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.
The seed of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was sown on 11 September 1827 in the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris. That evening, the composer attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia. He fell in love with her instantly and harassed the actress with countless love letters. But unfortunately, they all went unanswered. Berlioz decided to catch her attention with an unusual work of music: the autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique: épisode de la vie d’un artiste (Fantastic Symphony: an episode in the life of an artist) .
In the story that lies at the core of the symphony – clearly explained in detail and made public by Berlioz – an artist is pursued by his ideal love. Throughout the symphony, she appears as a recurrent motif, each time in another shape or context. Berlioz called this theme an ‘idée fixe’. In the opening movement, Rêveries – Passions, the motif is presented for the first time in the violins, after a long, slow introduction. Whereas in the first movement, she is still a fantasy, the artist gets to see the beloved of his dreams in the flesh in the ensuing ball: the waltz is interrupted time and again by the idée fixe, like an apparition that forever eludes him. In the Scène aux champs (scene in the fields) as well, thoughts of his love trouble the calm of nature. A fatal dose of opium will put an end to his heartache, but the drugs take the young man in the Marche au supplice (march to the scaffold) on a trip through hallucinating dreams and make him think that he has murdered his beloved. The nightmare ends in an exuberant and terrifying witches’ sabbath.
The première in 1830 meant a twofold disappointment for Berlioz. There was a lukewarm response, about which Berlioz later wrote the following: "The performance was certainly not perfect, but in just two rehearsals, one could not expect that for such a complicated work. The whole thing was enough, however, to reveal the most important features." In addition, Harriet did not take up Berlioz’ invitation to attend the première. He reworked the symphony, and after a failed engagement with the pianist Marie Moke, he resolved to make a second attempt in 1832. This time, he was successful: a year later, Berlioz and Harriet married, and union that would last until the summer of 1844.
The young avant-garde composers who attended the première were immediately madly enthusiastic. They saw the symphony as a revolutionary work and the starting point of a new movement. There was the form, which with its five movements broke with the traditional structure of the symphonic genre. Moreover, Berlioz used an exceptionally large and colourful orchestra. He not only used unusual instruments like a church bell for the first time, but also used new performance techniques – including in the violins – to tell his story faithfully in music. The story was, for the first time in music history, explicitly the basis of what until then had been an immutable musical genre. With this “genre instrumental expressif”, Berlioz laid the foundations for the incidental music that would later be taken to new heights by Liszt and Mahler. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the year 1830 is marked in history books as the beginning of the Romantic movement, with Berlioz as the great pioneer.
Commentary by Aurélie Walschaert