In one of his Young People’s Concerts conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein described the Symphonie Fantastique as “the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip, written one hundred thirty odd years before the Beatles, way back in 1830 by the brilliant French composer Hector Berlioz.” Berlioz (1803-1869) was barely 27 years old when he wrote this piece, and obsessed by an all-consuming love. He translated that into an whirling symphony, and emerged as a pioneer of programmatic music and the start of the French Romanticism.

consuming passion

"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.”

“the first psychedelic symphony in history”
- leonard bernstein

composer or genius

Even in 1830, the fuss over the program couldn’t disguise the daring of the music. Berlioz’s new symphony sounded like no other music yet written. Its hallmarks can be quickly listed: five movements, each with its own title (as in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and the use of a signature motive, the idée fixe representing Harriet Smithson that recurs in each movement and is transformed dramatically at the end. But there is no precedent in music — just three years after the death of Beethoven — for his staggeringly inventive use of the orchestra, creating entirely new sounds with the same instruments that had been playing together for years; for the bold, unexpected harmonies; and for melodies that are still, to this day, unlike anyone else’s. There isn’t a page of this score that doesn’t contain something distinctive and surprising. Some of it can be explained — Berlioz developed his idiosyncratic sense of harmony, for example, not at the piano, since he never learned to play more than a few basic chords, but by improvising on the guitar. But explanation doesn’t diminish our astonishment.

None of this was lost on Berlioz’s colleagues. According to Jacques Barzun, the composer’s biographer, one can date Berlioz’s “unremitting influence on nineteenth-century composers” from the date of the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique. In a famous essay on Berlioz, Robert Schumann relished the work’s novelty; remembering how, as a child, he loved turning music upside down to find strange new patterns before his eyes, Schumann commented that “right side up, this symphony resembled such inverted music.” He was, at first, dumbfounded, but “at last struck with wonderment.” Mendelssohn was confused, and perhaps disappointed: “He is really a cultured, agreeable man and yet he composes so very badly,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. For Liszt, who attended the premiere — he was just nineteen years old at the time — and took Berlioz to dinner afterwards, the only question was whether Berlioz was “merely a talented composer or a real genius. For us,” he concluded, “there can be no doubt.” (He voted for genius.) When Wagner called the Symphonie fantastique “a work that would have made Beethoven smile,” he was probably right. But he continued: “The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would seem an act of pure kindness to me after the Symphonie fantastique.”

beethoven

In fact, it was Berlioz’s discovery of Beethoven that prompted him to write symphonies in the first place. (There are two more which followed shortly: Harold in Italy in 1834 and Romeo and Juliet in 1839.) At the same time, Berlioz also seems to foreshadow Mahler, for whom a symphony meant “the building up of a world, using every available technical means.” The Symphonie fantastique did, for its time, stretch the definition of the symphony to the limit. But it didn’t shatter the model set by Beethoven. For it was a conscious effort on Berlioz’s part to tell his fantastic tale in a way that Beethoven would have understood, and to put even his most outrageous ideas into the enduring framework of the classical symphony.

At the premiere, Berlioz himself was on stage — playing in the percussion section, as he often liked to do — to witness the audience cheering and stomping in excitement at the end. Later, in his Memoirs, he admitted that the performance was far from perfect — “it hardly could be, with works of such difficulty and after only two rehearsals” — but that night he knew that he had the public in his camp, and that with the recent, coveted Prix de Rome under his belt, his career was about to skyrocket.

Programme notes by Phillip Huscher (Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Info concert