The most famous creators of the 19th and 20th centuries visited Nice given its status as the most popular destination on the French Riviera. But in the story of our hero, the Riviera’s largest city played a fatal role.
Spring 1831. While travelling from Florence to Paris, a young man passed through Nice, suffering from a great deal of heartache. In Genoa, on this same journey, he attempted suicide. When he is set to arrive in Paris, he plans to kill the bride who cheated on him.
He left Florence for “hellish revenge” as soon as he received a letter from the mother of the bride saying that the future wedding was to be no more. Her daughter had chosen another man, Camille Pleyel, a wealthy pianist and owner of the piano manufacturer “Pleyel et Cie”, amongst whose clients he counted Chopin.
The young man in Nice carefully prepared for revenge. He bought two pistols, servant’s clothing as a disguise and poison, which he was preparing to take if the pistols misfired.
But the stop in Nice abruptly changes his plans. Quite unexpectedly, this blooming city becomes his remedy. Paris and the unfaithful bride can wait. He will stay in the sunny seaside city to shed light on his life so darkened by his fiancée’s betrayal.
This young man is Hector Berlioz, the greatest composer of the 19th century, whose name we cannot help but connect with the birth of French national symphonic culture.
First visit in Nice | April-May 1831
Berlioz spent one month in Nice, remembering this time as the happiest of his life. The composer rented a room from an elderly widow in the building that now houses the Hotel Suisse, right on the city’s coastline. The view from his room inspires him to make poetic comparisons that only a true romantic could master.
“I have a delightful room with windows overlooking the sea. I have got used to the continuous moan of the waves. When I open my window in the morning, it is wonderful to watch the crests approaching like the undulating mane of a squadron of white horses. I go to sleep to the sound of the breaking waves which crash against the rock on which my house is built.”
A risk-taker, he often walked over the rocks to find the best points to observe the ships coming in and out of the port. He would enjoy counting the fishing boats going out to sea while lying in the Riviera sun.
Suffering inspires some creators, but Berlioz’ experience in Nice was the opposite. The more he rids himself of his pain, the more productive he is in creating new compositions. On his first trip he writes the overture “King Lear”, inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy:
“I am going to undertake an immense work; I must not waste my time and get lost in dreams; what I fear above all is letting tender feelings and memories of happiness flood back. By showing to myself a way forward, I will forget the past.”
After Nice, there was no reason for Berlioz to go to Paris: the desire for revenge was replaced by the desire to create. So, he boldly changed his route from Nice to Rome, via Genoa and Florence.
Second visit | September 1844
The second time Berlioz travelled to Nice was 13 years after his first visit. The composer went to the Riviera to recover from the stress and fatigue caused by his bustling career. Berlioz was not only a composer but also a music journalist and famous conductor, particularly popular in Germany, England and Russia.
He wished to rent the same room he did last time, but it was unfortunately occupied. Luckily, Berlioz found apartments in a far more exciting location, the Bellanda tower. He always fondly remembered his days spent within its unique structure, even calling it by his own fond moniker Ponchettes tower, after the street on which it overlooks:
«Ah! my dear Tour des Ponchettes, where I spent so many sweet hours, from the top of which I sent so often my morning greetings to the slumbering sea before the sun would rise, you are trembling with joy on your rocky foundations, you feel happy to be a French tower!»
On this visit, Berlioz composed the overture “The tower of Nice”, although he would later rework it and give it a new name “Corsar”. His personal connection with this place is memorialised by the commemorative plaque installed on the observation deck of the tower.
Third visit | March 1868
Whereas previous trips to the Cote d’Azur had filled Berlioz with a new lease of life, this time it turned out exactly the opposite.
He began exploring the outskirts of Nice and other cities on the French Riviera back in his second visit. This third time, he stayed in Monaco for a couple of days and, bored, went for a walk on the rocks. He chose a route that was too precarious, but only realised when losing his balance, thus severely injuring his face. Almost bleeding out, he barely made it back to the hotel and left for Nice the next day. His misfortunes did not end there.
Upon returning to Nice, he went to his favourite terrace to admire the sea view. His biographers believe that the composer suffered a stroke which led to a second fall. People walking past came to his aid, after spending eight days completely immobile, he went home to Paris:
“My mother-in-law and my servant screamed when they saw me come in. Since then, I have not left my bed, and for two weeks, I have been in agony without getting better. My nose and eyes are in a sorry state; the doctor, to console me, said I was lucky to have shed so much blood, otherwise, I would have expired there and then, particularly on the second day.”
Berlioz never fully recovered from the effects of the falls and this stroke, dying just a year after his final trip to the Riviera. The story seems almost cyclical: in 1831 Nice saved the composer from suicide, in 1868 it led to his death.
In addition to the memorial plaque on the Bellanda tower, there are other reminders of Hector Berlioz’s stay in Nice. For example, one of the central streets of the city is named after him, and a bust of the composer watches over Albert I Park, radiating sorrow, showing that any joy can end even in the happiest of places.