The Kennedy Center

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

About the Work

Image for Berlioz Composer: Hector Berlioz
© Aaron Grad

Hector Berlioz was an unlikely musical revolutionary. Not at all a prodigy, he was 12 before he began dabbling in composition and teaching himself harmony out of a book. His father, a physician, disapproved of these musical pursuits, so the young Berlioz never took lessons or mastered an instrument. At age 18, he moved to Paris to study medicine, and waited another five years before finally enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire. Remarkably, it was only four years later that he wrote a work that redefined orchestral music, the Symphonie fantastique.

Berlioz' rapid development as a composer came from his keen receptivity to outside influences. Certain artistic encounters, such as his discoveries of Faust and Beethoven symphonies, left indelible imprints on his music. One particular evening that marked a sea change came in 1827, when he first experienced Shakespeare through a production of Hamlet. In future years, Berlioz would write much music on Shakespearean themes, but the immediate impact was more personal: Berlioz left the theater smitten with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Ophelia.

Berlioz' obsession soured by 1830, at which point personal suffering became creative fodder. Expanding from the model of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, with its "pastoral" program, Berlioz conceived a symphony built around a dramatic tale of failed romance. This work's true title was An Episode in the Life of an ArtistSymphonie fantastique was the subtitle – and its explicit link between instrumental music and a narrative story marked the birth of a new genre. To support this programmatic format, Berlioz stretched the symphony to new extremes of structure (using five movements), thematic unity (with one idée fixe appearing throughout), and instrumentation (incorporating recent inventions such as valve trumpets and ophicleides, and doubling the harp and timpani). The radical work debuted in 1830 at the Paris Conservatoire, and it caused such a stir that the school's director, Luigi Cherubini, struck Berlioz from the registry of students.

Berlioz' own program note describes the symphony's narrative in detail. He introduces "a young musician of morbid disposition and powerful imagination" – a plain surrogate for Berlioz – who "poisons himself with opium in an attack of despairing passion." In the ensuing opium dream, "the beloved herself appears to him as a melody, ... an obsessive idea that he keeps hearing wherever he goes." The first movement, titled Daydreams – Passions, "recalls the sickness of the soul, the flux of passion, the unaccountable joys and sorrows he experienced before he saw his beloved; then the volcanic love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious raptures, his jealous fury, his persistent tenderness, his religious consolations." The beloved's idée fixe enters about five minutes into the form, stated by violins and flute, and sparks a flight of passion.

Next, the artist attends A Ball, and Berlioz sets the scene with a flowing waltz. In The Scene in the Country, the artist "broods on his loneliness," contemplating "two shepherds" (a dialogue of English horn and oboe) and later the "distant sound of thunder" (played by the timpani). The fantastical nature of the work emerges in the March to the Scaffold, in which the artist "dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution." At the end, a whiff of the beloved's idée fixe from the clarinet is silenced by the startling crash of the guillotine, followed by mocking peals of major triads. The macabre final chapter is the Dream of a Witches' Sabbath, featuring "a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for [the artist's] funeral." Berlioz depicts "strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter" with diabolical orchestral effects, and introduces a terrifying quotation of the Dies Irae (Days of Wrath) plainchant melody.

The Symphonie fantastique is a rare leap forward in music, an achievement that is almost inconceivable from a 26-year-old student, working a country with little symphonic tradition, and coming only six years after Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Berlioz followed with many more masterful orchestral scores, and his treatise on instrumentation is still essential reading for aspiring composers. The late-blooming Berlioz turned out to be a new breed of virtuoso, one whose "instrument" was the orchestra.