Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Sir John Eliot Gardiner, cond.)

album cover

One Composer's Pursuit of the Romantic Ideal

Hector Berlioz was inspired to write this unusual symphonic tone poem in 1827, when an English Shakespeare troupe visited Paris. Smitten with its leading lady, Harriet Smithson, Berlioz sought her affection. He had little success at first, but his efforts led him to the work's guiding theme—a man pursuing his romantic ideal to the gates of Hell. Eventually he got the girl and they married, at which point he discovered that the onstage illusion was better than the reality. By then his piece was in circulation, hailed for its unusual orchestrations and vividly realized theme. It became his signature work.

Symphonie fantastique details the journey of a lovesick artist who, having glimpsed the feminine ideal, is involved in an all-consuming chase. Berlioz seized that "idée fixe" and exploited all its possibilities, using his command of color and shading—and unorthodox chordal resolutions (after examining the score, Rossini was heard to say "Thank God it's not music!")—to tell his story. Berlioz expanded the idea set forth in Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony No. 6, that an orchestra could echo and emulate natural phenomena. In Berlioz's conception the male lead smokes copious amounts of opium, and finds himself beset by visions.

Berlioz intended the five-movement piece to be a work of drama, an opera without words. He furnished his audience with a "programme" that summarizes the overall intent and the motivations of its characters within the individual scenes—this text, reprinted in the liner notes, serves as a helpful guide to the temperaments each section explores. The opening movement is entitled "Daydreams-Passions," and here Berlioz lays out the basic motifs that will recur, in altered form, in the subsequent movements. The revisitations are fantastical all right—the second movement is an endlessly whirling waltz, while the fourth, the "March to the Scaffold," is drenched in a lugubrious, murderous dread. The fifth section includes a burlesque parody of the "Dies Irae" theme used in Catholic funeral services.

To replicate the sound opening-night patrons would have heard, this recording utilizes the composer's original orchestrations, as well as the seating plan used at the piece's Paris Conservatory premiere. The string section's instruments have gut strings, which provide a less aggressive attack, and they forgo the constant vibrato that became fashionable later. This gives the strings a warm and enveloping sound; it also clears space for other colors, including a contraption known as the ophicleide that has the bell of a bugle and the double reed of a bassoon. Not all the instruments are that exotic, but many of the sonorities Berlioz assigns them are, as advertised, fantastic.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1993, Philips
Key Tracks: "Daydreams-Passions" (first movement); "In the Meadows" (third movement); "March to the Scaffold" (fourth movement)
Another Interpretation: Boston Symphony Orchestra (Charles Munch, cond.)
Next Stop: Modest Mussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Fritz Reiner, cond.)
After That: Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Fritz Reiner, cond.)
Book Page: 82

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