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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

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Genre: Classical - Classical Instrumental / Import / Audio CD released 2003-04-08 at EMI

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      18.01.2007 17:36
      Very helpful



      An Episode in the Life of an Artist


      Charles Gounod once said ”with Berlioz, all impressions, all sensations – whether joyful or sad – are expressed in extremes to the point of delirium.” If anything, this perfectly describes the feelings expressed in Berlioz’s most famous composition, the Symphonie Fantastique, or as it is appropriately titled, ”An Episode in the Life of an Artist.” Berlioz, being ever the bohemian dreamer, was not one to succumb to feelings that were not carried with the fullest of convictions and thus he was more susceptible of falling foul on the authorities that deemed what was appropriate and what was stepping too far from the accepted norms. Ever since he left his little village of La Côte Saint-André, he was struggling in Paris. He felt unable to grant the wishes of his father to become a doctor and found the allure of the arts much more enticing, though of course such ideas were not happily welcomed by his parents, particularly his mother who deemed all such “arts” to be from the devil (literally). However, young Hector kept his head anyway and enrolled to the Paris Conservatoire, an establishment that bode both good and evil for him. The evil mostly came from his refusal to bend down to the establishment’s sense of appropriateness and was more intrigued in creating highly emotional drama in music, to stand equally with the grand works of Virgil and Goethe. The good on the other hand came from his added introduction of the music of Gluck, whom he was to adore the rest of his life, and the new symphonies of Beethoven.

      Added to this was his acquaintance with the plays of Shakespeare, that made a tremendous effect on the fertile mind of the ultra-sensitive man. As it transpired, in 1828 a theater group from England made a visit in Paris and while there performed Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet. Berlioz was instantly drawn to those performances and despite he didn’t understand English, the emotions within the actors performances was enough. Along with the company came a young Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, who was not a particularly great actress, but had managed to garner quite a reputation for herself in Paris, and her performances were perhaps even more anticipated than anything else in the plays. For Berlioz, Harriet (or as he called her, Henriette) made an instant impression, so much so that he fell head over heels in love with the romantic image she embodied to him. But being the ever neurotic man that he was, it was almost an insurmountable obstacle to actually interact with her and despite trying to make ends meet with different little roundabout ways (such as staging one of his works to be performed before one of their plays), he never did get a tête-a-tête moment with her. And so it was that she left Paris without ever knowing of the name Hector Berlioz.

      It was in this pit of despair that he then conceived the idea of a symphony, a symphony nobody had ever dreamed of before. Utilizing his own experiences with hopeless love and combining it with a literary program (perhaps partly inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s book “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”), what resulted was an imaginary and extremely psychedelic trip through nightmarish dreams and passions not heard even from Beethoven. Also, Berlioz outrageously orchestrated the work with great imaginative freedom and for forces unheard of at the time, consisting of so many players that he originally had difficulties staging the first performance in December 1830, as there was not enough room in the Conservatoire to seat the 130 players he required. The fact that a young, 26-year-old composer created something this unorthodox only three years after the death of Beethoven was amazing, not to mention containing musical explorations that looked far ahead to the 20th Century. The program itself underwent numerous changes between the work’s publication in 1845 and its reissue in 1855. The most notable change was concerning the artist’s opium induced dreams which in the original version didn’t take place until the fourth movement, while in the revision the entire symphony is one long opium induced dream. The other changes were mostly concentrating on changes of phrase, while the content remained roughly the same. But what is certain, is that upon that first performance on December 5th, 1830, music would never be the same again.

      (Conducted on a movement by movement basis; quotes from Berlioz’s programme notes)
      (For those not interested, jump to the recordings section)

      I. Rêveries – Passions (Dreams – Passions):
      Largo – Allegro agitato ed appassionato assai

      The work begins with a lengthy, melancholy Largo introduction, utterly plaintive in spirit and almost disheartened in tone: “The artist first remembers the uneasiness of spirit, the undefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt before seeing his beloved.” The melody for this introduction is taken, according to Berlioz, from an early song of his called “Je vais donc quitter pour jamais” as it seemed to remind the composer of the “overwhelming grief of a young heart in the first pangs of hopeless love”. Sung by the first violins, the melody perfectly sets the scene of the artist’s deep loneliness and sadness, that is soon given more energy by a more animated subject in the wake of his hopes and aspirations for possible love, hinting at the melody of the beloved. However the more tragic tones come back one more time of utter anguish, as if in feeling this is all hopeless daydreaming. As the introduction winds to a close, a happier theme starts to hesitatingly rise from the horns, flutes and strings.

      This in turn leads to the main part of the movement as two sharp bangs introduce the beloved’s theme in C major, which is a sweetly innocent and charmingly graceful melody again performed by the strings, with the basses swishing sharp, irregular accents underneath, like the artist’s irregular heartbeats upon gazing at his object of wonder. “By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love. This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe.” The melody itself is again borrowed from an earlier composition, this time the 1828 Prix de Rome competition cantata Herminie, only here it receives more development than in it’s earlier incarnation. The idée fixe very much dominates the first movement as a sort of mood picture of the artist’s different states of mind throughout the movement, initially reaching out to exceedingly passionate outbursts of delirious joy of new-found love. As an indication of the overall classical structure of the symphony, the initial exposition part is repeated according to conventions of sonata form, though many often tend to omit this repeat due to the nature of the work, rather turning it into a long tone poem. The development section (though not really containing a second subject) again brings a bit more darker tones in the cellos and basses, while going through ”delirious passion, with its outbursts of jealousy and fury, the returns of tenderness, and its tears,” finally ending after a passionately full on climax on the idée fixe’s melody with the soothing feeling of ”religious consolations.” One can only imagine the impact this first movement alone would have generated in the conservative French listeners of 1830 upon its first performance for its stormy and volatile turns of phrase, so unlike anything heard before.

      II. Un Bal. Valse (A Ball)
      Allegro non troppo

      The second movement takes the place of the scherzo in presenting a fancy and elegant ball sequence, contrasting quite well with the preceding tumult of the first movement. The movement opens extremely evocatively with low strings quietly churning and heaving in the background, with two harps playing little glissandos, seemingly drawing you towards the doors and sounds of the ballroom, all the time getting brighter and more audible, finally culminating in the bright shine of light as the scene opens to our view. The main waltz melody is extremely graceful and almost fleetingly flowing, very much the epitome of elegance and easy-moving luxury. The two harps particularly add a great sense of festive glitter to the proceedings, something taken straight out of Gluck’s operatic practices. The program itself is very simple: “The artist finds himself in the tumult of a festive party, where he again sees his beloved.” The introduction of the idée fixe for a moment quiets the waltz as well, but it is not long before the waltz melody returns, going around and together with the idée fixe, as if she is flitting through the denizens of dancers. Particular note may also be drawn on Berlioz’s ad lib use of the solo cornet to add a bit of garishness to the party, though this part is not included in the published full score, rather it can only be found from the autograph score. Near the end of the movement, the idée fixe is allowed to be heard one last time without the waltz interfering at all. The movement ends in a whirlpool of festive gaiety as the rest of the partygoers dance to their hearts’ content in the face of the suffering artist.

      III. Scène aux Champs (Scene in the Country)

      The third movement is the longest of the symphony and caused Berlioz a lot of work. He revised it heavily during his stay in Rome in 1831 and did a lot of other tinkering to it as well before the symphony’s publication in 1845. The movement opens with the plaintive shepherd’s call on cor anglais, a very pastoral idea if there ever was one. This simple melody is then repeated by another shepherd off-stage, and thus the two continue their duet as the rest of the orchestra gradually rises from the emptiness with the movement’s main theme, again a melody borrowed from elsewhere, this being from his ambituous 1824 Messe Solennelle’s “Gratias” movement, though transcripted to the key of F major. “This pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring.” The movement bears quite an affinity to Beethoven’s similarly pastoral tinged Sixth Symphony with its depictions of country life, also being in F major and featuring similarly conceived bird song in the wind instruments, though Berlioz’s handling of the nature is much more isolated and lonely than Beethoven’s distinctly sing-along approach. In the middle of the movement a sudden change of tone takes place as agitation again enters the artist’s heart as the idée fixe makes a sudden appearance: ”She reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him…” This episode over, however, the nature themes return to try and sooth the man’s heart anew, and even the return of the idée fixe doesn’t raise such bouts of jealously anymore. The movement ends very evocatively on a slightly sad note as the opening shepherd’s melody returns: ”One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody; the other one no longer answers. The sun sets... distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…” The combination of the shepherd’s melody and the answering barrage of timpani rolls simulating thunder is incredibly effective, perfectly contrasting the warmth of the movement’s opening with the closing’s melancholy and loneliness.

      IV. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
      Allegretto ma non troppo

      The fourth movement is the divider point as we now take a step away from the previous movement’s more “reality” based scenes and enter true nightmares: “Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution.” The movement on the whole is said to have originally begun life as a March of the Guards from the unfinished opera Les Francs-juges, though no sketches are in existence. The opening is once again very evocative as the low brass and heavy timpani bring about a great sense of impending doom. This dark introduction finally leads the artist into the streets amid the jeering and shouting crowd here to witness the execution. It is here, though, I find the one little blemish in this symphony as Berlioz instructs the entire introduction to be repeated, as if the artist is suddenly taken back inside from the crowds, though again many conductors choose not to include this repeat. The main march is extremely garish and French, showing the people’s love for the public spectacle of execution: ”The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts.” As we reach the scaffold, we hear a sudden reappearance of the idée fixe melody, ”like a final thought of love” that is cut short by the blade of the guillotine (with the fun detail of two pizzicato to represent his head dropping into a basket). The movement ends with the utmost sense of jubilation with blaring brass, snare drumming and cymbal crashes.

      V. Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat (Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath)
      Larghetto – Allegro – Dies irae – Ronde du Sabbat

      Out of the entire symphony, the final movement has to be the most wildly revolutionary in both terms of tone colour and sense of imagination. Beginning with some of the most interesting sound design ever heard in music before, the sounds barely resemble music at all (and for 1830 this is really something that should almost belong to the mid-20th Century): “He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts.” These sounds are finally dispelled by a tremendous crescendo, that is followed by the familiar idée fixe, but ”it has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy…”

      This spell, however, is but brief, and the music quickly sinks to darkness as the funeral proper begins: ”The funeral knell tolls,” which is followed by a ”burlesque parody of the Dies Irae,” the traditional Gregorian church melody for the Day of Judgement that has since been used among others by Liszt, Godowsky and most notably Rachmaninov. Since Berlioz greatly detested organized religions, this traditional Gregorian melody takes on a morbid and parodied appearance of a country band’s performance, solemn and sounding intentionally terrible (or at least it is supposed to). This moment is followed by the tumultuous Witches’ Dance that is completely disrespectful and nightmarishly vulgar. The Dies Irae occasionally reminds you of where you are, but it is not long before the two elements are combined into a hellish orgy of indecency and religious perversion. Among the combinations of sounds, one of the most interesting is the ”col legno” passage near the conclusion of the movement, simulating the dancing of skeletons by having the violinists play with the wood of their bow, not the string. The symphony finally ends in a blaze of C major triumph, though there is no mistake about it: this is the triumph of agony, not of salvation, exemplified by the Artist's terrified scream before the final onslaught.


      The Symphonie fantastique is a fairly easy piece to find. It is the most famous Berlioz composition and has been recorded many times. For the longest time, the best recording available was the 1974 Concertgebouw version under Sir Colin Davis, the number one interpreter and spokesperson of Berlioz (so any Berlioz by Sir Colin is an instant top recommendation). Of the four versions this second is perhaps the best to have for its control of emotion, splendid playing and fine recording, being much more classical in tone by observing the repeats, though I have to say that by today it may sound a bit underwhelming. His earlier 1963 version with the London Symphony is somewhat more disjointed, but I still consider it quite highly as it does have a bit more of the bite one would expect from this work, and the final movements are truly exciting. His later 2003 London Symphony Live version at budget price is also highly recommended, though suffers from slightly hazy recording. (1963 London Symphony: Eloquence 468 127-2; 1974 Concertgebouw: Philips 464 692-2; 2003 London Symphony Live: LSO-0007)

      A classic recording by Thomas Beecham with the French National Radio Orchestra (the first recording with a French orchestra) as part of EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” is from 1961, and is in Stereo. It is a powerful reading, with clear recorded sound and plenty of Beechamesque touches, but those preferring a modern digital recording would do well to avoid it. It does however include a wonderful performance of the “Royal Hunt and Storm” sequence from “Les Troyens”, along with a vibrant account of the overture “Le Corsaire” and “Marche troyenne”, making for splendid makeweights. (EMI Great Recordings of the Century 5 67972 2)

      The 1985 account of Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of utter excitement. Observing all repeats, the performance mixes the traditionality with headlong abandon and enthusiasm that is perfectly Berliozian in all ways. The recorded sound is full and immediate, making the many shifts of mood to come off with a great sense of delirium, though never getting out of hand. Also it is available at a very cheap price that makes it a very good recommendation for beginners. (EMI 7 47278 2)

      The classic 1962 stereo reading of Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is also among the most recommendable, although if you insist on clean digital sound, then you might want to pass. But this version is certainly among the very best, with each movement taken with utmost sense of drama, nowhere more apparent than in the march’s careful treble on the timpani, while the finale keeps you at the edge of your seat with wonderfully captured church bells. Also the thunder of the third movement is perhaps more realistic than I have heard in many other recordings to actually remind you of distant thunder. Sound is surprisingly good, though still a bit “bright”, but this is not hugely disturbing as the performance is simply exquisite. (RCA Living Stereo 8287667899 2)

      John Eliot Gardiner’s period take on the symphony with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is interesting in its attempt to simulate the sound and excitement that Parisian audiences of the time might have heard, though the result gives a sense of “measured authenticity,” somewhat too technical in trying to convey a sound but not the ideas behind the music. Still it is better than Roger Norrington’s similar attempt that is just too relaxed for Berlioz. (Philips 434 402-2)

      As far as critically lauded performances go, I often seem to run into the 2001 recording by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc. Okay, the sound is great and the performance is done with precision, but honestly I just don’t see what is so special about this recording. It sounds fairly run-of-the-mill, the waltz doesn’t flow as gracefully as it should, the march is boring and the finale doesn’t inspire. Likewise the first movement is a little too measured while the adagio just doesn’t offer anything outstandingly different to me (even though the “thunderstorm” timpani rolls in the end are quite thrilling). For all its praises, I would most certainly not call this a first recommendation at all. (Telarc 80578)

      For those seeking this work, browse around Amazon, there are tens of recordings there suitable for any budget.


      The first performance was a great success and the work became a basic staple in Berlioz’s concerts all the way to the end of his performing life. It underwent a lot of revision during his stay in Rome and he continued tinkering with it all the way to its publication. The reverberations of the work were extensive, practically opening the path to modern composers during the early Romantic era and ultimately would be the work that kept the memory of Berlioz alive throughout the time of his devaluation in the eyes of the artistic world. The work was also later followed by a sequel in the form of the monodrame “Lélio, or the Return to Life,” first began in Rome during 1831 and revised along with the programme notes of the original work in 1855. This work, however, never reached the public and has subsequently been performed extremely rarely.

      As for Harriet? Well, she eventually did hear of this “tribute” to her, and was intrigued enough to meet Berlioz. Her career at this point was already spiralling down and with this newly found sense of attention was quick to grab the opportunity. The two eventually married, though Berlioz’s “Juliet,” his “Ophelia,” proved to be a little different to his imagination and their relationship was extremely stormy, finally ending in their separation (though not divorce). Harriet also ended up being paralysed after an accident and she continued to be a ball-in-chain for Berlioz until her death in 1854. Indeed, romantic dreams are fine as long as they remain as such. For Berlioz, it proved his ultimate success and also one of his greatest disappointments.

      © berlioz, 2007


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    • Product Details

      Disc #1 Tracklisting
      1 I: Reveries - Passions-Dreams (Largo - Allegro Agitato E Appassionato Assai)
      2 II: A Ball (Allegro Non Troppo)
      3 III: Scene In The Country (Adagio)
      4 IV: March To The Scaffold (Allegretto Non Troppo)
      5 V: Dream Of A Witches' Sabbath (Larghetto - Allegro)
      6 Overture - Le Corsaire, Op.21
      7 Trojan March (Act 1)
      8 Royal Hunt And Storm (Act 4)

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