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Berlioz (1803-1869) - Symphonie Fantastique

The predominant qualities of my music are passionate expression, inner fire, rhythmic drive -  and the unexpected.” 

[Hector Berlioz]

Why do some things become “classics”, whilst others are dismissed as merely “dated”? The answer probably lies in the subject: if this has no relevance to succeeding generations, your  putative masterpiece is destined for history’s dustbin. On this basis alone, there is probably no musical work of more enduring relevance than the Symphonie Fantastique - doesn’t its graphic  but inexplicit portrayal of nightmarish descent into madness and oblivion remain the supreme  warning against the dangers of drug abuse? 

In musical history, Berlioz sticks out like a sore thumb. He possessed, to an alarming degree, an  extraordinary theoretical and practical musical talent, although the real secret of his success was  his extreme sensitivity to stimuli, both literary and pictorial, and an uncanny knack of translating  images into music. Berlioz was both the fuse that sparked the Romantic and the powder-keg  whose explosive genius reverberated deafeningly through - and beyond - that entire period. 

As in all the best success stories, his beginnings were hardly auspicious. This son of a provincial  doctor was expected to follow in Papa’s footsteps, duly arriving in 1821 at the Paris medical  school. Within a year, though, he was instead taking music lessons and had begun composing. In  1827, he went to see Hamlet, and was smitten by a “thunderstroke” -  both the power of  Shakespeare’s drama and the beauty of the actress, Harriet Smithson. 

Berlioz, then still unknown, went into “peacock” mode, working overtime to become famous and  thereby get noticed by the object of his affections. Achieving the former but not the latter  brought abject depression, but in true artistic fashion Berlioz capitalised on it, transcribing his  amatory misadventure into a vivid poetic vision, from whence came the import and structure of  the Symphonie Fantastique. Ironically, he eventually did meet and marry the lady - of course, it  all ended in tears, but that’s another story. 

He continually revised this “programme”, mainly by moving the taking of the narcotic dose from  after the Scene aux Champs to the very beginning, to reinforce the unity of his dramatic and  symphonic scenarios. Relaxing his imposition that “This programme should be distributed to the  audience . . . as it is indispensable for a complete understanding  . . .” to apply only when the  Symphonie is performed in tandem with Lelio indicates his growing confidence in the music as a  purely symphonic structure. 

But, what of the music itself? The five-movement layout he cribbed from Beethoven, but absolutely everything else is mind-bogglingly original. His wholesale application of an idée fixe, a melody developed musically and dramatically throughout the symphony, had far-reaching  consequences. Even the melody’s shape was an astonishing departure: following the relatively  conventional slow introduction the idée fixe, bristling with hairpins and sharp elbows, oozing  more emotional implications than a psychiatry textbook, at once conveys the comeliness and  caprice of the beheld and the ardour provoked in the beholder. 

Berlioz’s epoch-making orchestration was far more toe-curling in its day than even Stravinsky’s.  There are new sonorities, like the ophicleides (nowadays usually tubas - whose amiable rotundity lacks the originally-intended “rasp”) or harps (Berlioz required a pair on  each side), or indeed the cornet (second movement, a deliciously characterful part often and inexplicably omitted from many modern performances). More radically, there are new combinations  and attack-effects, like the strained emaciation of isolated high woodwind and strings in Scene aux Champs, or the plethora of lurid “special FX” (especially the woodwind “droops”, although many performers don’t even attempt these!) in the last  two movements. Especially, there’s the ground-breaking use of percussion, given a proper  “speaking part” for the very first time. 

But for me, the most devastating aspect is the unrivalled strategic engineering. “Generale”  Berlioz marshals his forces with greater skill than any Napoleon, creating an inexorable,  unnerving, cumulative impact that can still “blow away” audiences. How many of today’s  analogous “blockbuster movies” will manage that 170 years hence? 

Hopefully to underline that “enduring relevance” I’ve risked slightly “modernising” Berlioz’s  programme, and (putting my neck on the fourth movement’s block!) I’ve “corrected” an apparent  mismatch between music and storyline. 

The Argument

A manic-depressive rock musician gets the hots for this girl, but she just doesn’t want to know.  Feeling really low, he tries to o/d on some iffy stuff he got at a gig. But he messes up, passes out,  and takes a bad trip. Wild dreams burn his brain. Everything becomes music. The girl becomes a  tune that he can’t shake off. Everywhere he turns, she’s there . . . 

That’s a modern street-speak approximation to Berlioz’s original: “A young musician of morbid sensitivity . . . poisons himself with opium in . . . despair caused by frustrated love. The dose. . . while too weak to [kill him], plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions . . . His . . . feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical . . . images. His beloved becomes . . . a melody . . . which he meets and hears everywhere”. 

1. Reveries - Passions (Largo - Allegro agitato e appassionato assai)

At first, it’s OK. He hears the music of his moods - the lows and the highs he always had;  then the mind-blowing buzz of first seeing her, his desperation, his jealous rages, and a  strange yearning. Exhausted, the dream peters out in a mystical haze. 

2. Un Bal (Valse: Allegro non troppo)

He’s creeping through gloomy, swirling mists, up to a brilliantly-lit window. Gazing in at  the posh people having a ball, he makes out the girl weaving amongst the swaying crowds.  She approaches the window. She can’t see him, but he could almost reach out and touch  her. He stumbles away, taunted by the sounds of revelry. 

3. Scene aux Champs (Adagio)

Two shepherds, separated by a vast valley, pipe mournful messages through the pastoral  gloaming. Sitting on warm grass, he drowsily deliberates on how they mirror his own  loneliness. “Except, she doesn’t return my calls”. Far off through the trees he sees a couple strolling. One of them is her, and she’s with . . . A sudden surge of jealousy brings him  upright. Glowering, fists clenching, thoughts of revenge boil up. Then, wearily, he sinks to  his knees. As the sun sets, the nearer shepherd pipes again. In response, from the other side come only ominous rumbles of thunder, then - nothing

4. Marche au Supplice (Allegretto non troppo)

The insidious narcotic’s claws dig deeper. Having exacted his vengeance, he is being  trundled to the Scaffold, urged on by enthusiastically jeering crowds of former fans. As his  neck is forced onto the bloodstained block, his tortured gaze falls on the howling horde.  Horrified, he sees her standing among the mob. The blade falls. The crowd roars. 

5. Songe d’une Nuit de Sabbat (Larghetto - Allegro)

His brain fries: amid a witches’ sabbath his undead corpse stirs, jostled by croaking,  shrieking shades. Quivering with unimaginable terror, he sees the most loathesome hag  cavort into view. Vile crones shriek approval as his damned soul screams in realisation: this Abomination is her, here to celebrate his funeral. Cracked bells toll morbidly. Tiers of  demons, witches and hobgoblins parody the majestic Dies Irae, prelude to a disgusting  orgy. Then all becomes still, unquiet, expectant. Flickering shades flit by, the horde arises, and thirteen thunderstrokes announce his doom. Crooked crones haloed by fluttering bats,  and the Abomination, drag him before their master. A sulphurous pit yawns. To jubilant  howls, Hell claims another lost soul. 

From our perspective, there’s a curious irony. Certain “raves” are distinctly like pantomimic enactments of this witches’ sabbath, so maybe a modern “rock musician” would find it not so much alarming as exhilarating. But - I hesitate to say - Berlioz’s  music has the self-same effect on concert audiences, doesn’t it?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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