèle’s own letters which become numerous for most of the 1840s, it is possible from 1839 onwards to follow the evolution of her relations with her brother until 1847. The trip made by the Suats to Paris in May-June 1839 gave fresh impetus to the close relations between brother and sister: the Suats were the first to visit Berlioz in Paris since his marriage, where they met Harriet and the young Louis Berlioz and became fond of them. Harriet wrote again to Adèle after her stay in Paris, this time in French (R96.187). But little by little worries began to surface on the part of Adèle and other members of the family, for which several letters give indications: the financial problems of Berlioz (2011.02.157 and 158, in 1841), his trip to Germany leaving his wife in Paris (letter of Marmion, 2011.02.303, in 1843), the education and future of young Louis (2011.02.185, in 1844), the growing disarray in the Berlioz household, and the liaison with Marie Recio. Berlioz’s absence in September 1844, when he went to Nice without informing his sisters, was very badly received by Adèle (2011.02.190). There is a gradual but noticeable cooling in the relations between Berlioz and his favourite sister: already in 1844 he is writing more frequently to his other sister Nancy, and after his concert in Lyon in July 1845 at which Marie Recio was present, not a single letter of his to Adèle is known before the beginning of May 1847, whereas there are several to Nancy during this period. In a letter of Adèle of 25 March 1847, at the time of Berlioz’s trip to Russia, there is a sad comment: ‘I still know nothing about Hector, and I am anxious to hear of his arrival in St Petersburg… As for me, I believe he has long forgotten completely about my existence; yet I doubt whether he will ever find an affection more devoted than mine. But when you forget your wife and your son, it is quite possible not to remember anybody in the world’ (see 2011.02.202 with the commentary). The family reunion which took place at La Côte in September 1847 after the trip to Russia, and which was to be the only time when young Louis Berlioz saw his grandfather, was organised through the mediation of Nancy and not that of Adèle. After this trip and the stay with the Suats in Vienne, Berlioz wrote to Nancy and made remarks critical of Adèle for her prejudices against her husband Camille Pal (see 2011.02.128 with the commentary).

    Subsequently relations became good again, after a gap of several years in the letters available for the early 1850s. When the sequence of letters of Adèle resumes in 1854 she is in regular touch with her brother; she frequently exchanges news with him or about him: his travels to Germany in 1854 and the success of l’Enfance du Christ in December (2011.02.236), his trip to Brussels in March 1855 (2011.02.240, 2011.02.241), his stay in Plombières in July 1857 followed by a concert in Baden-Baden in August (2011.02.226, 2011.02.249), the completion of the composition of les Troyens in December (2011.02.248). They met several times during the 1850s. Berlioz attended a family reunion at La Côte in September 1854 to settle the inheritance of Dr Berlioz (2011.02.244). After his election to the Institut de France in June 1856 Adèle sent him a letter of congratulations (2011.02.246), and the following summer they saw each other again in Plombières (2011.02.327). The Hector Berlioz Museum possesses a curious document of Adèle about this meeting, in which she noted down her recollections of a memorable evening (R96.856.2). In September 1859 Adèle and her daughter Joséphine paid a visit to Berlioz in Paris, twenty years after Adèle’s first visit to the capital (R96.857.2 and R96.858.5). Louis Berlioz was now regarded almost as a member of the Suat family, which took a close interest in his career in the navy. They were in correspondence with him (2011.02.229); he stayed several times with them, in November 1854 (2011.02.235), in August 1857 (2011.02.247) then again in November (R96.857.1); they showed constant concern for his future and well-being. In one of the last letters of this collection, Nancy Suat relates having heard from her uncle about the appointment of Louis as captain in the navy (2011.02.331, December 1864).

    On his side Berlioz conceived a warm affection for his young nieces Joséphine and Nancy Suat. They wrote to him after the success of l’Enfance du Christ and he answered with ‘a charming letter’ which they said they would preserve ‘religiously’ (2011.02.238): the letter is now in the Hector Berlioz Museum and we reproduce an image of it here. It is the first letter Berlioz wrote to his nieces, and was followed by many more which have fortunately survived: they are among the most touching letters in his whole correspondence. His nieces were devoted to him for the rest of his life. Though very ill, he attended the wedding of Joséphine with Auguste Chapot in Vienne in September 1867 (2011.02.333) and it was Joséphine, now Joséphine Chapot, who penned a moving account of the last moments of her uncle (2011.02.324, 13 March 1869).


    It is probably natural that readers of the letters of Berlioz’s family should be interested in the first instance in what they have to say about the composer. But most of the time this constitutes only a small part of their content, or is even altogether absent: the writers of the letters had their own preoccupations. Readers who are primarily interested in knowing more about Berlioz may sometimes be disappointed; on the other hand these letters open up new perspectives on those who wrote them. Through them one gets to know the other members of the family and to appreciate them better in their own right, both for their qualities and their limitations. There is obviously no question of reviewing each of them in turn, and the readers will be able to form their impressions from their own reading.

    The picture the letters give is necessarily incomplete: the evidence is fragmentary and discontinuous in time, and has to be looked at in conjunction with what is known otherwise. There is disproportion in the distribution of texts: a handful only for the parents and wives of the composer, more for his uncle, his sister Nancy and her husband, his nieces Joséphine and Nancy Suat, and their father; but his other sister Adèle is the only one for whom letters are available that cover the larger part of her life, 123 texts which spread over 30 years, from 1828 to 1858. But at the same time even a single text has something of interest to say about its author, and it should be said that what matters is not only what the text says, but also its physical aspect: presentation and writing can say as much about the writer as the text itself. Hence the decision to illustrate every handwriting at least once.

    What is probably most striking when considering the different members of the Berlioz family from the letters they wrote, are the contrasts. Contrast first between Hector Berlioz himself and the other members of his family, who, as seen earlier, all tended, even his sister Adèle who was most devoted to him, to consider him as something of an outsider, who refused to conform to normal patterns and behave like everyone else, and who was altogether out of his depth when it came to money matters.

    There is also a contrast between his two parents, his mother Joséphine Marmion-Berlioz on one side, vivacious, exuberant, spontaneous, uninhibited and opinionated, who wrote of her son Hector after his failure at the Prix de Rome in 1827: ‘three pages of his letter do not get him out of his mad musical ideas … he is mad, that is all I can say for his justification’ (2011.02.307, to her daughter Nancy). In another letter to Nancy she begins: ‘If I had to wait to have something interesting to say before writing, my dear, I would not write often’ — which does not prevent her from rattling off four pages in a row without a break (2011.02.308, mars 1832). On the other side his father Louis-Joseph Berlioz, who gives in these letters — his own, and the numerous allusions to him in the correspondence of his daughters — an almost uniformly sad impression of a disenchanted man who had given up hope, in rather poor physical condition and low in spirits, who only felt at home in his familiar environment at La Côte Saint-André, with his rural habits and the estates which he was fond of visiting. His daughters looked after him with devotion to the last, and Nancy gives an account of his end which is all to her credit as well as to her father’s (2011.02.286). Yet one senses that the two daughters were closer at heart to their mother. In 1847, Adèle writing to her sister is dismayed at her father’s negative reaction at the thought of writing to his grandson Louis Berlioz and welcoming him at home: ‘It seems this poor child is predestined to be rejected by those who are nearest to him !.. If our poor mother was alive, what a difference !…’ (2011.02.142). It was the exact opposite with their brother Hector who, in the early chapters of his Mémoires places his father at the centre of his family universe: ‘What indefatigable patience my poor father showed, and what meticulous and intelligent care he devoted to teaching me himself languages, literature, history, geography, and, as will be seen presently, even music !’ (chapter 2). But the little he says about his mother is uniformly critical in tone, as though he owed her nothing more than having brought him into this world… The death of his father in 1848 was a much heavier blow for him than that of his mother ten years earlier, which is only mentioned in the Mémoires retrospectively (chapter 58).

    Then there is a contrast between the two sisters, who were very close to each other as witnessed by their abundant correspondence; they were never at a loss for topics of conversation, but differed greatly in character. More intelligent and ambitious than her sister, Nancy seems of the two to have been less satisfied with her lot. The reading of her letters does not give the impression of a person who was really happy. Part of her correspondence with Camille Pal has been preserved, dating from shortly before their marriage on 16 January 1832, and also includes a letter of Nancy to Camille two months after; one is surprised, and rather ashamed, of seeing letters of such a personal kind thrown open to the curiosity of the reader. The letter to her husband of May 1832 (2011.02.279) could be placed alongside that written (but probably not sent) to her sister in September 1843 (2011.02.266); they both express the same feeling of disappointment. The reaction of Nancy to the article by Jules Janin in the Journal des Débats of 29 November 1839, in which he cheerfully asserted that Berlioz ‘was so poor that he barely had enough to replace a broken string on his guitar’, is revealing of her frame of mind: she flared up at what she took to be an insult to her family, wrote a letter of reprimand to the critic to disabuse him about the fortune of the Berlioz family, and in her letters to her sister set herself up as ‘the champion of the honour of the family’, who did not have ‘the juice of a gourd in her veins’ (R96.861.6 and the two following letters). Expecting her younger sister to share her indignation she was visibly disappointed by her cautious reaction: Adèle, newly wed, settling down in her new life and happy at the thought of expecting a child, did not take the matter too tragically.

    Adèle on her side had no such pretensions. Her brother characterised her in a letter of May 1854: she was no intellectual. ‘In that respect, dear sister, you are superior to many people, you do not talk about things which are completely foreign to you, and you do not pretend to know Sanskrit’ (CG no. 1761). The dominant trait of her personality was an almost morbid sensitivity, which made her vulnerable and of which she was only too aware: ‘my sympathy can never fail for those who are suffering’ (2011.02.185, in 1844); ‘the sight of suffering is worse for me than for many other people’ (2011.02.142, in 1847). Coupled with this sensitivity was an excessive imagination, which her brother singled out in a letter of October 1857 to his other sister Nancy: Adèle’s imagination ‘can strangely distort reality and create a reality that does not exist’ (CG no. 1129). Sensitivity and imagination: two characteristics she shared with her brother Hector, but she did not have his genius.

    Because of the large number of letters of Adèle that have survived it is possible to get to know her better than the other members of her family, with the exception of Hector. But the family letters at the Berlioz Museum have an additional interest: to the letters of Adèle should be added a few of her husband Marc Suat and the 27 letters of their daughters Joséphine et Nancy. This corpus of evidence makes it possible to know each of them separately, but also to see the Suats as a family unit: the resulting picture is that of a united and happy family, despite the health problems which never ceased to afflict them, a happier family than that of her sister Nancy, and certainly than that of her brother Hector… Theirs was an almost flawless marriage, in which husband and wife were devoted to each other, as witnessed for instance by the affectionate letter of Marc Suat to his wife in 1859, during a trip to Paris with her eldest daughter Joséphine, twenty years after their wedding (R96.857.2). It was also an informal family in which the children said tu to their parents, which the previous generation did not do: Hector, Nancy and Adèle always said vous to their parents (because of the lack of letters of Mathilde Pal it is not known whether the same was true of the Pal family, but Louis Berlioz certainly did say tu to his father).

    Thanks to Adèle’s letters it is possible to follow the early childhood of the two daughters in small detail. One can see Adèle beginning to call her first-born Joséphine by the nickname of Finette from at least June 1840 onwards (2011.02.146); she may have started earlier (Joséphine was born on 12 February); the nickname continued to be used till July 1842 (2011.02.166 and Bnf) but does not appear again after the birth of her sister Nancy. It is also possible literally to follow Joséphine’s first steps: she begins to try to walk assisted with a towel as early as December 1840 (2011.02.151), takes her very first steps in February 1841 (2011.02.155) and continues to make progress during the early months of 1841. It is not known when exactly she was able to walk on her own, but it was well before the age of two. In July 1842 her mother found her ‘amazing’ in comparison with the daughter of her cousin Odile (2011.02.167). But Nancy, Joséphine’s sister, was not yet walking at the age of two, which surprised her mother: ‘Nancy is still not walking on her own; I cannot understand this laziness on the part of such a strong child’ (2011.02.169; September 1844). Adèle’s letters provide much detail on the early years and education of the two girls, Joséphine in particular: she knows the names of 17 French departments as well as the capitals of Europe by October 1844 (2011.02.190), starts to read in March 1846 (2011.02.143), writes her first letter to her grandfather in February 1847 (2011.02.201), and begins to learn the piano in November 1847 (2011.02.220).

    From the 1850s onwards letters of the two Suat children, Joséphine and Nancy, become available. Those of Joséphine are solely addressed to her cousin Mathilde Pal-Masclet; the last one dates from 1869. Among those of Nancy several are also addressed to her cousin, but a group of 11 letters dating from November and December 1858 is noteworthy. These are family letters, to her mother, her sister, and one to her father; this group of letters and the context to which it belongs have been discussed above. The interest of the letters of the 1850s is that they allow the reader to enter into a world of teenagers: the two girls were only 14 when they wrote their first known letters to their cousin, Joséphine in 1854 and Nancy two years later; during her prolonged absence from the family home in November and December 1858 Nancy was aged 16. These letters may seem insignificant from a wider historical perspective, but they provide a valuable insight into the daily life of a bourgeois family in the 19th century.


    Beyond individuals a whole society comes to light through these letters, that of the bourgeoisie of the French provinces in the 19th century. Only a brief general sketch can be given here of some aspects which strike the reader; the letters frequently serve to illustrate the gulf that separated Hector Berlioz from the social world out which he came.

    It was a world of landowners: be they doctors, judges or solicitors, they had roots in the land. Dr Berlioz, proud of the profession he practised, owned lands on a large scale and never lost his rural habits and his love for life in the countryside. Nicolas Marmion, at the end of a letter in which he sought to reassure his daughter on the future of her son Hector, added: ‘I have just finished with the cultivation of my hemp plants, God will that they all succeed !’ (2011.02.334). Camille Pal wrote to his wife Nancy: ‘Yesterday we went to St Vincent where we found the silk-worms at La Bruyère, they have all done perfectly’ (2011.02.291). Everyone cultivated silk-worms; from Meylan Adèle wrote to her mother: ‘I am delighted to hear … that your silk-worms are doing fine; those of my grandfather will soon be finished and until now they seem to be coming on well’ (2011.02.124). The Suats owned land, vineyards and farms at Beaurepaire, from which they drew rents; on returning from a stay at La Côte in the autumn of 1854 they stopped there, and ‘thanks to the fine weather we were able to go to our farms and come back with quantities of chicken, chestnuts etc.’ (2011.02.244). Everyone cultivated vines, and letters written at the beginning of autumn never fail to mention the wine-harvest (2011.02.258 etc.).

    It was also a world where wealth brought respectability and status: hence the constant preoccupation with marriages, an inexhaustible topic of conversation in the correspondence of Adèle with her sister. A ‘brilliant marriage’ was a successful transaction between the families of the two parties, which resulted in increasing their wealth; the personal happiness of the married couple often seemed secondary. Hence the outcry over the marriage of Hector with Harriet Smithson in 1833: the Irish actress was heavily in debt. Though women did not enjoy full freedom in arranging their own marriages, they took an absorbing interest in the marriages of others and were determined to have their say. Félix Marmion had helped to introduce Marc Suat to Adèle his future wife (R96.859.1). Adèle returned the compliment in 1846 by organising a meeting in Lyon between her uncle and Thérèse Boutaud, recently widowed and a property-owner, which resulted in their marriage (2011.02.258). Félix Marmion was delighted with his wife (2011.02.205), and with good reason: before his marriage Marmion never ceased to run up debts, thanks to his easy-going lifestyle and addiction to gambling (2011.02.302), but once married his money worries seemed to be at an end: he and his wife, now settled in Tournon, were able to spend every winter in the south, at Montpellier, Marseille, Nice, or Hyères.

    In bourgeois society men looked after business matters and had their professional activities. Women did only part of the housework: everyone took for granted the existence of servants, who were at once indispensable and a source of constant worry. There was an inevitable tension in social relations which rested from the start on a basis of inequality. There were good and bad servants, but even the most faithful and devoted, such as Monique Nety who spent almost all her life in the service of the Berlioz family at La Côte, could on occasion prove difficult: ‘Monique … was yesterday in a dreadful temper ; I was having dinner at Mme Laroche’s and while I was away she made a scene to my father which was quite out of order, about a pair of stockings which he was asking her’, writes Adèle in a letter of 1841 (2011.02.161).

    In social relations, receptions and visits played an essential part. There was a hierarchy of receptions, depending on how much trouble and expense they involved. In January 1844 Adèle writes to her sister: ‘We are going to have to think of inviting people in the near future; a dinner-party terrifies me, a bal is out of the question, so I imagine that an evening of games with a light meal is what we will settle for. I also have in mind a tea-party for children; my daughters have already received numerous invitations, which I am very pleased about’ (2011.02.172). A bal implied music, hence a small orchestra, which was normally made up of a piano and a few violins. ‘On Sunday I will have 36 to 40 ladies, and for the orchestra an excellent piano, which my neighbour Mme Givors is lending me, and two violins. Clémence will provide some flowers ; my sitting-room will look delightful’ writes Adèle in another letter to her sister (2011.02.255). Two accounts are available for a particularly friendly evening that was improvised at the Suats’ in February 1841, at which travelling Italian musicians performed with great success (2011.02.152, 2011.02.134). Receptions and visits implied dressing well to make a good impression: hence frequent visits to the large cities of the region, Lyon or Grenoble, to go shopping at clothes and fashion shops. After a glittering bal in Lyon in 1844 Adèle boasted to her sister: ‘I had spent a dazzling amount on my dress … I was delighted with my outfit, especially the cut of my skirt which made my waist look like a fashion picture’ (2011.02.173).

    Health is another subject that constantly recurs in the letters. Given the level of medicine and hygiene of the time, ill-health was a constant threat and a favourite topic of conversation. In 1858 Joséphine Suat was unwell for almost the whole of the year from April onwards; in the end she insisted that her mother take her to consult a well-known specialist in Lyon, Mlle Bressac. Mlle Bressac’s diagnosis was: ‘Mademoiselle, none of your organs is positively ailing, your nerves are the problem .. your constitution was very good ; you will certainly recover but it will take a long time, although you have been unwell for several months now, your blood is waging war on you, so you need good hygiene, walks, and diversion’. Adèle’s response to this: ‘Is this not astounding ? How can one explain this girl’s powers of divination ?’ (2011.02.260). There was a growing vogue for sea-bathing: the following year Joséphine went to spend some time at Dieppe with her mother. In a letter of 1854 Adèle writes: ‘Mme Boutaud will be going to Marseille for sea-bathing, several ladies I know are also going there, others are setting off for Vichy or Uriage’ (2011.02.227). Taking the waters and following a course at a spa became a fashion of the age: Adèle went to Aix-les-Bains in 1844 (2011.02.183 et 184), her daughters went to Néris in 1863 (2011.02.316), the Suats stayed at Plombières in 1856 where they met up with Berlioz (2011.02.327), Félix Marmion went to Vichy in 1854 and on his return felt ‘in perfect health’ (2011.02.231).

    Everyone, at least women, was a believer and observed religious practices. Adèle and Nancy were entranced by the sermons of the celebrated preacher père Lacordaire (2011.02.175). In May 1844 Adèle took her daughter Joséphine to the cathedral at Fourvières in Lyon: ‘my dear little girl was charming, kneeling next to me and praying as best she could’ (2011.02.180). Nancy Pal relates the death of her father in 1848: ‘a Christian end crowned this noble life, and all the assistance of our religion was provided to him to the end; he received the sacraments ten days before his death, in excellent disposition, and complete presence of mind’ (2011.02.286). Joséphine Suat-Chapot gives a comparable account of the end of her uncle Hector in March 1869: ‘he was given the Last Sacrament in sufficiently good time, I would like to hope, for him to have experienced a flash of faith that was still strong and sufficient’ (2011.02.324).

    In small provincial cities the pace of life was slow, especially for young women who were not yet married. ‘Like you, we live in our little corner, seeing very few people. Connections are lost and disperse, and it is rather difficult for young women to create new ones, but in any case I rather enjoy my own company’, writes Nancy Suat to her cousin Mathilde in December 1864 (2011.02.331). And yet the world did not stand still. Though the great political upheavals of the age have left few traces in the letters (disturbances in Lyon in 1831, in Grenoble in 1832, the revolutions of 1848), there are glimpses of the technical developments that were taking place. In 1838 Félix Marmion posed for his portrait (R96.859.2), and the following year Nancy Pal (R96.861.1) and Adèle Suat (2011.02.138) did the same. But in 1841 the Suats tried out the new daguerreotype process: Adèle’s portrait failed to come off, but ‘to console me Marc’s likeness is very, very striking’ (2011.02.164). In 1863 Mathilde Pal-Masclet sent photographs of her two children to her cousin Joséphine, who clamoured for some of herself and her husband to take place in their album (2011.02.316).

    Perhaps the most important revolution of all was taking place in transport. It was at the start a world where the horse was the only mode of fast transport and the principal engine of locomotion, but in the course of the century it evolved into a world of machines where the railway became king. In 1839 Dr Berlioz writes in a letter: ‘I had made up my mind to go and spend every Sunday at Voreppe, and it is for that purpose that I bought a horse that was a very good walking animal’ (R96.853.1). But in the same year a letter of Félix Marmion reads: ‘We are also going to have our railway at Huningue : the construction of the line from Strasburg to Basel is in full swing’ (R96.859.3). In 1859 Marc Suat sends recommendations to his wife about her return journey from Paris to Vienne by railway; amongst other advice he counsels against travelling third class (R96.857.2). This is now a long way from the journey from La Frette near La Côte to Paris via Lyon that Berlioz made by stage-coach in 1821.

    These short remarks can only scratch the surface of a much larger subject: it is now up to the readers to pursue their own investigations.

Note (provisional)

    It is known in general terms that a very large number of letters addressed to Hector Berlioz have disappeared: this becomes immediately obvious from a perusal of the volumes of the Correspondance générale. The main exception concerns a few notable events in the career of the composer for which numerous letters of congratulation are known, such as the première of l’Enfance du Christ in December 1854, his election to the Institut de France in June 1856, the première of les Troyens in November 1863, and his elevation to the rank of officier de la Légion d’honneur in August 1864. To this should be added a group of 7 letters of condolence for the death of his son Louis dating from June-July 1867, though none of these is from any member of his family (CG nos. 3254-9, 3263). On the other hand it may be assumed that Berlioz, like many of his contemporaries, did keep many of the letters he received. In his Mémoires (chapter 58) he cites in connection with the death of his father in 1848 two letters from his sisters, one from Nancy, and the other from Adèle, which he quotes more fully and which includes an exact date: ‘Vienne, Saturday 4 August 1848’. He clearly had both letters under his eyes when writing this chapter several years after the event, in the early 1850s (the following chapter 59 is dated 18 October 1854 by Berlioz). But the originals of these letters have disappeared, together with many others, including the letters from his family.

    It is something of a surprise to discover how little concrete evidence there appears to be about this. In the Introduction to volume I of Correspondance générale (p. 13) it is stated: ‘The letters addressed to Berlioz … are relatively few in number, as towards the end of his life the musician consigned to the flames the majority of them’, but no source is actually cited. The only specific evidence of which we are aware at the moment comes from Julien Tiersot, in his book Hector Berlioz et la société de son temps (Paris, 1904), p. 348: ‘[Berlioz] also kept [in his office at the Conservatoire] a trunk full of objects and various memorabilia, letters, crowns, flowers, etc., which one day he instructed his library assistant, Fursy, to burn without mercy. The man, whom regular visitors to the Conservatoire will have known until some ten years ago, carried out his instructions conscientiously though with regret, as he was convinced he was destroying treasures. He was particularly moved when he discovered among the jumble a skull.  « It was, Sir, the skull of his wife ! » he told me the day when I heard this story from him…’ It will be noted that Tiersot’s account does not have a date or any precise context, and could have taken place at any time during the composer’s later years, and not necessarily right at the end. It will also be noted that the description of the contents of the trunk, ‘full of objects and various memorabilia, letters, crowns, flowers, etc.’ suggests a collection of souvenirs from travels, concerts, letters of congratulation etc., a collection which was a ‘jumble’, rather than a collection of letters from friends and members of his family. One would have imagined that a collection of personal letters would have been kept at home and in some order, and not as part of the jumble deposited in a trunk at his office at the Conservatoire, which he visited infrequently. That is how the evidence of Tiersot is interpreted by David Cairns who cites him and places the event in July 1867, not long after the death of Louis: Berlioz did this ‘as if symbolically to sever the remaining threads’ (Hector Berlioz II, p. 754).

    But what happened to the quantities of personal letters addressed to Berlioz throughout his life? It is known that he destroyed the letters written to him by Estelle Fornier, but with reluctance and at her express demand (CG no. 3104, a letter to her of 26 February 1866). Only one of her letters to Berlioz has survived, dating from 12 June 1868, to which he replied immediately (CG nos. 3362 and 3363). It is also known that he did preserve a large number of letters he received from his son Louis (nearly 80 of them are to be found in the first 8 volumes of CG). It is consequently hard to picture Berlioz destroying of his own volition numerous letters of persons who were dear to him, such as his sister Adèle about whom he writes so affectionately in his Mémoires (beginning of chapter 58, and in the Voyage en Dauphiné), or his nieces Joséphine Chapot and Nancy Suat who were alive and to whom he was still writing in July 1868; but none of their letters to him has survived.

    On the other hand it is a fact that a number of letters addressed to Berlioz have survived: there are in all just over 400 of them in the 8 volumes of the Correspondance générale. If one looks merely at the last two active years of Berlioz’s life in the Correspondance générale, one finds for 1867, besides the letters on the death of Louis, CG nos. 3127, 3235, 3243, 3246, 3273, 3297, 3298, 3317, 3323; for 1868, see CG nos. 3325, 3333, 3336, 3339 [from Camille Pal], 3340, 3362 [Estelle Fornier’s letter], 3364, 3374, 3375. To this should be added the two letters of Camille Pal which are published here, and which were presumably returned to the Pal family after the death of Berlioz (2011.02.294 and 295). If a large-scale destruction of letters did take place, how should it be explained, and how are the omissions to be accounted for, given that most of the letters from his family have disappeared? This is a troubling question that deserves further investigation.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997.
The pages Letters of the composer’s family were created on 11 December 2014, updated on 1st April, 1st October 2015, 1st April 2017 and 1st March 2018.

© Musée Hector-Berlioz for the text and images of the letters
© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for the commentary and presentation

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