Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 50–60 Minutes
Genre: “Drame musical” (according to Berlioz himself)
Time of Creation: 1830
World Premiere: December 5, 1830 (Paris)
Table of Contents
Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique in 5 Sentences
With his Symphonie fantastique, the French composer Hector Berlioz laid the foundation for so-called “program music.” The work is divided into five movements (analogous to the five acts of classical drama), in the course of which a musical leitmotif (the “idée fixe”) appears in various variations. The degree of innovation in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique can hardly be overstated: To the use of novel (in the 1820s) instrumentation techniques, timbres, and combinations of sounds is added the complete exploitation of the classical-romantic orchestral sound. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique thus had a lasting influence on later generations of composers, especially Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.
4 Highlights from Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique
Highlight 1: First appearance of the idée fixe
The “plot” of Berlioz’s work centers on a young musician who encounters a woman who perfectly matches his ideal of beauty. The idée fixe is the musical embodiment of this woman. We first hear the idée fixe in the first movement:
Highlight 2: Thunder roll
In the Symphonie fantastique, we hear sounds that were literally “unheard of” at the time of the work’s premiere. An example of this is the end of the third movement: the music here represents a scene in the countryside, with thunder rumbling in the distance:
Highlight 3: The walk to the place of execution
The fourth movement – entitled “Walk to the Place of Execution” – is perhaps the most famous movement in the work. The woman does not return the affection of the young musician. The latter takes opium and then dreams that he has murdered his beloved and is being led to the place of execution for it:
Highlight 4: A witchy parody of the Dies irae
The end of the Symphonie fantastique can hardly be surpassed in its bizarreness. The beloved is depicted as a witch, at the same time the death bells ring and a parody of the “Dies irae” from the Catholic mass for the dead can be heard:
3 Questions and Answers about Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique
Question 1: What does Berlioz want to tell in his Symphonie fantastique?
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is about a young musician who is in love with a woman. In the first movement, the infatuation is expressed. In the second movement, the two characters meet at a dance ball, but the woman pays no attention to the musician. In the third movement, the musician’s doubts are the focus. In the fourth movement, the musician, under the influence of opium, dreams that he has killed the beloved and will be executed for it. Finally, in the fifth movement, the beloved is depicted as a witch; the work ends with bizarre quotations from the Catholic requiem mass.
Question 2: What is special about the Symphonie fantastique?
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique has two main distinctive features: the use of instrumental combinations and timbres that were completely novel at the time of its composition (1830), and the use of a musical leitmotif (the “idée fixe”) that appears in several variations throughout the work.
Question 3: How did Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique come about?
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is autobiographical: In 1827, Hector Berlioz fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, but she left his love letters unanswered. Berlioz then wrote his Symphonie fantastique to get his frustration off his chest. In 1830 Smithson heard the Symphonie fantastique, and in 1833 she married Berlioz. Unfortunately, the marriage was unhappy and they divorced after a few years.
2 Recommended Recordings of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique
Recording 1: hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Live, 2017)
The recording of the hr-Sinfonieorchester conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada is one of the most detailed I know:
Recording 2: WDR Sinfonieorchester, Semyon Bychkov (Live, 2004)
This recording of the WDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Semyon Bychkov is a bit older, but its effervescence and energy are remarkable: