Gwilym Thorp on Berlioz

by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Symphonie fantastique, op.14 (1830)

  1. Rêveries – Passions
  2. Un bal
  3. Scène aux champs
  4. Marche au supplice
  5. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat

Hector Berlioz composed Symphonie fantastique in 1830. In the year 1827, the composer was an audience member at a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was there that Berlioz first met the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whose character and performance on stage instantly captivated his heart. Berlioz sent many love letters to Smithson, but not one of them was met with a reply. Berlioz continued to send letters to Smithson for two years, but she eventually left Paris without replying to a single one of them. Berlioz, who was brokenhearted, decided to channel his unrequited love and embarked on a colossal project: a five-movement fantastical symphony that concludes with a hideous witch’s bacchanale.

Berlioz provided his own programme notes for each movement (reproduced after this essay). The main topic is one of languish: the tormented artist turns to opium in an effort to ease his emotional pain due to being plagued by dreams of the ideal woman who eludes his grasp. Across all five movements, the “fixed idea” (idée fixe) represents the beloved, and its fusion of yearning and destruction which binds the symphony in a journey through fascination, obsession, and ultimately chaos. 

The first movement introduces the protagonist, a young musician who is plagued by an obsession with the woman of his dreams. Every time he thinks he is close to winning her love, an unknown force pulls them apart. He cannot win her and he cannot demonstrate his worth to her. The idée fixe symbolises this exhausting pursuit of the impossible with a symmetrical rise in intensity and a deflating descent back into the orchestral depths; eventually returning to the starting key in the final bars of the movement, and a prayerful, plagal cadence.

The second movement sees our protagonist’s spirits take a joyful turn. Here we experience a grand ball. Sparkling gowns and graceful dances make themselves heard. The idée fixe is developed into a majestic dance melody that is rich in harmonic variety and intense sensuality. When it came to arranging for the staging and performance of the piece in later years, the composer experienced great difficulty with his bold choice of instrumentation, which places the twin harps in the centre of the stage (it was difficult to find talented harpists, especially tuned harpists). The autograph score of the piece included a solo cornet obbligato, possibly written for the cornet player Arban, but was not included in the full score until 1854. Nowadays, it is more common for the piece to be played without the cornet obbligato, but the best performances include it. 

The third movement gives us a chance to take a breath. A peaceful pastoral picture fills the senses as two shepherds call to each other across a windswept plain. A late-afternoon breeze rustles the grass while the English horn and an off-stage oboe sing a distanced duet. Tranquillity and peace are now the order of the hour. The interlude is composed of hope and optimism, and the English horn makes an attempt to resume the duet. There is no answer. The air becomes cold as the timpani produces a menacing roll of thunder. Something has gone amiss. 

At the beginning of the fourth movement, the listener is greeted by an apocalyptic scene. Our protagonist, convinced of his eternal solitude, overdoses on opium and enters a deep but disturbed sleep. His senses are overtaken by vivid nightmares in which he imagines that he has murdered his beloved and is being condemned to the scaffold. The dismal procession is accompanied by grotesque brass instruments and sombre percussion, which is getting closer with each heavy footfall. Trombones’ deep death rattles, strings’ forced gaiety, and the bassoon’s ominous authority haunt the execution scene. The clarinet emerges from the ashes for a brief moment to play the idée fixe. Sadly, it’s just an apparition; when the blade falls to the ground, the assembled mob jeers contemptuously.

The final movement is formed by a witches’ sabbath. A variety of equally disgusting creatures are introduced to the scene. As they wait for a special visitor, ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and sorcerers leap about in increasing fury. The approach of the beloved, though one who is possessed by demons, is announced by the now-familiaridée fixe. What was once a great, mournful song has become a vulgar, eerie melody. The Dies Irae scene elicits its ominous toll as the orchestra portrays the monsters of the night. Woodwinds tangle themselves up in ceaseless trilling, and strings turn their bows upside down and act as percussion. The composition finishes at a frenzied rate as we lose sight of our protagonist in the chaos as a driving syncopation from the bass drum propels the movement into its culmination.

Gwilym Thorp, Fourths