Monday, March 24, 2008

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz lived a colorful life, full of mistresses, marriages, chronic illness, and not least, laudanum addiction. Today we'll cover his best known work, the Symponie Fantastique, written to express his unrequited love for an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson.

The interesting thing about Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is that it tells a story, unlike the bulk of the symphonic works we've listened to so far. And you can really hear it in the music.

Let's turn to the introduction to Berlioz's own program notes that he wrote for the symphony:

"A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere."
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869 )
Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1973

The "idee fixe," a musical representation of the woman he loves, is a specific melody in the symphony that returns again and again in different guises and played by different instruments . The first appearance of this melody is at approximately the 4:50 mark in the first movement.

Listen to this melody and see if you can recognize it in its various forms in the other movements--particuarly in the fourth movement, The March to the Scaffold. In this movement the idee fixe returns right before the young man is executed (actually it's a dream sequence where he imagines that he is executed), and then Berlioz paints a surprisingly graphic musical picture of the blade coming down--and amazingly--of the severed head bouncing (or rolling?) off afterward.

Now there's something that I bet even Beethoven couldn't depict in musical terms.

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