Romantic's Guide to
Inspired by the great philosophers, poets and storytellers of his day, Berlioz was one of the first composers who sought to merge drama and music into a single genre through the medium of his own creative and highly innovative soundscape. The result was a five movement orchestral masterpiece that is to this day still considered one of the most revolutionary works of the 19th century. The Symphonie Fantastique is an autobiographical work that illustrates "An Episode in the life of an Artist" to which the composer provides detailed program notes: A young man is overcome by his unreciprocated love and intakes a dose of opium with the intention of committing suicide. The poison however, to weak to kill him, plunges him into a heavy slumber in which he experiences wild visions and hallucinations that Berlioz effectively depicts by breaking new ground on multiple musical levels. The Symphonie is built on the traditional symphonic structure but ultimately deviates from it by displacing the expected minuet or scherzo by a waltz for the second movement, and by the insertion of a solemn march as a fourth movement before the finale.1 Berlioz employs an entirely novel orchestral language by importing new instruments into the orchestra, using preexisting ones in a new symphonic setting, and requiring them to play in new combinations and in previously unexplored parts of their range.2 Each of the five movements calls for a different orchestral requirement, yet they are all held together cyclically by a unique structural device, the idée fixe, or idea of fixation.3 This recurring motivic theme is a musical representation of the Artist's Beloved (Real life Irish actress Harriet Smithson) that undergoes thematic transformation throughout the entire work to reflect the Artist's conception of her at multiple stages of the story. Berlioz manages to achieve vivid imagery and onomatopoeia through inherently simple sonic imitation, as a result of skillful exploitation and interplay of all these elements within a vast orchestral palette, alongside other means such as harmonic and dynamic effects, all of which will be discussed in further detail throughout the paper.
1Peter Bloom, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 48. 2Hugh Macdonald, Berlioz (London: J. M. Dent, 1982), 92.
3Preston Stedman, The Symphony (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992), 126.
First Movement: Rêveries – Passions
Berlioz took the utmost care in orchestrating the opening movement, which is structurally derived from the traditional first movement sonata form. He uses at least sixteen different orchestral combinations in the seventy-one measures of the slow Largo introduction that precedes the Allegro.4 At the start of the Allegro section the composer introduces the star feature of the Symphonie and his object of adulation, the Beloved Harriet. The idée that represents her is a forty measure long theme characterized by its obscured beat and irregular phrasings which is heard in the violins and flutes, painting in the subconscious of the listener the portrait of a bashfully gentle individual with a distinct air of nobility. The whole is brought to life by a thumping heartbeat in the lower strings that intensifies dynamically with the rising energy of the theme.5 The fact that the idée fixe is much longer in pitch content then a typical symphonic exposition theme is significant in two ways: Firstly it suggests the complexity and volatility of the object being portrayed, and secondly, it creates an abundance of melodic material with the potential to be reused.* The composer actively exploits these two ideas in combination as they become the basis of his developmental method of thematic transformation. The result is the appearance of the idée fixe in some guise in each of the five movements of the symphony. More...
Bibliography: Barzun, Jacques. Berlioz and the Romantic Century. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.
Berlioz, Hector. Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.
———, and Richard Strauss. Treatise on Instrumentation. New York: Dover, 1991.
Bloom, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz. New York: Cambridge University Press,
Castelões, Luiz E. "A Catalogue of Music Onomatopoeia." International Review of the Aesthetics &
Sociology of Music 40/2 (2009), 299–347.
Dickinson, A. E. F. The Music of Berlioz. London: Faber, 1972.
Donlevy, Nicholas. "The Symbolism of Evil in Berlioz 's Symphonie Fantastique" (2003). Open
Access Dissertations and Theses
Greenberg, Robert. The Symphony. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2004.
Macdonald, Hugh. Berlioz. London: J. M. Dent, 1982.
Simpson, Robert. The Symphony. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.
Stedman, Preston. The Symphony. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.
EMI CDC 7 47278 2, 1985. CD.
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