Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique

I met somebody at the weekend who cycles 50 miles three times a week and looks a million dollars with no summer excess lurking about.  I decided this is the way forward and so this morning took my summer excess on a cycle ride.  Having taken a while to remember which bike is mine, an hour later I return, puce in the face, thighs on fire, with a case of serious helmut hair and unable to sit down for the next three days and that's with having to walk up all the hills.  I am a long way off 50 miles.

This week's work is the epic Symphonie Fantastique by the French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).  Written for a huge orchestra of over 90 players it is a very powerful piece of music.  The pandemonium and orchestral narrative of the work was to have a huge impact on many other composers of the period, taking the idea of romantic music to a new level.

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

Composers of the late 19th century were never happier than when they could combine love, death and tragedy.  The starting point for this was the Symphonie Fantastique which has the subtitle - An Episode in the life of an Artist, in Five Parts and was first performed in 1830.  Although called a symphony it is really a five part orchestral fantasy which tells a story without words.  A story which begins with a dream and unsurprisingly ends in a nightmare.  Berlioz wrote his own program notes for each movement.

Dream of the Witches Sabbath

Dream of the Witches Sabbath

Berlioz is describing an artist who falls desperately in love in a dream.  The women of his desire is represented by a short melody called 'Idee fixe' - every time the woman appears he uses this short theme.  The musical narrative moves onto a Ball or 'festive orgy' as the composer calls it,  followed by a gentle scene in the countryside.  The movements then descend into horror, the 4th movement is the March to the Scaffold where our hero poisons himself with opium, he falls into a fevered comatose state, murders the object of his infatuation and becomes an onlooker at his own execution by Guillotine.  The Finale is where the innocent late beloved becomes a whore and torments from the afterlife with the Dream of the Witches Sabbath.  

Infact Berlioz was writing about his infatuation with the  charismatic Irish actress Harriet Smithson who he had seen as Orphelia in Hamlet.  Berlioz was smitten and pursued her relentlessly but to no avail and she refused to meet him.  However Smithson eventually went to one of the performances of the Symphonie Fantastic in 1832 and realised after reading the program notes that the work was about her.  Intrigued she agreed to meet him and was blown away by the force of his emotion.  Despite not speaking each others language they married in 1833, but it was very tempestuous and they divorced seven years later.

Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle

The recording I recommend is by Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker.  In January this year he was awarded the Order of Merit which is one of the most prestigious honours awarded.  Membership of the Order is limited to 24 people all personally selected by HM the Queen 'to individuals of great achievement in fields of arts, learning literature and science.'

Listen to Simon Rattle conduct the second movement A Ball on youtube and a slightly younger Simon Rattle conduct the 4th movement March to the Scaffold on youtube in 1993.  Do download the whole work it is one of the Romantic greats.

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Posted on September 9, 2014 .