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Symphonie Fantastique (H 48)

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I: Rêveries, passions
II: Un Bal
III: Scène aux champs
IV: Marche au supplice
V: Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat

    See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    The Symphonie Fantastique was initially composed in 1830 and first performed in December of the same year under the direction of Habeneck. Berlioz however revised the work extensively during his trip to Italy in 1831-2 and in subsequent years and did not publish it until 1845. The work as we now know it is thus substantially different from the original of 1830, which can no longer be reconstructed in full detail.

    The Symphonie Fantastique has always been the work with which Berlioz’s name is most closely associated. The composition of this revolutionary masterpiece marked a breakthrough in the composer’s career, at once the culmination of his years of apprenticeship, and the starting point of his mature work as a symphonic composer. The impact that Beethoven had on Berlioz is evident in the work, but no less evident is Berlioz’s originality in opening up new paths that Beethoven had not explored, and the sound world of Berlioz is entirely his own.

    The programme on which the symphony was initially based went through a number of changes between 1830 and 1855. It does not need to be repeated at length here (the full text of the two principal versions, those of 1845 and 1855, is given in Texts and Documents). Under the influence of opium (in the 1855 version), a young and sensitive artist (Berlioz himself), experiences a series of visions – the different movements of the symphony – in which his beloved figures as a theme, the idée fixe, which recurs in every movement, though each time in a different form (cf. the Memoirs chapter 45 in relation to Harold in Italy). The theme had already been used by Berlioz in his cantata Herminie written for the Prix de Rome of 1828 (H 29), though it is much more fully developed in the symphony than in the cantata.

    The idée fixe pervades the volatile and tempestuous first movement. The opening melody of the slow introduction (itself taken from an early song composed by Berlioz, cf. his Memoirs chapter 4) alludes to it, and prepares the listener for the first full statement of the theme at the start of the allegro (bar 71 and following). The allegro is in sonata form, but hardly has a second subject. After a series of long and stormy developments the end of the movement alludes retrospectively to the introduction.

    The second movement, an elegant waltz rather like a rondo in form, makes a complete contrast with the first. The movement is notable for its scoring, at once delicate and brilliant, and the use of two harps gives the music a festive glitter that is characteristic of Berlioz – compare the harps in Part II of Romeo and Juliet, the last movement of the Te Deum, the Trojan March, and Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. The idée fixe is heard twice, in bars 120-162 in its complete form, then more briefly in bars 302-319 before being swept away by the whirlwind which brings the waltz to a brilliant close.

    The autograph score of the symphony contains a part for solo cornet added by Berlioz at a later date, but not reproduced by him in the full score of the work published in his lifetime. Performances and recordings of the symphony sometimes include this part for cornet. The movement is presented here in two versions, the first without and the second with the cornet part.

    The long third movement is the musical heart of the symphony, as well as the pivotal point in the drama: from the world of imagined reality in the first three movements the music moves to the world of imagined nightmare in the last two. The origins of the movement are complex, though Berlioz fuses the different elements together to form a seamless whole. The main subject (bar 20 and following), briefly hinted at in the first movement (bars 4-5), is now known to have been used previously in the Gratias of his early Messe Solennelle of 1824-5 (rediscovered in 1991), though as well as a change of key from E major to F major, the treatment of the theme in the symphony is much more elaborate and varied; the movement is in effect a set of variations on the main theme. The shepherd’s piping heard in the introduction (bars 1-20), then again at the close of the movement (bars 175-96), recalls through its similarity of key, instrumental colour (the use of the cor anglais) and mood the romance of Marguerite in the Huit Scènes de Faust composed not much earlier, in 1828-9 (H 33), as though these were two versions of the same idea. Beyond this the movement is also an obvious homage to Beethoven whose discovery in 1828 put Berlioz firmly on the path of symphonic music. The movement recalls the Pastoral Symphony, written in the same luminous key of F major, and there are intentional echoes, notably the discreet allusions to the bird song of the end of the second movement of the Pastoral Symphony in bar 67 and following. The mood of isolation which pervades the movement is, however, very different from Beethoven’s celebration of nature in dance and song. The idée fixe, briefly alluded to early in the movement (bars 38-41), reappears in the stormy middle episode in the wind and in a modified form in the basses (bars 87-102), then again more quietly in the concluding pages (bars 150-4).

    Two technical points on this movement:
(1) In several places in this movement the viola section is divided in two. In this version, in order to preserve the evenness of tonal balance, the viola parts have been notated throughout as divided, even when they play in unison (except for the final bars 197-9).
(2) In order to obtain a semblance of crescendo and decrescendo on the timpani rolls at the close of the movement, it has been necessary to notate some bars using shorter note values than what Berlioz wrote (bars 177, 182-3, 188-9; the same applies to a few passages earlier, bars 14, 16, 159). A transcription of bars 175-196 as notated in the original score is available on this site; in this notation the crescendi and decrescendi of the timpani do not reproduce as they are meant to.

    The fourth movement originated as a march of the guards in Berlioz’s early opera Les Francs Juges (H 23), composed mainly in 1826 and revised in 1829. In adapting the piece for the Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz added a strikingly unexpected reference to the beginning of the idée fixe at the climax of the march: the artist, led to execution for murdering his beloved, remembers her on the scaffold, but the melody is abruptly cut off by the fall of the guillotine and the concluding uproar (bar 164 to the end of the movement).

    The fifth movement is the most obviously provocative of the whole symphony and goes well beyond anything that had been attempted in this kind of music before. The nearest model available at the time, the Wolf’s Glen scene at the end of Act II of Weber’s Der Freischütz, is only partly comparable: it uses a mixture of speech, song, melodrama and orchestral music, whereas Berlioz relies solely on the orchestra. The movement is also the freest in form of the symphony’s five movements, though is actually very carefully constructed. After a brief introduction which sets the atmosphere (bars 1-20), the idée fixe makes its last appearance, only to be subjected to musical vilification and quickly dismissed (bars 21-78). The real business of the night can then begin: first the Dies irae (bars 127-221), then the Witches’ Sabbath (bars 241-347), with in the end the inevitable coming together of the two as the music hurtles to its headlong conclusion (bars 348-524).

    More than most other orchestral pieces in Berlioz this movement exposes all too clearly the limits of the Midi system, which can only give a very imperfect idea of its extraordinary range of sonorities. In particular, there is no adequate equivalent for the deep bells that Berlioz had in mind (bars 102-223) and instead a piano sound has been used for this passage – a practice followed by Berlioz himself in his concert tours when suitable bells were not available. Nor is there a proper col legno sound for the violins and violas in bars 444-60: a xylophone has been substituted here as an admittedly unsatisfactory replacement.

    To improve the realism of playback a few passages have been notated in full and not in abbreviated form, notably the string sextuplets in bars 4 and 15, and the rolls for timpani and bass drum in bars 306, 311 and 316.

    Symphonie Fantastique I: Rêveries, passions (duration 13'32")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 8.08.2000; revised 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique II: Un Bal , (1) version without solo cornet (duration 5'57")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 24.03.2000; revised 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique II: Un Bal, (2) version with solo cornet (duration 5'57")
    — Score in large format
    (filed created on 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique III: Scène aux champs (duration 14'33")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 7.11.2000)

    Symphonie Fantastique IV: Marche au supplice (duration 7'06")
    — Score in large format
   (file created on 18.12.2000)

    Symphonie Fantastique V: Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat (duration 10'51")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 9.2.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

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