The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”

To take us into the last weekend in January, I thought it would be nice to do at least one more entry in my unplanned Friday miniseries on “The Joy of Romantic Music” (read the second installment here).  I very much enjoy the music of the Romantic composers, and have discovered some new favorites as I’ve been covering them in my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class.

I’m a real sucker for program music—music that tells a story or depicts an idea or place—and the Romantic period was full of it.  There was perhaps no greater champion—if not practitioner; Camille Saint-Saëns likely holds that title—of the form than French composer Hector Berlioz.

I’ve become mildly obsessed with Berlioz over the past few weeks—but not nearly as obsessed as he became with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson.  He wrote her letters of such passionate intensity and love-sick ennui that she thought he was insane (he was literally madly in love) and refused to see him.

Instead of taking the hint, he wrote a symphony for her, the legendary Symphonie Fantastique.  Other than the possibility of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique (the Fantastic Symphony in English) is likely the first program symphony—a symphony explicitly intended to be a work of programmatic music.

The story—the program—of the symphony is straightforward:  a “young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature,” so the program notes read, poisons himself with a heavy dose of opium “in a paroxysm of lovesick despair.”  Instead of killing the sensitive musician, however, the opium sends him into a deep sleep full of weird visions.  During his “long sleep,” his “feelings and memories find utterance in his sick brain in the form of musical imagery.”*

Those images include those of his beloved, who arrives in the pick-up to measure 72 in the first movement, “Visions. Passions.”  She is presented as an “idée fixe,” an expressive theme that is both noble and shy:

Idee Fixe - Wikipedia

That “fixed idea” appears again several times throughout the symphony to represent the artist’s beloved.  

Berlioz’s artist—a clear stand-in for the lovesick Berlioz himself—dreams he is at a ball and a shepherd’s idyll in the second and third movement, respectively.  But the two standout movements are the fourth and fifth:  “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

In the fourth movement, the artist dreams he has killed his beloved, and faces execution.  Her idée fixe reappears briefly before a loud chord depicts the crashing down of the guillotine’s blade.  Listen carefully for two quick pizzicatos on the strings—the artist’s head bouncing down from the gallows:

The fifth movement is great for a Halloween concert program:  it depicts a macabre witches sabbath in which Berlioz turns the sacred chant Dies Irae into a frivolous dance piece.  The beloved returns, greeted with howls of glee from the assembled ghouls, ghosts, goblins, witches, and demons, only now she is a witch, mocking the artist.  Her once noble and elegant idée fixe becomes its own trite, shrill dance—a useless trifle.

The work is highly imaginative, and was quite controversial in its time.  Upon returning from a nearly two-year stint in Rome, the Symphonie was performed as part of a homecoming concert of Berlioz’s work—with Smithson in attendance.  She realized the symphony was about her, and she finally met Berlioz.

The two married, but lest you think it was happily-ever-after, the marriage did not last, and ended in separation.  Berlioz was not entirely appreciated in his own time, as was so often the case with Romantic composers, but he enjoyed a successful career as a musical critic and an internationally-acclaimed conductor.

As someone who has written his share of songs about unrequited, failed, haunting, hypothetical love, I advise against it as a long-term dating strategy.  It hasn’t worked for me (though it’s never backfired, either—girls seem to love it when they find out you wrote a song about them), and it didn’t really work out well for Berlioz (really, his marriage faltered because Smithson grew jealous of his success, and because, being a French Romantic, he naturally started an affair with another woman).

But it did produce one of the most original and enjoyable pieces of work in the canon of Romantic music.  For that, I thank Harriet Smithson for snubbing Hector Berlioz for so long that he took opium and wrote this amazing piece of music.

*All quotations, including the English titles of the movements, come from the Dover Miniature Score edition, first published in 1997; my edition was published in 2015.  An editor/translator is not given in the text.

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2 thoughts on “The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”

  1. Laughing out loud – at myself! I’m such a pleb, Port! I think the story about him is more interesting than the music he wrote!

    I know – I’m hopeless. Just shoot me. (wink)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hector Berlioz’s life is fascinating! It deepens my appreciation for his music. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Sometimes it’s just fun to know about the composers themselves. You’re spared from the cultural firing squad for another day!


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