Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts), Opus 14

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 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 this most amazing of first symphonies.

The premiere of Symphonie 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.

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.”

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 [a “fixed idea,” or recurring motif]. 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.”

“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.”

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.”

“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.”

“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 [A Latin hymn for the dead], SABBATH ROUND-DANCE. The sabbath round and the Dies irae combined.”—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.

(July 2019)