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Symphonie Fantastique

The Symphony Fantastique is an orchestral piece of music written by Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is widely regarded as one of the most important and representative pieces of the early romantic period.

Outline of the Work

The symphony is a piece of program music which tells the story of "an artist gifted with a lively imagination" who has "poisoned himself with opium" in the "depths of despair" because of "hopeless love." A symphony in five movements (though they normally had four) on unrequited love with a subtext on the horrors of opium-obfuscated neuroses, the movements are as follows:

  1. Dreams - Passions
  2. A Ball
  3. A Scene in the Meadows
  4. March to the Scaffold
  5. The Witches Sabbath

The first movement opens with a lilting first introductory passage, which lightly lands and takes off into the main statement. The melody presented - the which becomes the recurring melody which represents the protagonist's beloved, through out the work. In real life she was the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who was well known for her roles in Shakespeare plays, then undergoing a massive surge of interest in Europe. Berlioz saw her perform and was stickent with love. At the time of writing the symphony, he undulated between hoping to have her, and being angry that she would not meet him. As a result of the work, she would later meet, and marry, the composer. The exact form of the melody is altered according to the circumstances, in the first movement, it is drawn out and idyllic, representing the "vague passions" of a young man in love who cannot stray far in thought from the object of his attention.

The movement is radical in its harmonic outline, building a vast arch back to the home key, which, while similar to the Sonata Form of classical composition, was taken as a departure by Parisian critics. Through out the movement, there is a simplicity of presentation of the melody and themes, which Schumann compared to "Beethoven's epigrams", ideas which could be extended, had the composer chosen to. In part, it is because Berlioz rejected writing the very symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies which were, "so intense in every note, as to defy normal harmonization", as Schumann put it.

The second movement, takes a rather plain waltz theme, again, similar to the idee fixe at first, and then transforming to it in a single startling moment. It is filled with figures that run up and down. While one critic called it "vulgar", the intent was to portray a single lonely soul amidst gaiety, as Berlioz wrote while writing it.

The third movement opens with the english horn and oboe tossing back and forth a characteristic melody meant to evoke the horns in the mountains. This intent, to evoke a spirit of the country side inhabitted by, not mere rustics, but people who were one with their place is part of Romanticism and can be traced back to the ideas of such writers as Goethe. The movement swells to a peak, falls away, and then wanders, without genuine resolution.

The fourth movment, which Berlioz claimed to have written in a single night, is "The March to the Scaffold", filled with blaring horns and rushing passages, it uses a grotesque version of the "idée fixe", and scurrying figures which would later show up again in the last movement. The scene ends with a loud blast that represents the dropping of the trap door, or perhaps the guillotine blade.

The last movement, the most famous, and often played as a tone poem to itself, is "Dream of a Witches Sabbath", which has a brooding openning, the sound of spirits marching through the grave yard, the call of church bells, and a fugue meant to represent, as Berlioz privately admitted, a giant orgy, mixing the idée fixe with a famous plainchant Dies Irae. There are a host of effects, from the bubbling of the witches cauldron to the blasts of wind.

Importance of the Work

Berlioz wrote in his essay "On Imitation in Music"

The aim of the second kind of imitation, as we have said before, is to reprdouce the intonations of the passions and the emotions, and even to trace a musical image, or metaphor, of bjects that can only be seen.

He later adds:

emotional (imitation) is designed to arouse in us by means of sound the notion of the several passions of the heart, and to awaken solely through the sesne of hearing the impressions that human beings experience only through the other senses. Such is the goal of expression, depiction or musical metaphors.

As part of this he uses an example of cyclical structure in music, which was an idea drawn from
Beethoven's use of similar rhythmic structures or shapes, and the idea of musical "cycles", such as a "song cycle". Berlioz did not know of Mendelssohn's Octet, which uses this device as well.

Berlioz called this repeating melody an idée fixe (fixed idea). Carl Maria von Weber had previously used similar recurring fragments to represent characers or objects in his operas, though the Symphonie Fantastique is a dramatic example that opens the way for many others in the symphonic genre. Later examples would be composed by Robert Schumann and Cesar Franck. The idea of melodies representing specific characters would be part of Richard Wagner's elaborate system of leitmotifs.

Also important is Berlioz' aggressive use of instruments, which even his enemies admited was genius, both in terms of the size and scope, but also with the specificity of instructions - when to use mallets of different heads for drums, when to place and remove mutes, all notated on the score. This too would become an aspect of the work which would receive careful study, all the way into the 20th Century.

Leonard Bernstein called this symphony the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium.

In 1831, Berlioz wrote a much less well known sequel to the work, Lelio, for narrator and orchestra.