Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)  began to compose Symphonie Fantastique, An Episode in The Life Of An Artist, In Five Parts in 1827 after he saw the famous English/Irish actress Harriet Smithson on stage as Ophelia in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Berlioz fell deeply in love with her and wrote the symphony in her honor.  Berlioz constantly sent her love letters but they didn't actually meet until 1832 when Berlioz managed to give her some tickets through a mutual friend to an upcoming concert. She went, and after she realized that she had inspired the music, they were wed in 1833.

Berlioz distributed a program at the premiere of the symphony. There is no better way to learn what's behind the symphony than to read the program Berlioz provided:

Part one
Daydreams, passions
  The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.  This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two
A ball
The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three
Scene in the countryside
One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance as they dialog with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.


Berlioz planned the premiere of the symphony long before it was finished. He worked feverishly to finish the work and rehearse it enough to perform it in May of 1830.  He cobbled the score together, led a few rehearsals before everyone involved deemed it not ready for performance. Berlioz again took up the score, and it had it's premiere in December of 1830 with only two rehearsals!  Nonetheless, the symphony was a success.

It is difficult to know how many composers were influenced by the symphony. It was a very new and daring piece of music in its day. The form of the symphony (inspired by Beethoven's 6th symphony 'the Pastoral ' which is in five movements), the harmonies, the use of  the idée fixe which was further developed by Liszt and Wagner as the Lietmotif , and above all the orchestration of the piece,  all were signs that music was changing.   The  sound of Berlioz's orchestra comes from many causes, but one of the main ones is that Berlioz was not a pianist. Composers who are pianists tend to think in pianistic terms as far as spacing of parts, harmony and form. Even when writing for orchestra many composers make a piano outline of the work. Berlioz did not compose in this way. His musical instrument was the guitar, an instrument where there is a choice of which string will play certain notes. While a note may be the same pitch played on two different strings, the tonal color will be more or less different because of the diameter of the string. Subtle though this distinction may be, in aggregate spread over the large orchestra Berlioz calls for, it can make a difference in pure sound.

Oh, and did Berlioz and his beloved live happily ever after? Hardly. By the time Smithson got around to noticing Berlioz and marrying him she had lost her popularity and was deeply in debt. Berlioz for his part grew tired of his idee fixe  rather fast for being so much in love. They divorced after eight bitter, unhappy years of marriage.

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