Sakura Salon 6/1/14 – Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique

All this fuss is about Harriet Smithson! A nineteenth century Shakespearean actress whom Hector Berlioz fell madly in love with and obsessed over – and composed a symphony about!

The symphony from 1830 that we’re going to hear today has the long title:

Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un Artiste…en cinq parties

(Fantastic Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts))

Symphonie Fantastique a program symphony, i.e., it has a story that goes with it, describing the music of each of the five movements. The artist, the protagonist of this drama envisions the ideal woman and falls madly in love with her. By the third movement, in an opium-induced hallucination, he imagines her cheating on him. In the fourth, he imagines he has killed her and is being executed by guillotine.. And in the fifth, he imagines himself in hell, witness to a witches’ Sabbath, a black mass, his beloved’s pretense of innocence gone as she joins “the diabolical orgy.”

Harriet and Hector

In 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet and first laid eyes on Harriet Smithson. And fell in love, deep French love, gotta kill myself over her love, gotta gotta gotta have her now dammit love. “Let me take you to the Casbah.” Books have been written tracking his obsession with her.
Correspondence September 11, 1827:

I was at the first night of Hamlet. In the role of Ophelia, I saw Harriet Smithson… The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay, her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted. I lost the power of sleep and with it all my former animation, all taste for my favorite studies, all ability to work. I wandered aimlessly about the Paris streets and the neighboring plains.”

Rather than just getting over it, by 1829, his heart became “a furnace of raging fire:”
“It’s a virgin forest that lightning has set ablaze. At times, the fire appears to abate, then a gust of wind, a fresh flaring up, the cry of trees engulfed in the flames, reveal its terrible power of devastation.”

By February 1830, his heart was the “pounding piston of a steam engine:”

“She is still in London, and yet I feel her about me, all my memories awake and combined to rend me. I listen to the beating of my heart, its pulsations shake me like the pounding pistons of a steam engine. Each muscle in my body quivers with pain… Futile! … Horrible! … I was on the point of beginning my big symphony [Symphonie Fantastique] in which the course of my infernal passion is to be depicted; I have the whole thing in my head, but I can write nothing… We must wait.”

All this over a women he hadn’t even met, socially. He finally would meet her, the following year, after somebody politely pointed out to Harriet Smithson that there was this composer guy named Hector who was COMPOSING WHOLE LONG SYMPHONIES ABOUT HOW MUCH HE WAS IN LOVE WITH HER.

And they got married! And they both lived happily ever after, or really, happily for about four years.

The Story

Program Notes to Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz’s own notes)

Hector Berlioz

The composer’s intention has been to develop, insofar as they contain musical
possibilities, various situations in the life of an artist. The outline of the instrumental
drama, which lacks the help of words, needs to be explained in advance. The
following program should thus be considered as the spoken text of an opera, serving
to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it motivates.


Part One
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 pursues him incessantly like a double
idee` 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 movements of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its
religious consolations—this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two
The artist find 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

Part Three
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

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 sound 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
idee` fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five
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 belove 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, sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae