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Symphonie Fantastique

From Academic Kids

Symphonie Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony) is a symphony written by Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is widely regarded as one of the most important and representative pieces of the early romantic period.

Outline of the Work

The symphony is a piece of program music which tells the story of "an artist gifted with a lively imagination" who has "poisoned himself with opium" in the "depths of despair" because of "hopeless love." There are five movements, which was unconvential for a symphony at the time:

  1. Rêveries - Passions (Dreams - Passions)
  2. Un bal (A Ball)
  3. Scène aux champs (Scene at the Country)
  4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
  5. Songe d'une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches' Sabbath)

The first movement opens with a lilting first introductory passage, which lightly lands and takes off into the main statement. The melody presented becomes the recurring melody, the "idée fixe", that represents the protagonist's beloved throughout the work. In real life she was the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who was well known for her roles in Shakespeare plays, then undergoing a massive surge of interest in Europe. Berlioz saw her perform and was stricken with love. At the time of writing the symphony, he undulated between hoping to have her, and being angry that she would not meet him. As a result of the work, she would later meet, and marry, the composer. The exact form of the melody is altered according to the circumstances, in the first movement, it is drawn out and idyllic, representing the "vague passions" of a young man in love who cannot stray far in thought from the object of his attention.

The movement is radical in its harmonic outline, building a vast arch back to the home key, which, while similar to the Sonata Form of classical composition, was taken as a departure by Parisian critics. Through out the movement, there is a simplicity of presentation of the melody and themes, which Schumann compared to "Beethoven's epigrams", ideas which could be extended, had the composer chosen to. In part, it is because Berlioz rejected writing the very symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies which were, "so intense in every note, as to defy normal harmonization", as Schumann put it.

The second movement, takes a rather plain waltz theme, again, similar to the idee fixe at first, and then transforming to it in a single startling moment. It is filled with figures that run up and down. While one critic called it "vulgar", the intent was to portray a single lonely soul amidst gaiety, as Berlioz wrote while writing it.

The third movement opens with the English horn and oboe tossing back and forth a characteristic melody meant to evoke the horns in the mountains. This intent, to evoke a spirit of the country side inhabited by, not mere rustics, but people who were one with their place is part of Romanticism and can be traced back to the ideas of such writers as Goethe. The movement swells to a peak, falls away, to the sound of distant thunder, in an innovative passage for multiple timpani: it ends without resolution.

The fourth movement, which Berlioz claimed to have written in a single night (but which he actually took from an unfinished project, the opera Les Francs-juges), is "The March to the Scaffold", filled with blaring horns and rushing passages, and scurrying figures which would later show up again in the last movement. It uses a grotesque version of the theme by Berlioz's extraordinary technique of orchestration, mixing pizzicato of strings, staccato of woodwinds, chords of brass and single stroke of percussion, forming a highly unusual series of tone colours. The scene ends with a single staccato G-minor chord that represents the dropping of the trap door, or perhaps the guillotine blade; a following series of pizzicato notes can be seen to represent the rolling of the head into the basket. Immediately prior to the musical depiction of the beheading, there is a brief, nostalgic recollection of the idée fixe in a solo clarinet, as though representing the last conscious thought of the executed man: and after his death, the final nine bars of the movement contain a victorious series of G major chords in the full orchestra.

The last movement, often played as a tone poem by itself, is "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath", which has a brooding opening, the sound of spirits marching through the grave yard, the call of church bells, and a fugue meant to represent, as Berlioz privately admitted, a giant orgy, mixing the idée fixe with a famous plainchant Dies Irae. There are a host of effects, from the bubbling of the witches cauldron to the blasts of wind.

Importance of the Work

Berlioz wrote in his essay "On Imitation in Music"

The aim of the second kind of imitation, as we have said before, is to reproduce the intonations of the passions and the emotions, and even to trace a musical image, or metaphor, of objects that can only be seen.

He later adds:

emotional (imitation) is designed to arouse in us by means of sound the notion of the several passions of the heart, and to awaken solely through the sense of hearing the impressions that human beings experience only through the other senses. Such is the goal of expression, depiction or musical metaphors.

As part of this he uses an example of cyclical structure in music, which was an idea drawn from Beethoven's use of similar rhythmic structures or shapes, and the idea of musical "cycles", such as a "song cycle". Berlioz did not know of Mendelssohn's Octet, which uses this device as well.

Berlioz called this repeating melody an idée fixe (fixed idea). Carl Maria von Weber had previously used similar recurring fragments to represent characters or objects in his operas, though the Symphonie Fantastique is a dramatic example that opens the way for many others in the symphonic genre. Later examples would be composed by Robert Schumann and Cesar Franck. The idea of melodies representing specific characters would be part of Richard Wagner's elaborate system of leitmotifs.

Also important is Berlioz' aggressive use of instruments, which even his enemies admitted was genius, both in terms of the size and scope, but also with the specificity of instructions — when to use mallets of different heads for drums, when to place and remove mutes, all notated on the score. This too would become an aspect of the work which would receive careful study, all the way into the 20th Century.

Leonard Bernstein called this symphony the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium.

In 1831, Berlioz wrote a much less well known sequel to the work, Lelio, for narrator and orchestra.

Trivia

The soundtracks of Stanley Kubrick's films The Shining and A Clockwork Orange feature a synthesized interpretation of the Symphonie Fantastique version of the Dies Irae, as arranged by Wendy Carlos. It is easily recognizable as the music played during The Shining's opening credits.de:Symphonie Fantastique fr:Symphonie fantastique ja:幻想交響曲

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