Program Notes

Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14

Louis-Hector Berlioz
BORN: December 11, 1803. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
DIED: March 8, 1869. Paris

COMPOSED: 1830/32

WORLD PREMIERE: December 5, 1830 in Paris. François‑Antoine Habeneck conducted. Again with Habeneck on the podium (and with Berlioz as one of the drummers), a considerably revised version was presented in Paris on December 9, 1832   

US PREMIERE:  February 27, 1879. Leopold Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1920, led by Alfred Hertz. MOST RECENT— March 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides (replaced nowadays by bass tubas), timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, low‑pitched bells, 2 harps, and strings.

DURATION: About 52 mins

THE BACKSTORY Berlioz strove to write “new music.” He succeeded. The Fantastique, that most amazing of first symphonies, sounds and behaves like nothing ever heard before.

On September 11, 1827, Berlioz went to the Paris Odeon for a performance of Hamlet by a company from London. The younger female roles were taken by Harriet Smithson, a twenty‑seven‑year‑old actress who had been brought up in Ireland. Berlioz fell instantly and wildly in love with her. He spoke next to no English, and the violent effect upon him of that evening’s performance was a combination of verbal music, his vivid recollection of the play from his reading of it in the Letourneur‑Guizot translation, and, as far as Ophelia was concerned, sheer Eros. He wrote to Smithson repeatedly, but they did not meet. He heard gossip about an affair between her and her manager. This hurt, but it also provided enough distance to enable him to plan and begin work on the symphony whose design he described in detail to his friend the poet Humbert Ferrand.

In brief, “an artist, gifted with a vivid imagination, [falls in love with] a woman who embodies the ideal of beauty and fascination that he has long been seeking. . . . In a fit of despair, he poisons himself with opium, but the narcotic, instead of killing him, induces a horrible vision” in which he believes that, having killed his beloved, he is condemned to death and witnesses his own execution. After death, he “sees himself surrounded by a foul assembly of sorcerers and devils. . . . [His beloved] is now only a prostitute, fit to take part in such an orgy.”

The premiere of the Fantastique took place in the winter of 1830. Two years later, Berlioz introduced a revision, much sharpened and improved. He moved heaven and earth to get Harriet to his concert on December 9, 1832, though it seems that she went without at first realizing the nature of the event or even the identity of the composer.

On the morrow of the Fantastique’s second premiere, Berlioz and Smithson finally met. Before long she had said the fatal “Berlioz, je t'aime,” and on October 3, 1833, they were married. Her French was roughly like his English. It was all a disaster. They separated in the summer of 1844 and should have done so much sooner. She had lost her looks, her career was long since over, and she died in 1854, an alcoholic and paralyzed. Berlioz supported her until the end. From the wreckage he drew one other musical memorial to his passion, the Mort d'Ophélie, a heart‑rending song for two female voices with orchestra in the collection he called Tristia.

THE MUSIC Berlioz wrote several programs for this autobiographical symphony of his, and it has been remarked that the differences between them serve as a barometer of his changing feelings for Harriet Smithson. What follows, sudden explosions of CAPITAL LETTERS and all, is the note Berlioz published with the score in 1845 and described as “indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.” The commentary in brackets is mine.

“The composer's aim has been to develop, to the extent that they have musical possibilities, various situations in the life of an artist. The plan of the instrumental drama, which is deprived of the help of words, needs to be outlined in advance. The following program should therefore be thought of like the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it calls into being.

Part One: Reveries, Passions—The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a celebrated writer [Chateaubriand] calls ‘the surge of passions,’ sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Through a bizarre trick of fancy, the beloved image always appears in the mind's eye of the artist linked to a musical thought whose character, passionate but also noble and reticent, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

“The melodic image and its human model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. This 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 melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of unmotivated joy, to one of delirious passion, with its movements of fury and jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation—all this is the subject of the first movement.”

[Even the first two preparatory measures for a few wind instruments are so unconventionally voiced that their authorship is unmistakable. But more remarkable still is what follows: the sound of the muted strings, the unmeasured pauses between phrases, the single pizzicato chord for violas and cellos, the two strange interventions (also pizzicato) for the basses, the mysterious cello triplets rocking back and forth at the first climax, the one appearance of flutes and clarinets with horns. What an amazing effect it is at the end of the slow introduction when the chord of winds with tremolando strings is hushed, then swells again, like music carried on the whim of capricious winds.]

“Part Two: A Ball—The artist finds himself in the most varied situations—in the midst of THE TUMULT OF A FESTIVITY, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but wherever he is, in the city, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and troubles his soul.”

[The first three dozen measures of the waltz paint for us the ballroom with its glitter and flicker, its swirling couples, the yards and yards of whispering silk. All this becomes gradually visible, like a new scene in the theater. This softly scintillating waltz is exquisitely scored.]

Part Three: Scene in the Fields—Finding himself in the country at evening, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue [a ranz des vaches is a tune sung or played by a Swiss herdsman]. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind, certain hopes he has recently found reason to entertain—all these come together in giving his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a brighter color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that soon he will no longer be alone. . . . But what if she were deceiving him! . . . This mixture 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. . . . The distant sound of thunder . . . solitude . . . silence.”

There is nothing in music before this, or since, like the pathos of the recapitulated conversation with one voice missing. As a picture of despairing loneliness it is without equal. And the thunder—mostly in piano and pianissimo—of chords for four kettledrums is the voice of a new orchestral imagination. The principal theme of the movement—that is, the almost unaccompanied melody for flute and violins played  immediately after the first conversation between English horn and oboe—is one that Berlioz salvaged from the Messe solennelle he composed in 1824 and that was believed lost until its rediscovery in 1991.]

“Part Four: March to the Scaffold—Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, 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 the woman he had loved, that he is condemned, 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 mediation to the most noisy clangor. 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.”

[Berlioz said he composed the March to the Scaffold in a single night. In this stunning march, an instant knockout, Berlioz's orchestral imagination—the hand-stopped horn sounds, the use of the bassoon quartet, the timpani writing—is astonishing in every way.]

“Part Five: Dream of a Witches' Sabbath—He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, outbursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque: it is she, come 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 combined.”

[As we enter the final scene, with its trim thematic transformations, its bizarre sonorities—deep bells, squawking clarinet, the beating of violin and viola strings with the wooden stick of the bow, glissandos for wind instruments, violent alternations of ff with pp—its grotesque imagery, its wild and coruscating brilliance, we have left the Old World for good.]

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA and SFS Media)  |  Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (Decca) 

ReadingBerlioz: The Making of an Artist, 1803-1832 and Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, volumes 1 and 2 of a Berlioz biography by David Cairns (University of California Press)  |  Berlioz, by D. Kern Holoman (Harvard University Press)  |  Berlioz, by Hugh Macdonald (Oxford Master Musicians series)

Online: Keeping Score: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

(September 2017)

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