Symphonie Fantastique

The symphony’s programme. Extracts from the Memoirs

Translated by Michel Austin

© 2001-2014 Michel Austin

Symphonie Fantastique: the symphony’s programme (1845 and 1855 versions)

by Hector Berlioz

[Note: between 1830 and 1855 Berlioz made a number of changes to the programme of the symphony, which is given here in the two principal versions, that of the first edition of the score in 1845, and that of 1855. The reader will notice various differences between the two versions, chief of which is the greater importance given in the 1845 version to the programme for an understanding of the symphony.]

(a) 1845 version

Note

    The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme* must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.

    *This programme should be distributed to the audience at concerts where this symphony is included, as it is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic plan of the work. [HB]

Part one
Daydreams, passions

    The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

    This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two
A ball

    The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three
Scene in the countryside

    One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold

    Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath

    He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae,** the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

    **A hymn sung in funeral ceremonies in the Catholic Church. [HB]

(b) 1855 version

Note

    The following programme should be distributed to the audience every time the Symphonie fantastique is performed dramatically and thus followed by the monodrame of Lélio which concludes and completes the episode in the life of an artist. In this case the invisible orchestra is placed on the stage of a theatre behind the lowered curtain.
    If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece this arrangement is no longer necessary: one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.

Programme of 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.

Part one
Daydreams, passions

    He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.

Part two
A ball

    He meets again his beloved in a ball during a glittering fête.

Part three
Scene in the countryside

    One summer evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds dialoguing with their ‘Ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring; but she reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him… One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody, the other one no longer answers. The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold

    He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for a moment like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath

    He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance-tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roars of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae.

Symphonie Fantastique: extracts from the Memoirs (chapters 4, 26, 31)

Chapter 4

    [...] My adolescent attempts at composition were tinged with deep melancholy. Most of my melodies were in minor keys. I was aware of this weakness but unable to avoid it. My thoughts were shrouded in the darkness where my romantic love of Meylan had confined them. In this state of mind, as I read and re-read Florian’s Estelle, I would probably have set to music sooner or later some of the numerous romances found in that insipid pastoral idyll, which at the time I found gentle. This I did not fail to do.

    Among other pieces I wrote a very sad one on words which expressed my despair at leaving the woods and the places honoured by the feet, illuminated by the eyes [La Fontaine, Les deux pigeons] and the little pink boots of my cruel beauty. This colourless poetry comes back to mind today together with the spring sunshine in London [April 1848], where I am beset by major worries and a terrible anxiety, seething with concentrated fury at having to face here as elsewhere so many absurd obstacles… Here is the first stanza:

Je vais donc quitter pour jamais
Mon doux pays, ma douce amie,
Loin d’eux je vais traîner ma vie
Dans les pleurs et dans les regrets!
Fleuve dont j’ai vu l’eau limpide,
Pour réfléchir ses doux attraits,
Suspendre sa course rapide,
Je vais vous quitter pour jamais. 

    I burnt this romance, as well as the sextet and the quintets, before my departure for Paris, but the melody came discreetly back to my mind when in 1829 I undertook to write my Fantastic Symphony. It seemed to me to express exactly the overwhelming grief of a young heart in the first pangs of a hopeless love, and I adopted it. It is the melody sung by the first violins at the beginning of the largo in Part I of this work, which has the title: Dreams and Passions. I have not changed it in any way. [...]

Chapter 26

    […] Immediately after this composition on the subject of Faust [the Huit scènes de Faust], and still under the influence of Goethe’s poem, I wrote the Fantastic Symphony; some parts caused me great difficulty, but others came with incredible ease. Thus the adagio (the Scene in the countryside), which always has such an effect on the general public and on myself, exhausted me for more than three weeks; I gave it up then started it again two or three times. By contrast the March to the scaffold was written in one night. Nevertheless I made many changes to both pieces and to all the other movements of the work over a period of several years.

    For some time the Théâtre des Nouveautés had been playing comic operas and had a fairly good orchestra whose conductor was Bloc. He suggested I offer my new work to the directors of the theatre and organise with them a concert to have the symphony heard in a performance. They agreed, but only because the strangeness of the programme appealed to them and they believed it would excite the curiosity of the crowds. But as I wanted the performance to be on a grand scale I invited from outside more than eighty musicians who when added to those of Bloc’s orchestra made a total of one hundred and thirty performers. Nothing had been prepared to accommodate satisfactorily such a mass of players, neither the necessary decoration, nor the scaffolding, nor even the desks. The directors replied to all my enquiries on the subject with the calmness of people who do not realise what the problems are: "Rest assured, all this will be looked after, we have a competent stage manager". But when came the day of the rehearsal and my one hundred and thirty players wanted to take their places on the stage no one knew where to put them. I tried the pit used for the small orchestra, but there was scarcely room there even for the violins. The theatre was in uproar, enough to drive mad even a calmer composer than myself. People were calling for desks, the carpenters hurriedly tried to put together some substitute, the stage manager swore as he looked for his struts and props, there were shouts for chairs, for instruments, for candles, the double basses lacked some strings, there was no room for the timpani, etc., etc. The orchestra assistant did not know who to listen to; Bloc and I made superhuman efforts, but all to no avail. Chaos reigned and it was a complete rout, a musical Crossing of the Beresina.

    In the midst of this turmoil Bloc nevertheless insisted on trying out two movements, "to give the directors", as he put it, "an idea of the symphony". We rehearsed as best as we could with this chaotic orchestra the Ball and the March to the scaffold. This last piece elicited from the players frantic and vociferous applause. All the same the concert did not take place. The directors, terrified by all this hurly-burly, recoiled from the undertaking. The preparations needed were too extensive and time-consuming; they did not know that so much was needed for a symphony.

    My plan was thus wrecked for want of desks and some carpentry… It is from this time that I have started to devote so much care to the practical organisation of my concerts. I know only too well what disasters can be caused by the slightest negligence in this respect.

Chapter 31

    […] But I did not want to leave Paris without performing in public my cantata Sardanapalus, the finale of which had been ruined at the prize distribution of the Institute. I therefore organised a concert at the Conservatoire, where this academic work was played side by side with the Fantastic Symphony which had not yet been heard [5 December 1830]. Habeneck undertook to conduct this concert for which all the players offered me their services for the third time without a fee, a kindness for which I cannot thank them too much. […]

    The performance was admittedly not flawless, and such complicated works cannot be played perfectly after only two rehearsals. But the overall effect was good enough to give an adequate idea of the music. Three movements of the symphony, the Ball, the March to the scaffold and the Witches’ sabbath caused a sensation. The March to the scaffold in particular took the audience by storm. The Scene in the countryside made no impression at all. It is true that it was very different then from what it is now. I therefore decided immediately to rewrite it, and F. Hiller, who happened to be in Paris at the time, gave me excellent advice on the subject which I have tried to put to good use. […]

Symphonie Fantastique (commentary and score)

Texts and Documents

© 2001-2014 Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.