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Composed: 1829-1830

Length: c. 55 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (1st = E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, percussion (2 bass drums, chime, cymbals, field drum), 2 timpani, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 4, 1927, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting

About this Piece

1830. Paris. Hector Berlioz, aged 26, is experiencing even more intense shocks to his psyche than is normally the case in the anything but placid life of the arch-Romantic composer. “I have just been plunged into an endless, insatiable passion,” he wrote to his friend Humbert Ferrand. “She is still in London, and yet I feel her near.” The “she” was Harriet Smithson, an Irish Shakespearean actress of reportedly modest professional endowments but considerable personal magnetism.

Smithson, after a period of indifference, which worked its way up to mild curiosity, then qualified interest and presumably a stage well beyond, married her wild-eyed suitor in 1833. The union proved stormy and ultimately intolerable to both parties. (The fact that she never learned to speak more than minimal French and he never learned English may have caused some misunderstandings.)

Berlioz was initially, when still a Smithson observer rather than an intimate, “paralyzed by passion” (his words) for her. He was beginning “a great symphony” when the fit of passion overtook him and froze all creativity. Smithson’s arrival in Paris a few weeks later occasioned a thaw, and work began on the first version of the Symphonie fantastique, completed in April of 1830.

The premiere had been scheduled, long before the work’s conclusion, to take place in May. But the score was still incomplete when the fatal date approached. Thus, the composer “worked in a frenzy” (again, his words), borrowing bits from his other scores and leaving in portions he had planned to revise later.

Nerves were raw from the outset at the first rehearsal, which took place on a stage far too small to accommodate the sizable orchestra. Berlioz, never the most accommodating of colleagues, was especially difficult to deal with in his capacity as conductor. After a few rehearsals, all concerned decided to call it quits, and the notion of presenting the premiere of the Symphony was shelved.

The delay, until the end of the same year, enabled Berlioz to do some polishing, and the “Episodes in the Life of an Artist,” as the score was originally called, made its debut on December 5. It proved a huge success, contrary to what we might expect with a work so eccentric, so forward-looking—and so well-publicized. Among the audience in the Great Hall of the Paris Conservatoire were Victor Hugo, Nicolò Paganini, Alexander Dumas (père), Heinrich Heine, and Smithson.

In his “Fantastic Symphony in Five Parts,” a literal translation of the work’s final title, Berlioz tells a musical tale, with himself as the central character—creating not only a mood (as in Liszt’s symphonic poems), but states of mind and precise, physical situations. Nothing like it had been attempted on this scale before.

Berlioz’s new concept of how far one could go in dramatic music without resorting to a vocal text once caused considerable polemicizing over whether such music was viable without reference to the “story.” Wagner’s great friend and champion Eduard Dannreuther took the negative tack: “The Symphonie fantastique, particularly its finale, is sheer nonsense when the hearer has no knowledge of the program.”

Robert Schumann expressed a different point of view regarding Berlioz’s wild child. For Schumann, a too-intimate knowledge of the program prevented maximum enjoyment of the music: “When once the eye has been led to a certain point, the ear no longer judges independently.”

If Berlioz is to have his way, the program must be read; therefore, an abbreviated version of the composer’s descriptive text is:

I. Reveries; Passions. The first movement is in two sections, a brief Adagio followed by a long Allegro. The subject is an artist gifted with a lively imagination. The theme of the beloved [the idée fixe, an obsessively recurring theme in flutes and violins] appears in the Allegro for the first time. The artist is subjected to floods of passion, tenderness, jealousy, fury, fear…

II. A Ball. The hero is at a grand ball, but the tumult cannot distract him. “She” appears in oboe and flute among the whirling dancers.

III. Scene in the Country. After great agitation, he finds hope and believes his feelings to be requited. In the country, he hears two herdsmen play a ranz des vaches [melody played to gather the scattered cattle]. This plunges him into a delicious reverie, and we hear again the idée fixe. He is again filled with doubt. Silence.

IV. March to the Scaffold. He attempts to poison himself with opium but is instead subjected to a horrible dream: He has killed his beloved. He is to be executed, and, even worse, must witness his own execution. At the march’s end, she reappears—but her picture is obliterated by the final blow.

V. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. He finds himself at a witches’ revel, surrounded by sorcerers and monsters. The melody of his beloved, which has thus far been noble and full of grace, is transformed into a drunkard’s song: It is the beloved coming to the revels, to assist at the funeral of her victim. She is no longer anything but a courtesan, worthy of participation in such an orgy. The ceremony begins. The bells toll. A choir [of brass instruments] chants the Dies irae, which is then parodied by the other [instrumental] choirs. The Dies irae mingles with the wild revelry at its height—and the vision comes to an end. —Herbert Glass