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.

Recommended Recordings

Beethoven and the Power of Four Notes

Unknown-20“Long…short, short, short…” This is the spirited little cell that quietly opens  Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. The entire piece grows from this almost sneaky opening in a way not unlike the famous, ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

As you listen to the first movement, notice all the ways these four notes return. Sometimes they’re hidden or played in quiet pizzicato. At other times you’ll hear the motive in the entire orchestra as a noble proclamation. This motive is tossed and turned throughout the  development section (beginning at 7:06). Then, listen to the way we get back home to the recap, again with these four simple notes (9:27). Along the way, we hear elements that would have shocked the first audiences, like the sudden, far out key change to E-flat major for the second theme (1:18).

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 was written between 1796 and 1797 and dedicated to the Countess of Bratislava. Beethoven gave the first performance on a piano tuned a half step too low (He transposed the entire concerto to C-sharp on sight)!

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin and the London Symphony with Sir Colin Davis:

  1. Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Largo 14:32
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando 25:09

Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]

To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?

In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.

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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]

-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770 

Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.

Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]

Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:

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