Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique: Episode in the Life of an Artist (1830)

The Symphonie Fantastique is program symphony, the first to revolve around a complete story set forth by the composer. The program went through several changes over the years; the following account is a fair synthesis of the various programs.

First Page of the Program Symphony for Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique First Page of the Program Symphony for Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique

The symphony was named “Fantastique” because it takes listeners into the realm of fantasy, the dark world of the occult — suicide, opium, murder, witches, and Black Sabbaths.  Berlioz probably thought it was a great symphony, but that is not why he referred to it as “fantastique.”

The symphony was written to impress an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who attracted Berlioz’ on the Paris stage.   He wrote to her, but she did not respond. When she eventually became aware of the Symphonie Fantastique, she realized that she was the inspiration. Surprisingly, because of the story of the symphony, the two were married in 1833. But it was not a long and happy union. They separated in 1844.

The First Movement: “Reveries and Passion” — A young frustrated musician, suffering from le vague des passions (“the wave of passions”), attempts suicide by opium poisoning. The dosage is too weak to kill him, but it plunges him into a sleep of strange visions. He dreams of his beloved who is identified in the music with the idée fixe (“fixed idea”), a musical theme denoting her presence (8:04, 12:55).

The Second Movement: “A Ball” — As Berlioz’s music makes a brilliant transition from the initial dreamy and eerie tone of the first movement, the musician beholds his beloved dancing a concert waltz at a glittering fete.

The Third Movement: “Scene in the Country” — The musician seeks refuge and consolation in the world of nature; but, like his love, the world of nature is both comforting and tumultuous. What if his beloved has betrayed him?

The Fourth Movement: “March to the Scaffold” (3:50) — The musician dreams of murdering his beloved, being lead to the guillotine and seeing his beloved just before the blade falls. Hear the piercing high register of the clarinet playing the idée fixe, indicating the presence of the musician’s beloved. Then, hear a loud dull thud, indicating the fall of the blade, the fall of the head, the roll of the drums, and a fanfare as the crowd lends its approval.

The Fifth Movement: “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” — Demonic forces gather for the musician’s funeral, and his soul is caught up in a witches’ sabbath where his beloved again appears. Now we learn that she was a witch from the beginning, and she has seduced the musician into murder and hell. To anchor his witches’ sabbath, Berlioz executes what he called a “burlesque parody” of a solemn thirteenth-century melody, the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), that warned about the end of time and the fires of hell and that became a standard part of Roman Catholic requiems.  Hear bells chime in the witching hour of midnight (2:55), and then hear the Dies Irae solemnly intoned and lent an off-beat, syncopated rhythm.

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