Symphonie Fantastique tells a story that we all know and love: boy meets girl, boy falls for the girl, boy overdoses on opium and dreams of his own execution. Okay, maybe that’s not a universal experience after all. Still, Hector Berlioz’s lurid, Romantic masterpiece strikes a familiar chord in even the most heartless listener. Berlioz was inspired by his own romantic failures. He was briefly obsessed with English actress Harriet Smithson, and Symphonie Fantastique was a kind of grand romantic gesture for her. Although Berlioz was unsuccessful at wooing Smithson initially—she didn’t speak French and he didn’t speak English—the unsettling power of Symphonie Fantastique is undeniable.
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Berlioz is represented in Symphonie Fantastique’s program notes as The Artist. The Artist’s obsession with his unnamed love is depicted by a recurring theme, called the idée fixe. This theme is present in all five movements. Berlioz took this theme from an earlier work, 1828’s “Herminie.” The idée fixe changes in all its manifestations. For instance, in the second movement of the symphony, “Un Bal (A Ball),” it fades into the waltz one would expect to hear at a ball.
The symphony’s third movement, “Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)” depicts the Artist overhearing a dialogue between two shepherds’ respective ranz des vaches. The ranz des vaches, simple melodies played by shepherds to drive their cattle to and from the pasture, are represented by a cor anglais and an offstage oboe. This pastoral scene ends as The Artist worries his love has betrayed him. Berlioz depicts this ominous change in tone with a rumble of “distant thunder” from four timpani.
MARCH TO THE SCAFFOLD
The fourth movement of Symphony Fantastique, “Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)”, represents an opium-induced fever dream of The Artist. The movement features a ponderous march, representing The Artist’s walk to the scaffold. A fortissimo G-minor chord is the fall of a guillotine, and a series of short pizzicato notes depicts The Artist’s head rolling into a basket. The triumphant, G-Major brass passage that ends the movement seems to signify the onlookers who celebrate The Artist’s death.
DREAM OF THE NIGHT OF THE SABBATH
The final movement of Symphony Fantastique takes The Artist’s delusions even further. Now deep in an opium trance, he imagines himself at a witch’s sabbath. The idée fixe returns, only this time played as a vulgar dance tune on the clarinet. Berlioz uses a variety of effects, including an instruction for the string section to play col legno—that is, by striking the strings with the back of the bow. This creates an eerie rattling sound, representing the skeletons dancing with the witches.
The fifth and final movement of Symphonie Fantastique makes liberal use of the 13th century Catholic hymn “Dies irae,” detailing the day of judgment. The first time the “Dies irae” appears it’s treated with great solemnity, with Berlioz calling for a pair of massive Church bells to accompany the theme. As the movement progresses, however, the “Dies irae” becomes a gross parody of itself. Berlioz writes for the melody to be played by four bassoons and two tubas.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Read this article to learn about the strange, obsessive relationship between Smithson and Berlioz.
Berlioz’s demand for church bells in the fifth movement is difficult to realize, even today. Read about the challenge here.
If you don’t have the time to listen to the entirety of Symphonie Fantastique, at least check out the apocalyptic fifth movement. We don’t think it disappoints!
Watch this video to learn more about what makes the idée fixe so remarkable, and so unforgettable.
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