Conducted by Stéphane Denève, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts) Op. 14, by the French romantic era composer Hector Berlioz.
The work is written in 1830 and first performed in the same year at the Paris Conservatoire. It is a program symphony (1) and an important piece of the early Romantic period.
American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium. According to Bernstein, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral”.
There are five movements:
1st Movement: “Rêveries – Passions” (Reveries – Passions)
In Berlioz’s own program notes from 1845, he writes:
“The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the wave of passions [le vague des passions], sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.”
The first movement is radical in its harmonic outline, building a vast arch back to the home key; while similar to the sonata form of the classical period, Parisian critics regarded this as unconventional. It is here that the listener is introduced to the theme of the artist’s beloved, or the idée fixe. Throughout the movement there is a simplicity in the way melodies and themes are presented, which Robert Schumann likened to ‘Beethoven’s epigrams’ ideas that could be extended had the composer chosen to. In part, it is because Berlioz rejected writing the more symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies that were ‘so intense in every note as to defy normal harmonization’, as Schumann put it. -Hector Berlioz: The Complete Guide The theme itself was taken from Berlioz’s scène lyrique “Herminie”, composed in 1828.
2nd Movement: “Un bal” (A Ball)
Again, quoting from Berlioz’s program notes:
“The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.”
The second movement has a mysterious-sounding introduction that creates an atmosphere of impending excitement, followed by a passage dominated by two harps; then the flowing waltz theme appears, derived from the idée fixe at first, then transforming it. More formal statements of the idée fixe twice interrupt the waltz.
The movement is the only one to feature the two harps, providing the glamour and sensual richness of the ball, and may also symbolise the object of the young man’s affection. Berlioz wrote extensively in his memoirs of his trials and tribulations in having this symphony performed, due to a lack of capable harpists and harps, especially in Germany.
Another feature of this movement is that Berlioz added a part for solo cornet to his autograph score, although it was not included in the score published in his lifetime. The work has most often been played and recorded without the solo cornet part. Conductors Jean Martinon, Sir Colin Davis, Otto Klemperer, Gustavo Dudamel, and Leonard Slatkin have employed this part for cornet in performances of the symphony.
3rd Movement: “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the Fields)
From Berlioz’s program notes:
“One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the 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. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own … But what if she betrayed him! … This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder … solitude … silence …”
The two “shepherds” Berlioz mentions in the notes are depicted with a cor anglais (English horn) and an offstage oboe tossing an evocative melody back and forth. After the cor anglais–oboe conversation, the principal theme of the movement appears on solo flute and violins. Berlioz salvaged this theme from his abandoned Messe solennelle. The idée fixe returns in the middle of the movement, played by oboe and flute. The sound of distant thunder at the end of the movement is a striking passage for four timpani.
4th Movement: “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold)
From Berlioz’s program notes:
“Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. 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 of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.”
Berlioz claimed to have written the fourth movement in a single night, reconstructing music from an unfinished project – the opera Les francs-juges. The movement begins with timpani sextuplets in thirds, for which he directs: “The first quaver of each half-bar is to be played with two drumsticks, and the other five with the right hand drumsticks”. The movement proceeds as a march filled with blaring horns and rushing passages, and scurrying figures that later show up in the last movement. Before the musical depiction of his execution, there is a brief, nostalgic recollection of the idée fixe in a solo clarinet, as though representing the last conscious thought of the soon-to-be-executed man. Immediately following this is a single, short fortissimo G minor chord – the fatal blow of the guillotine blade, followed by a series of pizzicato notes representing the rolling of the severed head into the basket.
5th Movement: Fifth movement: “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)
From Berlioz’s program notes:
“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 … Roar 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.”
- Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music. A classic example is Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of Hell.
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