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Hector Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique

Hector Berlioz

(Born in La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France in 1803; died in Paris, France in 1869)

Symphonie fantastique (Episode de la vie d’un Artiste…en cinq parties) (“Episode of the life of an Artist… in five parts”), H. 48, Op. 14

Part I:  Dreams – Passions

Part II: A Ball

Part III: A Scene in the Country

Part IV: March to the Scaffold

Part V: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

When the Symphonie fantastique premiered in 1830 with Berlioz conducting, he insisted that a literary program be distributed to the audience (that translated program is reprinted below).  He explained that the program was “…indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.”  This story tells of a troubled young artist who sees a woman, his “Beloved,” who embodies all his ideals in a mate, and he becomes disturbingly obsessed with her.  Both the thought of her and a musical representation of his Beloved plague him with increasing amplitude (what Berlioz called a double “idée fixe”).  His obsession leads him to try poisoning himself with opium, but the dose is insufficient.  Instead, it plunges him into horrible dreams where he murders his Beloved and he witnesses his own execution followed by a graphic and hellish funeral attended by witches and ghouls of the grimmest sort.

Astoundingly, the Symphonie’s program was semi-autobiographical.  In 1827, Berlioz’s fascination with Shakespeare brought him to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet by a visiting English troupe.  There he saw for the first time his own Beloved, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson.  After three years of obsessing about Harriet, Berlioz wrote his Symphonie in order to get her attention.  He continued to obsess for three more years until they married in 1833.  Unlike his symphonic hero, however, Berlioz’s obsession did not end in murder or suicide attempts, but his marriage ended in divorce in 1844.

As extraordinary as its program may have been, this is one of the most eyebrow-raising musical works in the repertoire.  As some music historians have said, “modern music began with the Symphonie fantastique.”  For the first time in musical history, Berlioz pioneers the compositional technique of an idée fixe as a symphonically unifying theme, here used as a musical representation of the Beloved, who is “…passionate, noble and shy.”  It’s first heard about ten minutes into the first movement, and in itself is a bit odd for a theme that will glue an entire symphony together – it’s a disjointed and almost un-melodic melody of about 7 measures.  Throughout the symphony it appears in many contexts, surrounded by ingeniously bold, sometimes wild, harmonies.  This is a masterpiece of opposites – alongside his highly creative developments of motives that range through a host of extreme emotions, Berlioz nonetheless maintains a pacing and balance that are spellbindingly controlled.

And the Symphonie’s instrumentation and orchestration will transform sound possibilities for a century to come.  Twentieth-century French composer Oliver Messiaen said that the Symphonie fantastique began other composers’ first, genuine awareness of timbre in the orchestra.  Extremely precise about the colors he wanted, Berlioz scored for a range of unusual instruments and for new and different playing techniques.  For the first time, for example, we hear four timpanists creating chords (thunder in the third movement), and in the fourth movement, Berlioz scored for “ophecliedes” (a variation of the tuba, and the first time this class of bass brass instrument found a place in the orchestra).  Messiaen’s case in point was the church bells in the last movement.  These were shockingly new in the symphony, but without them, we might never have heard the famous 18 tuned anvils of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (1869) or the wonderful array of instruments in Mahler’s symphonies some 70 years later (such as mandolins, sleigh bells, or a giant wooden box hit with a hammer).

The first three movements are full of wonderful surprises, both musically and sonically, but the last two movements truly topple music history’s expectations and are extremely exciting to hear.  Part IV, the “March to the Scaffold,” is as graphic as any music there is until, perhaps, Schoenberg and Webern at the turn of the next century, and Berlioz’s is certainly more fun to hear.  The depiction of the artist marching to the guillotine is as tense and horrifying as the story told by Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), or Camus’ The Stranger (1942).  The extreme terror, pain, even the crowd’s excitement, as the hero is being led through the mocking and jeering crowds towards decapitation is palpable in Berlioz’s music.  Part V, the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” dance, has a true stroke of brilliance by employing, but parodying, the tune of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) – here, famously played by the ophecliedes/tubas – a very old chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.  The rough and grisly celebration of ghouls and monsters is breathtakingly alive and Berlioz manages to capture its perversion and sinister-ness in sound.  And all through the movements, the idée fixe weaves incessantly, obsessively, in and out, again and again in one guise or another, making the Symphonie fantastique a miraculously unified symphony.

Amazingly, even an obsession can be transformed into great art.

Berlioz’s Literary Program:

Part I:  Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman that embodies all the charms of the ideal being in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her.  Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.  That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro.  The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation – this is the true subject of the first movement.

Part II: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part III: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue.  This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas.  He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. –But what if she were unfaithful to him! –This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio.  At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies.  – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part IV: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium.  The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions.  He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution.  This procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffed noise of heavy steps give way without transition to the noisiest clamor.  At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part V: Dream of a Witches Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral.  Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer.  The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque; it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, sabbath round dance.  The sabbath round dance and the Dies irae are combined.

Program notes © Max Derrickson