Symphonie fantastique

Hector Berlioz

Born in La Côte-Saint-André, France, December 11, 1803; died in Paris, March 8, 1869


"What a ferment of musical ideas there is in me! . . . Now that I have broken the chains of routine I see an immense plain laid out before me which academic rules once forbade me to enter. Now that I have heard that awe-inspiring giant, Beethoven, I know where the art of music now stands, now I have to take it to that point and push it yet further. . . . There are new things to be done and plenty of them. I sense this with intense energy, and I will do them, you may be sure, if I live."

Hector Berlioz wrote these words to a friend in 1829, and a year later, he embodied them in his first symphony, the still astounding Symphonie fantastique. Also titled "Episode in an Artist's Life," it was created just three years after his idol Beethoven's death, and, in its way, it was as revolutionary as the "Eroica" or the Ninth. It is the first true program symphony: a work in which the music is generated not primarily by abstract musical rules and forms, but by an extra-musical plot. Beethoven had made some tentative steps in this direction with his "Pastoral" Symphony, but Berlioz leapt far ahead of him, paving the way for Liszt's descriptive works, Mahler's symphonies, and ultimately Richard Strauss' graphic tone poems.

The symphonic plot is based on Berlioz's consuming, unfulfilled passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first saw when she appeared in productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in Paris in 1827. Although he understood no English, the volatile young artist was smitten equally by Shakespeare and by Miss Smithson. His ardor for her burned even though they did not meet until 1832 (they married in 1833; a disastrous union that proved one should never try to turn fantasy into reality).

            Here, somewhat abridged, is Berlioz's storyline:

            [Movement one:] "An artist, afflicted with a passionate imagination sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has dreamed of, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. By some strange trick of fancy, the beloved vision never appears ... except in association with a musical idea [the work's idée fixe] whose character — passionate but also noble and reticent — he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved…"

            [Movement two:] "The artist finds himself in the most varied situations — in the midst of the tumult of a festivity, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauty of nature — but everywhere he is, in the city, in the country, the beloved vision appears before him and troubles his soul."

            [Movement three:] "Finding himself in the country at evening, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches [a Swiss herding song] in dialogue. ... This pastoral duet, the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind ... come together to give his heart an unaccustomed calm… But what if she were deceiving him!...The distant sound of thunder — solitude — silence."

            [Movement four:] In despair, "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 the woman he loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution…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."

            [Movement five:] "He sees himself at the Sabbath in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral…The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque: it is she come to the Sabbath…Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the "Dies Irae" [the famous Catholic chant for the dead used in so many classical compositions], Sabbath round-dance…"

Berlioz called the five movements inspired by this program: "Reveries and Passions," "A Ball," "In the Country," "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of the Witches Sabbath." All of the symphony's innovations — the radical orchestration, eerie harmonies, eccentric rhythms, and the idée fixe representing the beloved (a theme recurring in all movements) — derive from Berlioz's imaginative search for the right musical devices to express this Romantic fantasy.

The full idée fixe is presented as a long, yearning melody in the violins and flutes at the beginning of the first movement's Allegro section. Its most striking reappearances come in the "March to the Scaffold," where, sung by a solo clarinet, it is abruptly silenced by the fall of the guillotine; and in the "Witches Sabbath" finale, where a shrieking E-flat clarinet presents a demonic version.

But Berlioz's most extraordinary innovation is his use of the orchestra, which, in Michael Steinberg's words, "sounds and behaves like nothing heard before. His orchestra is as new as Paganini's violin and Liszt's piano." Berlioz introduced instruments unknown in previous symphonies: the English horn (movement three), two harps (movement two), the grotesque E-flat clarinet (finale), and a fantastic array of percussion including an unprecedented four timpani (movements 4 and 5). And he used traditional instruments in ways seldom heard before: listen for the snarling stopped horns at the beginning of "March to the Scaffold" and the bone-rattling sound of violins being played with the wood of the bow in the "Witches Sabbath." Even today, more than 180 years after its composition, the Symphonie fantastique retains its radical edge and its ability to set our spines tingling.


Instrumentation: Two flutes, piccolo, two oboes plus off-stage oboe, English horn, two clarinets, piccolo clarinet, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, percussion, two harps and strings.


Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2013