Symphonie fantastique

Louis-Hector Berlioz

Symphonie fantastique

H48, Op. 14 • “Épisode de la vie d'un artiste”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Berlioz composed this work in 1830 and conducted the first performance in Paris on December 5 of that same year. He revised it in 1832 and added two cornets to the instrumentation in 1845.

Berlioz the composer was a full-blown Romantic, whose infatuation-at-first-sight with a pretty British ingénue named Harriet Smithson influenced his Fantastic Symphony. Miss Smithson came to Paris to play Shakespeare, Berlioz's hero (along with Virgil, Goethe, Gluck, Beethoven, Lord Byron, and Victor Hugo). Harriet was "The Beloved" of his programme fantastique. "A young musician of morbid a paroxysm of lovesick despair" attempts suicide, but takes only enough laudanum to induce hallucinations, in which his Beloved appears as a recurring melody with several personalities, finally as a bacchante at a satanic ritual. Despite the lurid scenario, Berlioz's five-movement structure owes more to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony than anyone seems to have noticed at the time, or, for that matter, since. Where Beethoven whipped up a storm, Berlioz created a mob scene that concludes with the protagonist's death: his decapitated head bounces into a waiting basket pizzicato. In the finale, Berlioz went far beyond Beethoven's merrymaking peasants; he created a witches' sabbath, without precedent in music before 1830. Along with liberating orchestral color, he overthrew the tyranny of bar-lines, downbeat accents, and academic dogma.

"Dreams, Passions" begins with the hero's despair, a Largo introduction in C minor that leads to the main body of the movement in C (and later G) major, marked Agitato ed appassionato assai. The Beloved's signature melody is the main theme of a sonata structure with exposition repeat; she returns in the development, in the recap, and in a grand coda of notable length and contrapuntal éclat.

"A Ball" (Allegro non troppo, A major) is the waltz without a trio, although a contrasting section in F major has unison flute and oboe playing the Beloved's theme.

"Scene in the Fields" is an Adagio that begins and concludes with an antiphonal shepherds' duet on oboe and English horn. Near the end of a free-form central section, the Beloved appears. Four timpanists playing very softly -- a Berlioz signature -- imitate a distant storm before the two shepherds lead their flocks homeward.

The G minor "March to the Scaffold" recreates a scene from the Revolution, Allegretto non troppo, with a repeat usually ignored in twentieth century performances. The protagonist dreams he's been condemned to die for killing his Beloved, who appears briefly as a clarinet, and he is guillotined as the crowd shouts approval.

"Dream of the Witches' Sabbath" features a four-part structure after an eerie introduction in E flat. The Beloved's melody is the main theme of Part I, now, however, distorted and vulgarized by clarinets. Distant bells introduce Part II, in which bassoons and tuba play the Gregorian Dies irae. Part III is the Witches' Dance, a fugue that Berlioz called a ronde. Part IV combines the Dies irae and Witches' Dance until the latter triumphs, electrifyingly.