Hector Berlioz

Symphonie Fantastique

Also titled "Episode in the Life of an Artist," this first symphony by Berlioz was one of the most original and fanciful work of the 19th century. Completed in February, 1830, the programmatic symphony described a romantic tale of a young artist meeting a woman, his un-reciprocated love, and the eventual tragic sequences. The story was concocted from Berlioz's own despair and love for Harriet Smithson, the English actress who first dazzled Berlioz by playing Orphelia in a Paris production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

On its first performance on December 5, 1830, Berlioz handed out written programs of the symphony for the audience prior to its performance, a practice unheard of before. Berlioz's intention was to give the concert-goers an actual outline of the tale depicting by the music in the work. The concert was a great success. The audience even requested to have an encore of the March played.

This symphony was a first of its kind in every way. The idea of a programmatic symphony had previously only briefly been touched upon by Beethoven in his "Pastoral" 6th. In this work, Berlioz gave us a full fancy of a tale that involved romance, a ball, a suicide, a guillotine, and a Witch's Sabbath! Each of these events were imaginatively depicted by musical ideas of their own kind. For instance, the March to the guillotine movement is ended by having plucked strings representing the skips of a chopped head! The following is a brief guide to the individual movements of this symphony. For each movement, Berlioz's abbreviated notes are first listed and some comments about the movement follow.


Berlioz's Notes: I take as my subject an artist blest with sensibility and a lively imagination... who meets a woman who awakens in him for the first time his heart's desire. He falls desperately in love with her. Curiously, the image of his beloved is linked inseparably with a musical idea representing her graceful and noble character. This idee fixe haunts him throughout the symphony."

After a introduction, the 40-bar theme of idee fixe was first played by the violins in unison. This music idea comes and goes throughout the movement as if the young artist repeatedly encounters her and looses her every time.

Click HERE to hear the idee fixe being played in the first movement.

A Ball

Berlioz's Notes: The artist attends a ball, but the gaiety and festive tumult fails to distract him. The idee fixe returns to torture him further.

Berlioz composed a perfect waltz for this, suggesting all the glitter and glamour of a 19th century ball. As noted, the young artist cannot enjoy the occasion as he spotted his unobtainable beloved. Musically, it is depicted by the idee fixe playing with the waltz theme, as if suggesting the beloved dancing among crowds of people.

Scene in the Country

Berlioz's Notes: Alone in the country on a summer's evening, the arti9st hears two distant herdsmen calling to each other in a franz des vaches (an alphorn melody of the Swiss Alps). Their pastoral duet, the rustle of wind in the trees, and the hope that his beloved might yet be his, all lull him into a reverie, but the idee fixe returns in his dreams. His heart palpitates and he experiences dread premonitions. The sun sets, there is thunder in the distance, then solitude and silence.

A cor anglais and an oboe represent the two Swiss 'alphorn' players. The idee fixe is played by cellos and violas when the young artist falls asleep, which was represented by violins and flutes.

March to the guillotine

Berlioz's Notes: In despair the artist attempts to commit suicide by taking an overdose of opium, but the drug, too weak to prove fatal, instead induces fearsome dreams. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, is condemned to death, and is being taken for execution. The idee fixe floats into his mind, only to be terminated by the fall of the blade.

The drums being the march, which is then furthered by timpani, cornets, ophicleides, and other instruments to give this ceremony a gruesome mood. Violins take over the theme. Then, the brass enter to play a blaring and elaborate march theme. The movement ends first with a brief playing of idee fixe, played by a clarinet, which suggests a brief reminder of the beloved in the artist's mind. As the artist's head is severed and bounched off (as depicted by plucked strings), the movement ends with a cheerful fanfare.

Dream of a Witches' Sabbath

Berlioz's Notes: The artist at a Witches' Sabbath hears again the idee fixe, but now transformed into a brazen and trivial dance. She has come to witness his burial! Later comes a monstrous parody of the Dies Irae ('Day of Wrath', from the Latin Mass for the Dead). The dance of the witches is combined with the Dies Irae.

Idee fixe first enters as solo clarinet in somewhat of a distorted dance accompanied by timpani; this depicts the beloved among the witches here to watch the artist's burial. Funeral bells could be eard in distance, and Dies Irae is heard playing. The Dies Irae is repeated twice, each time increased in speed. A section of fugue is also played to depict this grotesque dance. Later, as if to imitate dancing skeletons, the violins and violas play on the strings with the wooden part of their bow, creating a unique, eerie sound. A loud climax ends the movement, as if declaring the triumph of the Witches.

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Jason C. Lee