Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “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.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.

Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).

Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.

Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

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Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 2

Monday’s post featured the first movement of Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. This music, which helped plant the seeds of Romanticism, introduced shocking new sounds and an expansive, heroic form. Let’s continue and listen to the other three movements:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Marcia funebre. Adagio assai[/typography]

Beethoven’s second movement is a solemn funeral march. Paying attention to the rhythm, consider what aspects of the music suggest a dirge. Why do you think Beethoven chose to put this type of movement in the middle of the “Eroica”? Does the atmosphere remain the same throughout the movement or does the character of the music develop into something new? Can you hear the sounds of the funeral procession fading into the distance at the end?

From the opening of the movement you probably heard the basses creating the rhythmic foundation of the funeral march. Beethoven creates a ponderous, weighty feeling by marking the downbeats with the lowest instrument in the orchestra.

At 5:11 the music tip toes almost hesitantly into a new theme in C major from C minor. It quickly crescendos to a sudden heroic statement or proclamation in G major (5:40). Isn’t it amazing how this heroic music can emerge so quickly from the depths of despair and then evaporate (7:32)?

But Beethoven soon has a new surprise in store for us, perhaps the most significant so far. At 8:16, the second violins suddenly launch into the subject of a fugue. A fugue is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.” Like the development section of the“Eroica’s” first movement, the music gets increasingly worked up, almost seeming to transcend everything we’ve heard up to this point (10:04). As you were listening the first time through, you may have been shocked by what happens next. At 10:42 we think we are returning to the quiet, predictable opening…but listen to what happens…

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is music which changed the course of music history from Brahms and Wagner through Mahler and beyond. This collection of pitches still speaks to us today as powerfully as it did in 1804. In fact, we often turn to great music like the “Eroica” when we need to try to make sense of tragedy. The Boston Symphony played this movement when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced to concert goers at Symphony Hall in 1963.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Scherzo and Finale[/typography]

The word “Scherzo” translates as “joke.” What comes to mind as you listen to the opening of the Scherzo? Maybe it’s breathless anticipation? Do you feel like the lid is about to blow off and the music is set to explode, no longer able to contain its excitement?

The final movement begins at 6:16. Are you surprised by the music which follows the dramatic opening of the movement? It’s only a harmony line without melody…a seemingly insignificant fragment of music. But this is the seed from which the last movement blossoms. What follows is a set of variations which cover exciting and far reaching musical territory. Notice how many different ways this theme can be developed and the contrasting emotions which result. What is each variation saying?

Beethoven’s music conjures up a complex sea of emotions. We often overlook humor in Beethoven, but listen carefully to the passage starting around 15:30. We know that the end of the piece is just around the corner, but listen to the way Beethoven plays with our expectations. I’m not sure if the music beginning at 16:28 is funny or frightening or maybe a mixture of both. How does this music set up the coda? What emotions do you feel as you listen to the end of the piece?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Interesting Links[/typography]

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, you may want to go deeper with some analysis by Leonard Bernstein. Here  is Michael Tilson Thomas introducing the piece and then giving a performance with the London Symphony. Also, check out this episode of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score this link from NPR.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The “Eroica” Through Time[/typography]

Over time, interpretations have changed. This fun clip documents the opening chords of the first movement from the earliest recordings up to the present. You’ll hear a variety of tempos as well as tunings. Remarkably it seems fairly easy to guess the style of each performance, based on the opening chords (quite a time saver).

If you want to choose one contrasting performance, I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s performance with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This performance attempts to recreate the instruments of Beethoven’s time. You’ll notice that the tempos are significantly faster and the tuning is lower. Also notice the limited use of vibrato in the strings and the valveless trumpets and horns. Brass instruments at that time could play a limited set of pitches controlled by the lip:

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Keep listening to this powerful, revolutionary music. You’ll continue to hear new, exciting things. Share your thoughts in the thread below. If you have a favorite recording of the piece, let us know about it.