From Revelries to Visions: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

“For some time I have had a descriptive symphony … in my brain. When I have released it, I mean to stagger the musical world.” – Hector Berlioz

It is one thing to hear a symphony that tells us a true story – it is quite another to hear a symphony that tells us the composer’s own love story, and for the work itself to play a role. Autobiographical in nature, the Symphonie Fantastique paints for us love at first sight for Hector Berlioz with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. He saw Smithson at a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the symphony itself was written and performed to attract her attention.

The symphony sails across a sea of emotion, from the grace and command of Berlioz’s muse, all the way to an opium-fuelled fantasy of an execution and a dance of witches. Throughout, we hear this melody in a variety of forms:

Idee Fixe.png
This is what Berlioz called his idée fixe, which may be better known to us as a leitmotif – a phrase that reminds us of a character, place or thing – and here it is of Harriet, as we follow the composer’s story. The leitmotif is a device used perhaps most famously in Wagner’s operas, but also features in modern culture: for example, the horn tune in the various incarnations of Star Wars lets us know when someone is using The Force.

The composer’s sources of inspiration went beyond the actress: both Shakespeare and Beethoven played roles in his drama. Berlioz writes of “aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy” in the first movement, perhaps with echoes of Hamlet running underneath – or at least Harriet’s dramatic depiction of the character of Ophelia. After he tries to find a diversion at the Ball of the second movement, we find ourselves in the middle movement, a pastorale, under the shadow of Beethoven’s sixth symphony.

The final two movements depict hallucinations as a result of opium poisoning, beginning with a march to one’s own execution – a movement that it said to have been composed in a single night from the remnants of an unfinished opera. “Berlioz tells it like it is,” said Leonard Bernstein. “You take a trip, you wind up at your own funeral.” The symphony ends with a dervish of witches, sorcerers and monsters, which Franz Listz compared to Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth. It also employs the Dies Irae – translated directly meaning “Day of Wrath” a thirteenth century hymn depicting the day of judgement.

We hear quite a palette of sounds in the 1830 work. The wood of the bows hammer on strings, and the wind instruments glide in the final movement in imitation of owls. Four timpani provide the thunder at the end of the pastorale, and two harps accompany the waltz of the ball.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique shares a certain reception history with other impactful works in the history of classical music – a mixed reaction from initial audiences, and many struggled to understand the raw emotions displayed. Robert Schumann said, “His love—for her—is so terrifying: read it again, for it is all written there in the first movement with drops of blood.” Aaron Copland wrote of the unique charm of Berlioz’s melodies, saying that “they lend his music a quite special ambiance, as if they came from a country not to be found on any map.” Almost two hundred years from when Berlioz penned his journey onto the hues and textures of an orchestra, we now perform the symphony in a country that would have seemed fantastic to those of his time.

– Andrew Filmer

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References:

Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin: The Hector Berlioz Website

The San Francisco Symphony: Keeping Score

National Public Radio Online: Performance Today

The Guardian: Symphony guide: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Public domain facsimile of a lithograph of Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson as Romeo and Juliet; production in Paris as depicted was attended by Berlioz.

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