The Story Of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
Why is it human nature to want what we can’t have? In 1827, the 23-year-old Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris; Harriet Smithson, a charismatic Irish actress, was playing Ophelia. Berlioz was smitten and wrote her an impassioned letter – Smithson 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 composer had to find an outlet for his obsessive love – naturally, that was music. He formed the idea of a “fantastic symphony” portraying an episode in the life of an artist who is constantly haunted by the vision of the perfect, unattainable woman.
Central to the work is the "idée fixe" (“fixed idea”), a recurring theme of rising longing and falling despair – a depiction of gripping obsession and the epitome of Romanticism.
Symphonie Fantastique is cast in five movements: the first a dream, the second a ball where the artist is haunted by the sight of his beloved. After a country scene, the fourth movement slips into nightmare: “Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium,” explained Berlioz.
“The dose of narcotic plunges him into a heavy sleep. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution.”
Now everything descends into the thrillingly horrific Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath, which weaves in the medieval Dies Irae plainchant. The artist’s perfect beloved transforms into a whore and is cast into Hell (symbolically, perhaps, for Smithson was rumoured to be having an affair with her manager at the time).
Symphonie Fantastique was premiered in 1830 but Smithson did not hear the work until 1832, when she realised she might be the inspiration for it. Intrigued, she agreed to meet the composer and was blown away by the force of his emotion.
Despite neither speaking the other’s language, Harriet and Hector married on October 3, 1833. Happy ever after? Sadly, no – the obsession faded and they divorced seven years later.
So did Berlioz actually take opium or was Symphonie Fantastique the result of a fevered imagination? If he did, it’s a cautionary tale – as 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.”
Did you know?
A master orchestrator, Berlioz wrote a part in his Symphonie Fantastique for the bass ophicleide, 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.
Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique Essay
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Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
Hector Berlioz wrote the Symphonie fantastique at the age of 27. He based the program on his own impassioned life and transferred his memoirs into his best- known program symphony. The story is about a love sick, depressed young artist, while in his despair poisons himself with opium. His beloved is represented throughout the symphony by the symbolic idee fixe. There are five movements throughout symphony. The program begins with the 1st movement: Reveries, Passions symbolizing the artist's life prior to meeting his beloved. This is represented as a mundaness and indefinable searching or yearning, until suddenly, he meets her and his longing abruptly ceases and is replaced by volcanic love. The…show more content…
The frightful sounds of groans, shrieks, and shrill laughter echo in his ears. Then, suddenly again the Idee fixe appears. It is his beloved. But the familiar Idee fixe is no longer the reserved and noble melody of the prior movements. The Idee fixe has now taken on new form and has become vulgar and grotesque. She has come to this diabolical orgy. The witches greet her with howling joy and she joins them in the demonic dance; Bells toll for the Dead. Listening Guide 25 is the 4th movement, March To the Scaffold: The diabolical march is in minor and the Idee fixe is heard in the last part of this movement. The clarinet is the instrument that represents the Idee fixe and at the very end it is cut off by a grievous fortissimo chord and then ends in a hadean quintessence. Structure The medium is a large orchestra, (flute, piccolo, 2 clarinets, 4 french horns, 4 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 ophideiodes, 2 timpani, bass drum, bells, strings). The form is loose tenary (A-B-A). The movement is in 6 sections. It begins with the introduction of ominous drumbeats and muted brass. The introduction ends with an exploding crescendo of a base drum which immediately introduces the 2nd section of theme A of low strings in a slow cautious tempo, and is picked up by violins. Theme B brass and woodwinds enter and picks up the tempo of diabolical march tune. The opening section is then repeated. The 3rd or mid section is the development section. The tenary