Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Born near Grenoble to a distinguished physician, Hector did not begin to study music until the age of twelve. He played the guitar, flageolet and flute but was discouraged from ever learning the piano by his father. He also composed, learning harmony from textbooks.

At eighteen he was sent to Paris to study medicine but he had no interest in the subject and was thoroughly disgusted when he observed a human corpse being dissected. His love of the music of Gluck and Beethoven led him to make the most of the opportunities available to him at the Paris Opera and (although not a music student) in the library of the Paris Conservatoire. He abandoned medicine at the age of twenty-one and, encouraged by a Conservatoire professor, he devoted himself to composition and then began to formally study composition at the Conservatoire. A few months before his twenty-fourth birthday he became infatuated with the Irish-born actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite them not meeting, Berlioz terrified her with an avalanche of unanswered love letters.

The Symphonie Fantastique – also entitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist in five parts” – was written in just six weeks and first performed in 1830. It’s an important Early Romantic composition which was later transcribed for (one!) piano by Franz Liszt. The symphony was inspired by Berlioz’s obsession with Harriet Smithson a few years previously although by this time he was in a relationship and subsequently engaged to Marie Moke. This engagement was called off by Marie’s mother and an enraged Berlioz developed an elaborate plan to murder Marie, her new fiancé and Marie’s mother and then to kill himself. Luckily for us, he decided the plan was foolish and abandoned it. In 1832, a revised version of the Symphonie Fantastique was performed in Paris in front of an illustrious audience including Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, George Sand and … Harriet Smithson. A few days later, Hector and Harriet were finally introduced. Despite Hector understanding no spoken English and Harriet knowing no French at all, they began a relationship which led to marriage in 1833 and a child the following year. Sadly there was no happy ending – both were prone to violent tempers and they were divorced seven years later.

There is a popular belief that the symphony was composed “under the influence” of opium but it’s important to realise that opium (in the form of laudanum) was widely used in the 18th century and Berlioz was taking it for his nervous disposition in the way that we might now take aspirin or valium. That said, Leonard Bernstein described it as the first musical expedition into psychedelia and said of it “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral”!

The score specifies more than 90 players including 2 harps (2nd movement only), 4 bassoons, 2 cornets, 2 ophicleides (typically replaced by tubas these days), 2 timpani players and 9 double-basses. The symphony is a piece of programme music – music which aims to present a narrative. In this case, it is the story of an artist who has poisoned himself with opium while in the depths of despair resulting from hopeless, unrequited love. Unconventionally for the time, there are 5 movements:

● 1st movement – “Musings – Passions”. Berlioz’s 1845 programme notes imagine a young musician who sees his ideal woman for the first time and falls desperately in love with her. He associates her with a melody which recurs throughout the symphony.

● 2nd – “A Ball”. The 1855 programme notes (which he stated should be distributed to the audience before each performance) describe the artist meeting again his beloved “in a ball during a glittering fête”.

● 3rd – “Scene in the Countryside” – at evening time, two shepherds duet with their alpine horns depicted by a cor anglais and oboe. The programme notes say that the “artist’s hopeful heart calms but his beloved reappears and his anguish and painful thoughts disturb him with fears of betrayal. The sun sets and there is the distant sound of thunder.”

● 4th – “March to the Scaffold”. The artist is convinced that his love is spurned and poisons himself with opium. Instead of killing him, the opium induces a vision that he has killed his beloved and is executed at the scaffold.

● 5th – “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath”. A hideous throng of demons and sorcerers gather to celebrate the Sabbath night and his beloved attends to take part in her victim’s funeral. The movement incorporates the theme of the ideal woman but transformed into a vulgar dance tune. This is followed by the ancient motif of the Latin hymn of the Dies Irae which is combined with the wild Sabbath round dance in the climatic finale.

Robyn Morgan, Violin 2