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Berlioz, Hector - Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Hector Berlioz
b. La Côte-Saint-André, France / December 11, 1803; d. Paris, France / March 8, 1869

In 1827, while Berlioz was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he developed a typically all consuming passion for Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom he saw perform a number of works by Shakespeare. His attempts to communicate with her came to nothing. This unhappy experience inspired him to compose Episode in the Life of an Artist: Grand Fantastic Symphony in Five Parts. He did so partly at the call of his brilliant creative imagination, partly for a more practical reason: he hoped it would win him the kind of reputation that would impress Harriet Smithson.

It is an astonishingly original work that has retained both its freshness and its ability to amaze. To realize that it debuted just three years after the death of Beethoven further reinforces its reputation as a visionary and influential work.

In it, Berlioz broke new compositional ground by synthesizing events from his own life with purely imaginary ones. It also calls for numerous and brand-new special instrumental effects. The premiere took place in Paris on December 5, 1830, with Berlioz’ good friend and musical soul mater, Franz Liszt, seated beside him. He revised the entire work, including the program, before its publication in 1847.

Harriet Smithson’s stage company returned to Paris in 1832. Berlioz made sure she heard the piece he had written for her. One thing led to another, and they were married the following year. Their relationship – just like the one between the hero of the Symphonie fantastique and his lady love – was doomed to failure.

“A young musician of morbidly sensitive temperament and fiery imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair,” the final revision of the program begins. “The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a slumber accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, his emotions, his memories are transformed in his sick mind into musical thoughts and images. The loved one herself has become a melody to him, an idée fixe (fixed idea) as it were, that he encounters and hears everywhere.”

After the first movement’s brooding introduction, the violins introduce the beloved’s recurring melody, the idée fixe (fixed idea). Its attractive yet nervous character sets the tone for the balance of this section, a portrait in sound of the hero’s tempestuous emotions.

The second movement is an elegant but at times also sinister waltz. At a fancy party, the composer spies his beloved across a crowded ballroom, only to lose her in the crush of swirling dancers.

In the third movement he retires to the countryside to rest, but is troubled by doubting thoughts regarding his lady love. Berlioz provides a picturesque rustic idyll, complete with shepherds piping to one another across the fields, an image achieved by placing the oboe soloist behind the stage and having him (or her) engage in a call-and-response dialogue with the on-stage English horn player. Toward the end of the movement, Berlioz calls into action no fewer than four timpani players to recreate ingeniously the sounds of distant thunder.

In the fourth movement, to the strains of an alternately sinister and pompous march, the hero is led to the guillotine and beheaded for the murder of his beloved.

The finale is a witches’ Sabbath held at the hero’s own funeral, where he encounters his loved one (or what remains of her) for the last time. Transformed into a fiendish spirit (and accompanied by a suitably twisted version of the idée fixe), she leads a mob of demons in a frenzied, mocking round dance. Here Berlioz’ instrumental imagination worked at fever pitch. His devil’s brew included chilling funeral bells, violins and violas clacking the wood of their bows against the strings, and effective use of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), a grotesque theme drawn from medieval plainchant with a text related to the final day of judgment. Berlioz introduced it through the awe-inspiring sound of two tubas.

Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2019

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