Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis

Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.

Honorable mention in the “Symphonic but not a symphony” category is this incredible work. We reached the end of our symphonic poem series, and early on, I’d thought about including this piece, but it’s much more symphony than poem.

It is a symphony…. sort of. Wikipedia (whence comes the above Bernstein quote) describes it as a “program symphony.” Whatever you want to call it, it is a masterful work, and one I came to strangely late in my familiarity with classical music.

This report I think quotes this book. The former makes a few points. While Berlioz was getting his big breaks in Paris (a very important place to be) as a 27-year-old-composer, he was no Beethoven, so the premiere (in 1830) went a bit unnoticed, or at least didn’t have the hubbub that a Beethoven premiere would have had, and the piece wasn’t performed again for two more years. Kelly says something in his book about it being shocking music even today for people who have heard much more shocking music than nearly 200 years ago when it was first performed.

To compare, the same year gave the world Chopin’s first piano concerto and Schumann’s ABBEG variations. Yes, they’re works for piano, and yes, one is solo. Apples and oranges. But still. It seems interesting that they come from the same year, because one of those bores me to tears, and Berlioz’s work is fantastically extravagant and colorful.

It was also a work I came to way late in my listening career. I’d worked through obscure Russian composers and fallen in love with Milton Babbitt’s works before I’d given this nearly-200-year-old work a first listen. And it was only because there was a concert coming up (with Jacques Lacombe on the podium), and despite being marred by an incredibly rude family with lots of children (many of whom thankfully left before the Berlioz piece) it has to have been one of the NSO’s greatest concerts. And I fell in love with the work. Effortlessly. So clear why it’s a favorite among listeners.

We begin with the first movement. It’s in five movements.

  1. Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions)
  2. Un bal (A Ball)
  3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
  4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
  5. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

We begin with the first. Of its structure, Wikipedia says:

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.

Unconventional indeed. And this is a program symphony, so it might be unsurprising to know that Berlioz provided his own program notes for the work, which begin:

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer[1]has called the wave[4] 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.

Say no more. There’s a certain delicacy, a romance, but also a frenzied energy in this opening movement. Schumann described Berlioz’s melodies as “so intense in every note as to defy normal harmonization.”

I feel that getting into any pedantic discussion of structure or technical stuff obscures the incredible power of this piece, even for first time listeners, because it’s so outstandingly moving and easy to understand.

For the second movement, a ball, our artist is “in the tumult of a festive party,” perhaps drunk with more than just love… In any case, it’s a sweeping, intoxicating, lyrical short movement, one you can’t help but be overcome by. It’s stunning.

The composer’s program notes for the third, longer, slow movement describes “two shepherds in the distance… a pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind.” Has an English horn ever not been angelically gorgeous? And an offstage oboe to boot. Our theme from the first movement appears again, but the movement is generally spacious and calm, if not a bit melancholy.

Things get serious in the fourth movement:

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.

Wait, what? This is still 1830, right?

Yes, it is. And what an incredible movement the march is. It’s a fantastic, wild, even frightening short movement, but in light of the above description, how could it not be?! There are moments here and there with real blaring horns that sound almost celebratory, but the movement is, as would be expected, busy, frenetic, and heavy. Listen for the final fall of the guillotine, and the head bouncing down the steps, represented by pizzicato strings. How vivid this all is!

Just go read the program notes for yourself, but the final movement is the heaviest. Our idée fixe reappears even in this movement, but is generally drowned out by the spine-chilling Dies Irae theme in low brass, “in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades,” among “monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.” Bells toll, and everything.

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…

I mean, seriously. This is a hell of a story, and the music that it supports is nothing less than stunning. The final movement has everything from crazy Eb clarinet to thundering percussion and the epitome of a death theme, the Dies Irae, all to finish off the ‘screaming at your own funeral’ as a result of an infatuation with a woman. How much more Romantic (in every sense of the word) can you get?

The music is intense, driven, passionate, expressive, it’s everything. The entire work seems effortless, perfect, as if it came together in one long, swift complete train of thought. And perhaps it did, considering Berlioz’s potential ‘inspiration.’

In any case, this work got bumped way up the list because it is just fantastic, and it deserves to be mentioned along with these others. Almost 200 years later, it’s a work that’s still as fascinating and moving and shocking and satisfying as it was the day it was performed, but maybe audiences today are keener to give it the attention it deserves than that first Parisian crowd.

In any case, that is officially the end of our Symphonic Poem Series, which means we are moving on to some other things that have been in the wings for some time. I am at once excited and intimidated. Be kind, and stay tuned!

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