Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

Posted on April 22, 2013


Berlioz composed this piece in 1830, and it was premiered in the 5th of December the same year in the Paris Conservatoire, with great success, the audience requesting the fourth movement to be repeated. It was a grand scale concert of a musical piece written for an orchestra of over 90 musicians. In his attempt to combine music with storytelling, Berlioz, for the first time in the history of music, printed and distributed about 1000-1500 copies of programme notes. In these notes he literally outlined the love story of a young artist with a vivid imagination, fallen in the dilemma between love and jealousy. This was a brave act, as the genre of symphony was considered being an abstract form of art by audiences and critics of his era. Later he revised his notes, and at around 1850 he suggested that the Symphony would also stand as an abstract piece of music even without the written notes.

First I listened to the symphony without reading the programme notes. As a whole, it struck me as music with great lyricism and tremendous dramatic impact. Even without the programme notes, it gave me the impression of being built upon an internal narrative, as it goes through stages similar to a theatrical play, i.e. exposition, introduction of a central theme, a plot with rising action, descending to a catastrophic resolution and dissolution. There is a haunting musical (love) theme introduced in the fifth minute of the first movement, which returns in each of the five movements in different forms, thus bringing a sense of unity throughout the symphony. It gives the impression that something happens with the central character, which undergoes a radical transformation.  It evoked a great variety of moods and mental images:

-relaxation, daydreaming in the first movement,

– a joyous, happy, festive atmosphere in the second; dynamic, elegant, graceful music

– a serene, transcendent, meditative mood in the third movement, disturbed by dark shadows towards the end, suggestive to deep  psychological struggle

– the fourth movement has the style of a military / revolutionary march dominated by brass instruments leading the full range of the orchestra, increasing in intensity towards a cathartic maximum at the end, which sounds like the dramatic turning point of the composition.

– the fifth movement brings about associations with the diabolic mythology of the Middle Ages, populated with witches, goblins, gnomes, skeletons, and other grotesque supernatural creatures. They seem to ridicule all the beautiful and sacred, the dreams, hopes and tragic dramatism encountered in the previous movements. The central theme returns in a greatly distorted form, played by a high pitch clarinet in a squeaky tone colour, losing all its elegance and subtlety, played along with a demonic caricature of the Catholic sacred song Des Irae.

Programme notes available on:


How did the programme notes influence my perception of the music? In a sense, it provided greater clarity, a sense of structure, reassurance about the composer’s intentions, supporting imagination and my ability to empathise with the hero of the plot. For example, in the third movement (Scene in the Fields), I could see more clearly the internal process of the young artist lost in her thoughts in the middle of nature, dreaming about love, but also contemplating the possibility of losing it, having to face loneliness. This is very poetically represented in the musical conversation between the oboe and cor anglais, which appears as fully reciprocal at the beginning, embedded in sweet string melodies creating a milieu of serenity. However, as the movement proceeds, this peaceful scene is increasingly disturbed by moments of turmoil represented by tempestuous music involving the low strings and percussion. One can feel a sense of doubt, rumination, paranoia, ending with fragments of the central theme played solely by the oboe, without getting an answer from the cor anglais. This internal turmoil prepares the ground for a more externally projected fourth movement, which is a delirious dream about the hero’s execution. In his imagination he finds himself in the middle of a crowd gathered to do justice over the tragic act he committed i.e. the (imagined) murder of his beloved woman. A military march band (represented by the brass section) approaches, amidst the repeated recurrence of the central theme played with great intensity, making us associate to feelings of guilt, self- and external judgement. This leads to a definitive and almost gloriously cathartic ending with the execution by guillotine of the hero. The music in this scene, together with the notes, provide a concrete, almost movie-like hyper-realistic picture of the execution, it makes us visualise how the hero’s head is pushed down and slashed by the blade of the guillotine. But just before the fatal moment the love theme makes a poetic return, as a last thought of the hero. The fifth movement is a grotesque caricature of life and death, involving grand scale diabolic forces, leading to a dissolution of all the hopes and ideals nurtured so far.

The Symphonie Fantastique unifies, as a single outstanding masterpiece, all that we call romantic. It Is a synthesis between literature and music, depicting the dramatic internal turmoil and grandiose fantasies of a hero impregnated with love and jealousy. The external milieu of his internal process is provided by charming natural scenery and large scale gathering of crowds resembling the attack of the Bastille. His death is surrounded by all the demonic forces that could be found in medieval stories. The programme notes provided by Berlioz make everything very explicit and easy to follow. However, looking at his biography would make us understand even more. By the time he composed the Symphonie, Berlioz was obsessively in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had seen in a play of Shakespeare, and who represented the ideal creature for the composer. His love, however, was not reciprocated by the actress. Also, there was period in the composer’s life when went through a crisis similar to his hero (although after composing the Symphonie) – he was in Rome in 1831 when he found out that his fiancé, Marie Moke living in France broke their engagement. Berlioz seriously contemplated killing her, her mother and her new rich fiancé. Apparently he even made preparations and worked out an elaborate plan to do so, before finally giving up on this plan considering it foolish. According to all the contemporary descriptions, Berlioz himself was a person fulfilling all the necessary characteristics of a romantic hero – self driven and self-taught, confident, idealist, uncompromising and temperamental. He was successful creating some of the best music of the nineteenth century.

Posted in: Part 3