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Symphonie Fantastique (H 48)

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Contents of this page

Performance history
The five movements of the symphony
The scores

This page is also available in French

See also Texts and Documents; The Programme of the Symphonie fantastique; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings


    The Symphonie fantastique has been described as the most remarkable first symphony ever written by any composer. Beethoven, the giant among symphonic composers, began with a first symphony which, though expertly and confidently written, is on a small scale, singularly devoid of passion, and gives little indication of the great symphonies that were to follow. Not so Berlioz, whose first symphony constituted a musical revolution in itself, in its daring originality, scale, imagination, expressive range and orchestral mastery. Berlioz himself was fully aware of its novelty and significance almost from the moment he first conceived the work. The work is significant in many ways.

    The aspect which often attracts most attention is its personal character, and Berlioz himself deliberately focussed on this. To him the symphony was in the first instance a very personal work, intimately related to his own life. It was explicitly inspired by his infatuation since September 1827 with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, and Berlioz hoped through this work to attract her attention. Initially he failed to do so, but when he returned from Italy in 1832 after revising the work and adding to it the sequel Le Retour à la vie (the Return to Life), it achieved its purpose when the two works were performed together at a concert on 9 December 1832 at the Conservatoire, in the presence of Harriet Smithson. That was the start of a stormy courtship which eventually resulted in their marriage on 3 October 1833. Many years later, after the death of Harriet Smithson on 3rd March 1854, Berlioz revised the sequel, now renamed Lélio ou le retour à la vie, and linked it even more closely to Harriet. This revised version was performed in Weimar on 21 February 1855 and published the same year. The idée fixe, which stands for Harriet in the symphony but did not appear in the original version of Le Retour, is now deliberately re-introduced, first in the opening song (Le Pêcheur), and then right at the end after the concluding Fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest.

    The Symphonie fantastique is famous for its programme and its autobiographical associations, perhaps too much so. This is discussed on other pages of this site; the reader may be referred to the text in translation of the two main published versions of the programme (of 1845 and 1855), and to another page for discussion of the vexed question of Berlioz and programme music (this page includes a reproduction of the programme that was distributed at the concert on 30 December 1832).

    To move from the personal to the musical level, the symphony marked a breakthrough in Berlioz’s career as a composer. It was not his first large-scale work. Berlioz had completed his Messe solennelle in 1824 and had it performed twice (1825 & 1827), he had composed an opera, Les Francs-Juges (1826-9), and composed and published the Huit scènes de Faust in 1828. But Berlioz became dissatisfied with all these works, and he promptly withdrew the premature publication of Huit scènes. But with the Symphonie fantastique Berlioz declared himself completely satisfied (letter to Humbert Ferrand of 16 April 1830, CG no. 158 and see below). The symphony marked at once the culmination of his years of apprenticeship, and the starting point of his mature work as a composer. The work could not have been written without the discovery by Berlioz of Beethoven’s symphonies in 1828, which revealed to him the expressive potential of the symphony as a musical form. There are deliberate echoes of Beethoven in the third movement of the symphony (see below), though Beethoven could never have conceived or written such a work. The Symphonie fantastique inhabits a new world of sound and musical expression, and had a deep influence on later composers, from Liszt, who was very struck by the work at its first performance and went on to make a piano reduction of it, to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler among others. But the success of the work, and of Berlioz’s three other symphonies, had one long-term disadvantage for Berlioz: to his frustration he became identified and labelled, especially in the eyes of the French public, as primarily a ‘symphonist’, rather than a musician who could produce masterpieces in a wider range of genres, choral, vocal and operatic.


    Berlioz’s Memoirs are not as detailed and revealing on the composition of the Symphonie fantastique as one might wish (as compared, for example, with his account of the origins of Harold en Italie). In chapter 26 he mentions briefly the composition of the symphony which followed that of the Huit scènes de Faust, then dwells at length on the first unsuccessful attempt to have it performed at the Théâtre des Nouveautés in May 1830. He is strikingly reticent at this point on the personal stimulus behind the work, namely his infatuation with Harriet Smithson, which looms large in the previous chapters (18, 19, 24). What has survived of the composer’s correspondence for 1829 and 1830 supplements the Memoirs in the form of tantalising though instructive glimpses, not just into the composition of the work but also into Berlioz’s frame of mind at the time. Here are the excerpts from the relevant letters, in chronological order; they are all addressed to his close friend and confidant Humbert Ferrand, except for one letter to his sister Nancy Berlioz.

To Ferrand, 2 February 1829 (CG no. 113):

Listen to me carefully, Ferrand; if ever I bring it off, I feel without a shadow of doubt that I will become a colossus in music; for a long time I have had in my head a descriptive symphony of Faust which is fermenting; and when I release it free, I want it to strike the musical world with terror.

To Ferrand, 3 June 1829 (CG no. 126):

All the English papers are reverberating with cries of admiration for her [Harriet Smithson’s] genius, while I remain obscure. When I have written an instrumental work of immense proportions which I am pondering, I really want to go to London to have it performed, and score before her eyes a brilliant success!

To Ferrand, 2 January 1830 (CG no. 149):

I must write an immense instrumental composition for my concert next year, and you will really have to be present at it.

To Nancy Berlioz, 30 January 1830 (CG no. 151):

To realise my plan [for a great concert in May at the Théâtre des Nouveautés], I am preparing a great deal of new music, among which is an immense instrumental composition of a new kind through which I will try to make a strong impression on my audience. Unfortunately it is on a very large scale, and I fear I may not be ready for Ascension Day which falls on 23rd May; on the other hand, I find this incandescent work excessively tiring. Although I have had the outline of the work in my head for a long time, it demands a great deal of patience to bind the different parts together and put the whole work in good order. But I must keep going, and we shall see.

To Ferrand, 6 February 1830 (CG no. 152):

I was on the point of beginning my mighty symphony (Episode in the life of an artist) which will depict the development of my infernal passion [for Harriet Smithson]. I have it all in my head, but I am unable to write anything… I must wait.

    The breakthrough came several weeks later, as revealed by a letter to Ferrand dated 16 April 1830 (CG no. 158) which gives the first detailed account of the programme of the symphony, which earlier letters had not mentioned, and of the contents of the work. The relevant part of the letter is quoted at length on another page of this site. As will be seen, all these letters show that the idea of a large-scale symphony was on Berlioz’s mind already early in 1829, that he was conscious from the start that the new work would be novel and revolutionary, and that the project was inspired by his infatuation with Harriet Smithson and his wish to impress her with the new symphony.

    At first Berlioz professed himself completely satisfied with his new work (CG no. 158). In practice he kept revising it in the light of rehearsals and performances, as he points out himself: ‘I made many changes to both pieces [the 3rd and 4th movements] and to all the other movements of the work over a period of several years’, he writes (Memoirs, chapter 26). The Memoirs give a few glimpses of this, though not the full story. On the occasion of the first performance on 5 December 1830 he notes that the third movement ‘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’ (Memoirs, chapter 31). Another passage of the Memoirs (chapter 34) shows that he revised extensively other parts of the symphony: he mentions that during a stay in Florence in April 1831 he reorchestrated the second movement and added a new coda to it, even though the movement had been successful at its first hearing the previous December. The symphony thus became significantly different from what it was initially, though it is not possible to reconstruct in detail the original work. Mindful no doubt of the premature publication of his Huit scènes de Faust which he soon came to regret, Berlioz deliberately delayed the publication of the full score of the symphony for years until 1845, to give himself time to test the work fully in performance. The symphony was dedicated to the Emperor of Russia, in anticipation of his projected trip to Russia which took place the following year (CG nos. 1034, 1094).

    As with Berlioz’s other major works, different elements and stimuli, both literary and musical, converged into one single work. In the Memoirs (chapter 26) Berlioz states that he was still under the influence of his discovery of Goethe’s Faust when he wrote the work, and the first letter to mention the symphony refers to it as a ‘descriptive symphony of Faust’ (CG no. 113). The Faustian element is represented by the last movement, which echoes the Walpurgis night scene in Goethe, but also shows the influence of the scene in the Wolf’s Glen in Weber’s Freischütz; it is also a reference to the Ronde du sabbat in no. XIV of Victor Hugo’s Odes et ballades. The autograph score carries in addition a quotation from Victor Hugo’s Feuilles d’automne which Berlioz applies to the experiences of his own life, ‘the book of my heart written on every page’ [le livre de mon cœur à toute page écrit]. The ‘vagueness of passions’ (vague des passions) which, according to the programme, the opening of the symphony expresses, is an allusion to Chateaubriand, who is ‘the famous writer’ mentioned there but not named. Musically the major influence is Beethoven, as noted above, though whereas Beethoven objectified his own experiences, the Fantastique personalised Berlioz’s own in a way that might have startled Beethoven.

    As with the Francs-Juges overture, Berlioz acknowledged his reuse in the symphony of compositions which date from his early years at La Côte-Saint-André, before he went to Paris in 1821: the opening melody of the first movement reproduced exactly the music written years earlier to a song on verses of Florian’s Estelle et Némorin (Memoirs, chapter 4). Thus a symphony whose initial inspiration was connected with Harriet Smithson reproduced music originally composed with Estelle Dubœuf (later Fornier) in mind, Berlioz’s adolescent love. Berlioz does not mention other borrowings, but 3 more can be identified. The March to the Scaffold re-used the Marche des Gardes from the opera Les Francs-Juges (H 23), as the manuscript proves (there was a rather heated controversy on the subject between Julien Tiersot on one side, and Charles Malherbe and Adolphe Boschot on the other, in a series of articles and letters in Le Ménestrel in 1906). The idée fixe which appears in every movement of the symphony was already used, though in a more conventional form, in Berlioz’s Prix de Rome cantata Herminie of 1828. Finally, the rediscovery in 1991 of the lost Messe solennelle showed that the main theme of the third movement of the symphony (Scene in the countryside) originated in the Gratias of the Mass (the New Berlioz Edition of the Symphonie fantastique [volume 16] came out in 1972 and so could not know of this borrowing). It should be added that these borrowings and adaptations by Berlioz from music he had written earlier should not lead to the conclusion that the Symphonie fantastique was no more than an assemblage of disparate elements. Rather, as with most of Berlioz’s major works (with the possible exception of Le Retour à la vie) it is notable for its coherence and unity, whatever the origin of its different elements.

Performance history

    Berlioz had hoped initially to perform the new symphony at a concert in May 1830 at the Théâtre des Nouveautés (CG no. 151), but the plan misfired, as he relates in his Memoirs (chapter 26). The symphony eventually received its first performance on 5 December 1830 (Memoirs, chapter 31; CG no. 190). The work was extensively revised during Berlioz’s stay in Italy in 1831 and 1832, and Berlioz was keen to perform the revised work in Paris together with its new sequel Le Retour à la vie; this took place in two momentous concerts in December 1832 which marked a turning point in Berlioz’s life. Thereafter the symphony received a series of performances in Paris, in 1833, 1834, 1835, 1836, 1838, 1840, 1842 and 1844 (not all performances were of the complete symphony). All the early performances were conducted by others than Berlioz himself (at first Habeneck, then Girard), and it was not till December 1835 that Berlioz conducted the work himself. Habeneck conducted it for the last time in November 1838. The last time the work was performed in Paris in Berlioz’s lifetime was during two concerts by Berlioz’s Société philharmonique (12 November 1850 and 25 March 1851).

    On the other hand the work was frequently performed by Berlioz in his concert tours through much of his career: first in Belgium and Germany in 1842 and 1843 (Brussels, Stuttgart, Hechingen, Weimar, Leipzig, Dresden), in France in Marseille and Lyon in 1845, then on his second tour of Germany and central Europe in 1845-1846 (Vienna, Prague, Pest, Breslau, Brunswick), and in Germany again later (Hanover in 1854, Weimar in 1855). The symphony figured in both of his Russian tours, in St Petersburg in 1847 and again in the same city in 1867, which was the last performance he gave of the work. Strikingly Berlioz never had a chance to introduce the work to London audiences, despite his several visits there between 1847 and 1855, and later in his career even dissuaded the Londoners from putting on the work without sufficient rehearsals (CG no. 2357, 23 February 1859).

The five movements of the symphony

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

    The first detailed mention of the symphony and its plan in Berlioz’s correspondence (CG no. 158) already presents the work as being in five movements. But the evidence of the autograph manuscript shows conclusively that an earlier version of the symphony was in four movements only: on the title page which read originally ‘Symphonie Fantastique en 4 parties’ the figure 4 was crossed out and replaced by 5. So too with the Marche du Supplice which was renumbered 4 instead of 3. It is most likely that the additional movement was the second one; in April 1830 it was originally placed third after the slow movement (CG no. 158), but was subsequently moved to its final place. The final arrangement provided a very satisfying balance and progression between the five movements: the long first movement was counterbalanced by the finale, the short second movement by the short fourth, and the third movement, the longest of all, became the central pivot of the whole work.

    The idée fixe pervades the volatile and tempestuous first movement. The opening melody of the slow introduction, taken from an early song composed by Berlioz (Memoirs, chapter 4; see above) alludes to the second section of the idée fixe, 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 with the tradition repeat (often left out in performance), but hardly has a second subject. After a series of long and stormy developments punctuated by moments of calm, the movement ends quietly with a series of broad chords, and prepares the ground for the change of mood of the second movement.

    The second movement, an elegant waltz rather like a rondo in form, makes a complete contrast with the first, and musically fulfills the function of the menuet or scherzo in the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The movement is notable for its light scoring, at once delicate and brilliant, and the use of two harps, an instrument that Berlioz was particularly fond of, gives the music a festive glitter that is characteristic of the composer – 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 (it may be noted incidentally that in his Mémoires, in chapter 59 which relates her death, Berlioz likens Harriet Smithson to a harp). 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, possibly for the virtuoso cornet player Arban, but not reproduced by him in the full score of the work published in 1854. Performances and recordings of the symphony sometimes include this part for cornet (Colin Davis often did). 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 (see above), 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).

    The fourth movement originated as a march of the guards in Berlioz’s early opera Les Francs-Juges (see above). 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 it 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.

The scores

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

    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)
    — Score in pdf format

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

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

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

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

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

This page revised and enlarged on 1 November 2021.

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