Learning to Listen: Symphonie Fantastique

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
October 21, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — French composer Hector Berlioz fell in love with an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson. In order to get her attention, he wrote a symphony for her, and he called it Symphonie Fantastique.

Berlioz wrote a specific program to go along with the piece, to tell the story with words and music.

You hear this piece a lot during the Halloween season because the story Berlioz wrote to accompany the piece is creepy. It's about a young man, an artist, in love with a woman. The man is obsessed with her and increasingly loses his mind, and finally, he poisons himself but things just get weirder.

When a composer writes a story to go with music, it's called program music. The text the composer writes to tell the story is the program.

Throughout the symphony, Berlioz uses a melody to symbolize a woman. The woman is called "the beloved" and the melody is called the "idée fixe".

That melody comes back again and again over the course of the five parts of the symphony.

Berlioz starts telling the story of this young man who falls deeply in love with a woman.

"You can become a nervous wreck playing this symphony; but then, that's what it is: a portrait of a nervous wreck."
- Leonard Bernstein

Berlioz says the following about the first movement:

"The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of 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. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist's mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognizes a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

"This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations — all this forms the subject of the first movement."

In the second movement, Berlioz writes a decorative and grand waltz. The setting is a grand ball, and everyone is whirling across the dance floor.

This movement features two harps, which is quite unusual. You'll hear them right away in the beginning. Also, the idée fixe comes back — the melody that symbolizes the beloved. But it's written like a waltz now. You'll hear this about two minutes into the movement.

In the third movement of the symphony, Berlioz writes in his program that the young man decides to get some fresh air so he goes outside. He hears alphorns. Berlioz uses an English horn and an oboe playing offstage to symbolize the alphorns. You hear that sound immediately. The special melody, the idée fixe, comes back toward the end of the movement — you'll hear it in the oboe and flute.

And now we're getting to the creepy part. At this point in the story the young man is distraught; he's convinced the woman will never love him back. So he drinks opium, but instead of killing himself, he passes out and heads into an insane dream. In his dream, he's about to be executed for killing the woman with whom he's in love, so he's being marched to the scaffold for his crime.

As Berlioz says:

"Convinced that his love is spurned, 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. 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."

Right away, you'll hear the drums accompanying the man on the march. The brass play a march, too.

And then, the melody symbolizing the woman — the idée fixe — returns, but it's interrupted as the man is beheaded; his head bounces down the stairs (represented by two pizzicato chords in the strings). Then the crowd cheers to end the movement.

The fifth and final movement is called "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath". The music describes the funeral of the young man: There are witches dancing around, they're cackling which you'll hear right away in the beginning, there are bubbling cauldrons...

And the beloved makes an appearance, but she's a witch now too, and her melody is distorted.

Later in the movement, Berlioz borrows a medieval hymn from the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead; the melody is called the Dies Irae, which translates to Day of Wrath.

Leonard Berstein said, "You can become a nervous wreck playing this symphony; but then, that's what it is: a portrait of a nervous wreck."

Watch a performance of Symphonie Fantastique, performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra:

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