Certainly Berlioz’s most popular work, the Symphonie Fantastique could be defined as the first psychedelic symphony. Written in 1830, only 3 years after Beethoven’s death and 2 after Schubert’s, the Symphonie Fantastique is projected into the future in a way that had never happened before in the history of music.
In 1827, the 23-year-old Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Paris; the charismatic Irish actress Harriet Smithson was playing Ophelia. Berlioz was totally struck by her and wrote her an impassioned letter to which she did not reply. Undeterred, he continued to bombard her with messages but she left Paris without making contact.
Berlioz wrote to a friend:
“You don’t know what love is, whatever you may say. For you, it’s not that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything.”
The Symphonie Fantastique is a programmatic symphony in 5 movements: it tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless, unrequited love.
Clearly autobiographical, as Leonard Bernstein put it: “Berlioz tells it like it is. Now there was an honest man. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
Portrait of Harriet Smithson by Claude-Marie Dubufe
Musee Magnin, Dijon, France
Harriet Smithson did not attend the premiere in 1830, but she heard the work in 1832 and realized Berlioz’s genius and also that she might have been the inspiration for it. The two finally met and despite neither speaking the other’s language they married in 1833.
However, their marriage became increasingly bitter, the obsession faded away and they eventually separated after 7 years of unhappiness.
In Berlioz opium-altered mind (where the opium was most likely only his infatuation), Smithson had turned into a musical idea. But not just any musical idea: this became an obsessive, recurring idea; an idée fixe, or, if you prefer, a leitmotiv. A leitmotiv that will be the glue of all 5 movements, wandering through it like a ghost. In various forms but always clearly recognizable.
Berlioz’s program notes to the Symphonie Fantastique
As mentioned, the Symphonie Fantastique tells a story: each movement depicts an episode in the protagonist’s life (a young musician) that is described by Berlioz in the program notes to the 1845 score.
The first movement is titled: “Rêveries – Passions“: dreams (or visions) – passions. As Berlioz himself wrote:
“The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness 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 recognizes 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.”
By the way, the famous writer was none other than François-René de Chateaubriand.
Interestingly, however, the notes that Berlioz writes in 1855 are much more concise and to the point:
“He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.”
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique: an analysis of the 1st movement
We’re gonna have to wait for 5 minutes from the beginning of the symphony to hear the full idée fixe. Berlioz opens with a slow introduction, one of the most difficult tests for any conductor.
Keep in mind that this piece is a constant exchange of keeping control and letting go between the conductor and the orchestra: as a conductor you need to know exactly where you are needed and where you would be only getting in the way.
Generally speaking, keep it clean and simple: the first 6 bars for example can be conducted with your left hand only. You can save your right hand for the pizzicato of the violas and cellos on bar 7. Keep going with the left hand and use your right hand again to get the basses on bar 12.
This is an incredibly difficult section to conduct, especially for the tempo which needs to gradually and very seamlessly go back to the Tempo primo. In fact, Berlioz himself was aware of it and he put a note in the score, urging conductors to rehearse this passage again and again.
The dream continues and we get to a very weird part of it: it begins with a dance gesture in the 2nd violins
The idée fixe
We’re in that weird dimension between sleep and awake till someone knocks at the door of our mind and the Allegro begins.
The knocking lasts only a moment and we’re finally introduced to the idée fixe.
The idea starts by going up, full of enthusiasm and energy, but when it reaches the 4th grade of the scale it falls back, folding on itself.
It gets more courage and tries again, starting from a lower point to reach a higher one.
There’s a feeble attempt to grow higher and higher, even by pushing the tempo at the animato, but inevitably it falls back in its own frustrations.
If we look at this phrase in its entirety we see that Berlioz paints a chromatic scale from the dominant to the tonic. Only to reverse it in these tired triplets that move from the tonic to the dominant and then make everything collapse again.
Notice how the accompaniments of the strings, minus the first violins who play the melody with the flute, create a slippery ground. Along with the dynamic and tempo changes, this helps in generating a sense of anxiety. The passions of the young musician are pushing and pulling and can hardly be contained.
Before and after the exposition of the leitmotiv we have some fireworks. It’s an ongoing battle of the poor musician, struggling between wanting to keep dreaming and the anguish of his passions. A struggle that is accentuated by the dynamic contrasts and by the phrase structure. Berlioz didn’t have much appeal for regular phrase structures in general, but here even less: he keeps bouncing between 2 bars and 3 bars phrases which keeps the attention of the listener constantly on its toes, never being predictable.
A shred of the letimotiv comes back in a question and answer bit
and we’re at the end of the exposition with a marked repeat.
Development / Recapitulation
Yes, the exposition: while this movement is not in a completely formal and classical sonata form, it does get close to it: we have a slow introduction, an exposition, and a coda at the end. The development and the recapitulation are mixed together with the added bonus of some extra elements.
The radical approach of Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique lies in the harmonic outline of this movement, building a long arch back to the home key.
The development begins with an idée fixe raging jealousy in the lower strings, sustained by the fire of the 1st and 2nd violins while the woodwinds sigh on top
It all builds into a climax which leaves room to even more anguish. The chromatic scale returns with waves of emotions underlined by the continuous changes of dynamics
It keeps growing and growing, bordering the line of insanity. A full orchestra chord puts a stop to it. We need 3 full bars of silence in order to regroup, only for the obsession to return hunting our dream
Notice how that same accompaniment we heard first in the lower strings when the theme was first presented, spins off the second violins. It’s now reversed and bounces back and forth between the upper and lower strings.
This could seem like the beginning of a recapitulation but in fact, Berlioz changes course again. We have more outbursts of rage followed by lines of despair tailing each other
For a moment we have the hope or delusion of a happy ending. But the omnipresent idée fixe builds up to a tumultuous climax
This music makes your head spin, you feel like you’re constantly pulled in different directions. It’s like being on a merry go round that got out of control…
…which is exactly what you need not do when conducting this piece: once you initiate the fortissimo at rehearsal number 17, reduce the size of your stroke. It’s incredibly difficult to be together here for the violins and the less you move around the easier you make it for them.
The madness fades away, at least on the surface. We have a final fire and we go back to la-la land. The theme, solitary, is presented once more by the first violins and the lid to this movement is closed by a religious pianissimo.
A curiosity: Berlioz wrote a part in the Symphonie Fantastique for serpent (a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornett,) and one for the ophicleide. He quickly switched to two ophicleides after the serpent proved to be difficult to use.
The ophicleide is a brass instrument that looks like a cross between a bassoon and saxophone, with long, cone-shaped tubing and a mouthpiece similar to a trombone’s. The word “ophicleide” in Greek literally means “serpent with keys”. These days the ophicleide is almost extinct and its line is usually played by a tuba.
When it was first performed, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was so new and so shockingly unconventional that it immediately caused an uproar. Nobody had ever put into music something so personal, made even more explicit by the composer’s program notes.
He told a story with such vivid details that one could practically visualize all of them. It is, as the title suggests, fantastic in every way.
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