Berlioz (1803-1869) - Symphonie Fantastique
“The predominant qualities of my music are passionate expression,
inner fire, rhythmic drive - and the unexpected.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 . . .
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”.
Reveries - Passions (Largo - Allegro agitato e appassionato assai)
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.
Un Bal (Valse: Allegro non troppo)
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.
Scene aux Champs (Adagio)
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.
Marche au Supplice (Allegretto non troppo)
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.
Songe d’une Nuit de Sabbat (Larghetto - Allegro)
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.
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,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.