Yeah. That’s not all that inaccurate.
What happened was this: Berlioz went to Paris to study music, and by all accounts he was a good student, if a bit rebellious and marked with a tendency to stubbornly do things in his music that his teachers didn’t want him to do. He was also of a deeply literary mind, having already discovered Virgil and other poets as a boy, and now, as a student, he was to make another great literary discovery. In 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet.
At the time, translation of literature from one language to another was not nearly as concerned with fidelity to the original work as we expect today, and the translators would often add new material (invented out of whole cloth) or omit scenes found distasteful. However, enough of Shakespeare’s original work shone through that Berlioz would adore Shakespeare for the rest of his life. That performance of Hamlet did not yield just the one infatuation, though; Berlioz also feel desperately in love with the actress playing Ophelia, a young woman named Harriet Smithson.
Now, Berlioz was a full-on Romantic, in just about every sense of the word that exists. He was also living in 1827, when behavior toward women that might well be seen as criminal today was actually tolerated. In Berlioz’s case…he flooded Miss Smithson’s hotel room with love letter after love letter and pretty much became a creepy stalker. There’s just no other way to describe it, and Smithson responded quite justifiably by having nothing to do with this guy. She eventually left Paris with her acting company, but Berlioz did not forget her (even to the point of breaking off a subsequent engagement), and later on, in 1830, he expressed his unrequited love in the Symphonie fantastique. Even as Berlioz’s music languished in obscurity for nearly a century after his death, this work stayed in the symphonic repertoire.
The symphony is written for a fairly large orchestra, and it is in five movements, rather than the standard four. Also, Berlioz wrote the work specifically with the idea of conveying the emotions of a story in mind, and to that end, he wrote program notes to be distributed at each performance:
Programme of the symphony
A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere.
Part one: Daydreams, passions
He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.
Part two: A ball
He meets again his beloved in a ball during a glittering fête.
Part three: Scene in the countryside
One summer evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds dialoguing with their ‘Ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light 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; but she reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him… One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody, the other one no longer answers. The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…
Part four: March to the scaffold
He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to 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, the idée fixe reappears for a moment 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… Roars 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.
The idea of program music, of music depicting something beyond the purely musical, was not new even when Berlioz was active, but he did take the notion to greater lengths than anyone before. The Symphonie fantastique is quite the musical journey through a series of emotional vignettes, from its dreamlike beginning to the stormy feelings that arise once the “Beloved” makes her appearance. And here is another idea, the notion of a specific melody being attached to a specific worldly idea, and thus using that melody to suggest that idea at differing places in the score. This is another step in the development of the idea of the leitmotif, which would go on to be used to famously enormous effect by Wagner in his operas and by later film composers like John Williams and Howard Shore.
With his programmatic goals in mind, Berlioz writes a glittering waltz instead of a scherzo; his slow movement begins with the question-and-answer of the shepherd’s horns in the mountains and ends with the oncoming the thunder in the hills; and the last two movements delve directly into the Romantic world of supernatural horror and hallucination. It’s insanely compelling stuff, and the whole story behind this work’s genesis is one of those Tales From The World Of Art that you can barely believe at first.
I also love this work for its rough-around-the-edges qualities. As you listen to it, there are times when it really stands out that Berlioz was in large part a self-taught composer who insisted on doing his own thing, usually on the assumption that authenticity of spirit can trump trained discipline. And this is true, but it’s true less often than we might think, and when it’s true, it’s likely because genius can cover many sins. The opening movement is a good example of this, with several awkward transitions and one odd spot in the middle where Berlioz seemingly can’t quite figure out the way from Point A to Point B, so he runs up and down the chromatic scale a few times before simply stopping the music and restarting. Those slow, sustained chords that end that movement, though? Pure magic. And there are places in the third movement that are as achingly beautiful as anything in any musical work, ever.
Here is the Symphonie fantastique, with a few pointers below of things to listen for:
5:25: This is the first appearance of the idee fixe, the tune associated with the Beloved. This long and asymmetrical melody will form the backbone of the rest of the movement and be heard throughout the entire symphony, in various guises.
9:00: The runs up and down the chromatic scale. One of the oddest passages in classical music that I know.
14:13: Final statement in this movement of the idee fixe, followed by the chords marked “Religioso” in the score.
In this performance you hear a solo cornet in this movement. This is an optional part that Berlioz later added; some recordings omit it. I personally prefer it.
17:28: The Idee fixe appears.
18:28: The second iteration of the waltz theme, but now it sounds so much more vibrant, because Berlioz allows the accompaniment to churn more. Pay attention to the harps here. Amazing stuff.
19:50: The build begins. Berlioz knew how to build. Whenever Berlioz starts mustering his energy, watch out. It always makes me think of this one thing that figure skaters do, when you see it you know they are about to jump.
20:29: The idee fixe again, quietly. Nice clarinet harmonies.
We open with an English horn and an oboe, sent offstage, in an answer and call. Gradually the strings come in, with tremolo chords underneath the English horn and oboe.
23:53: The main theme of this movement. One of Berlioz’s favorite tricks is to double the strings and the flutes, which adds a wonderful dreamy quality to the sound. We will hear this melody again several more times in the movement, each time with different background.
25:02: The melody repeats, now harmonized. The simplest trick in the book, but there’s a reason the simple tricks stay around.
28:06: Another iteration of the main melody, this time in the low strings.
29:40: The Idee fixe, sounding different, yet again.
32:37: The original theme again, sounding fresh again.
34:06: OK, these four bars here, constituting a call-and-response sounding of the Idee fixe, is one of my favorite musical passages ever. What’s often amazing to me about Berlioz is that his music is so much like life in that the moments of aching beauty are often fleeting, over before you know it.
36:10: The movement’s opening call-and-response again, but this time with thunder.
This movement, as noted in the post below, was my first ever brush with Berlioz. What an odd, strange movement indeed. I can only imagine how this sounded to ears attuned to Beethoven and Schubert. The Idee fixe comes at the very end, and is cut short by the guillotine blade slamming home. The movement is dominated by syncopations, by melodies that start on the off beat, a musical depiction of relentlessness that’s impossible to beat.
40:11: I always love this bassoon passage.
40:30: I’m always sad that my brief trumpet-playing career never included this passage (aside from in high school band).
45:12: The Idee fixe.
If you like darkly supernatural stuff in your classical music, here it is.
47:09: The Idee fixe‘s first appearance. Not the beautifully yearning melody of the first movement anymore. We only hear a bit of it here, a foretaste of what’s to come in a bit.
47:28: Now we hear the Idee fixe for the last time, and it’s become totally warped and grotesque, the transformation of the beloved into shrill, wailing harpy made complete by giving it to the E-flat clarinet. This is an amazing passage for the woodwinds, by the way — listen to the snarling accompaniment by the bassoons!
48:41: The tolling of the bells for the dead. This is followed by Berlioz sounding the Dies irae, the Latin chant for the dead, three times, punctuating it with the bells and making the orchestral effects more pronounced each time. I wonder if Berlioz ever had the opportunity to read Edgar Allan Poe? Because this music is pure Poe. Berlioz begins building again…bring us to….
51:02: The Witches’ Dance begins. From here on out, it’s all macabre. There is no respite, no more beauty. It’s all Romantic horror until the Symphonie fantastique ends.
…that’s not where the story ends. Berlioz actually wrote a second work, a sequel, which concludes the tale. It is called Lelio, or the Return to Life, and it picks up where the Symphonie fantastique leaves off, with the composer’s drug-induced hallucinations ending and the composer immersing himself in music and literature to find his way back to life again, now that his love is gone. Berlioz intended Lelio to be played following the Symphonie fantastique, but this is rarely done today, because Lelio is not a symphony. It’s a very oddly hybrid work, in which Berlioz used earlier compositions and stitched them together with a series of spoken-word monologues. It makes for a very strange listen indeed, although there are some very worthy moments in it, and some of the music in Lelio is good enough that it doesn’t deserve the obscurity it earns by virtue of being incorporated into such an ungainly piece.
Here is Lelio. I’ve never been able to decide how much I like Lelio, but there’s quite a bit in it that I find pretty damned cool, particularly the “Fantasy on The Tempest” at the end, which uses chorus and piano as an orchestral instrument (Berlioz wrote almost nothing for the piano). And while I’m not sure how much I love Lelio, I love that Berlioz wrote it.
Next week: Berlioz’s only four-movement symphony…which is also part concerto.