"I come now to the supreme drama of my life,” Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs, at the beginning of the chapter in which he discovers Shakespeare and the young Irish actress Harriet Smithson. “Shakespeare, coming up on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt,” he wrote after attending Hamlet, given in English — a language Berlioz did not speak — at the Odéon Theater on September 11, 1827. But it was Smithson appearing as Ophelia, and then four days later as Juliet, who captured his heart and set in motion one of the grandest creative outbursts in romantic art.
Berlioz began the Symphonie fantastique almost at once, and it immediately became a consuming passion. Throughout its composition, he was obsessed with Henriette, the familiar French name for her he had begun to use, even though they wouldn’t meet until long after the work was finished. On April 16, 1830, he wrote to his friend Humbert Ferrand that he had “just written the last note” of his new symphony, one of the most shockingly modern works in the repertory and surely the most astonishing first symphony any composer has given us. “Here is its subject,” he continued, “which will be published in a program and distributed in the hall on the day of the concert.” Then follows the sketch of a story as famous as any in the history of music: the tale of a man who falls desperately in love with a woman who embodies all he is seeking; is tormented by recurring thoughts of her, and, in a fit of despair, poisons himself with opium; and, finally, in a horrible narcotic vision, dreams that he is condemned to death and witnesses his own execution.
Berlioz knew audiences well; he provided a title for each of his five movements and wrote a detailed program note to tell the story behind the music. A few days before the premiere, Berlioz’s full-scale program was printed in the Revue musicale, and, for the performance on December 5, 1830, two thousand copies of a leaflet containing the same narrative were distributed in the concert hall, according to Felix Mendelssohn, who would remember that night for the rest of his life because he was so shaken by the music. No one was unmoved. It is hard to know which provoked the greater response — Berlioz’s radical music or its bold story. For Berlioz, who always believed in the bond between music and ideas, the two were inseparable. In an often-quoted footnote to the program as it was published with the score in 1845, he insisted that “the distribution of this program to the audience, at concerts where this symphony is to be performed, is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.”