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Response to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique-
Jo-Pete Nelson
Hon P 214R
Great Works Response

Symphonie Fantastique- Hector Berlioz


Hector Berlioz was born in France December 11, 1803, the eldest son of a distinguished doctor. His father first taught him to play flageolet as a boy, and by the age of 14 he started making minor compositions. He did have various lessons, on flute and guitar, but a lot of his early composition training was self-taught, with little knowledge of piano. Not surprisingly, his father expected him to attend medical school and become a doctor. Young Berlioz was not very happy with this, and eventually changed his focus toward music, despite his father's great disapproval (and reduction in allowance) (Grove).

In 1827, Berlioz watched a Shakespeare play and fell in love with the English actress Harriet Smithson. He immediately became obsessed with her. This obsession eventually became the source of the story for Symphonie Fantastique. At about the same time, Berlioz was first introduced to the symphonies of Beethoven. His great admiration for Beethoven's work led him to make his own symphony. Berlioz was more interested in telling a story and describing emotions, so his symphonies greatly expanded the style to allow more artistic expression (Grove).

Symphonie Fantastique

In his program, Berlioz introduces the music as representing a musician who has fallen madly in love. It is apparent from the description and a simple analysis of his own story that this was meant to be semi-autobiographical. The love is unrequited, and the musician is deeply disturbed. He tries to commit suicide by overdosing on opium. The failed attempt makes him fall asleep and have strange dreams. In the dream, he kills his love and attends his own execution. His funeral turns into a "Witches' Sabbath," replete with all manner of evil creatures (Berlioz).

Throughout the symphony, there is a common theme that Berlioz refers to as the "idée fixe," which represents his love. It is introduced in the first movement, and each movement has some mention of it. In each case, it adapts to fit the rest of the movement and the story. For instance, in the final movement ("Dream of a Witches' Sabbath"), it is grotesquely skewed to fit in with the chaotic theme.

Critical Analysis

I really enjoyed this symphony, especially the fourth movement ("March to the Scaffold"). However, I did not feel the cohesiveness that Berlioz implies in his program notes. He refers to the idée fixe as if it is a great sweeping melody that embodies great emotion, but I almost couldn't tell what the theme was, because it only appears momentarily in each movement. Furthermore, it feels like he took five different pieces and put them together in five movements just so that he could have a "symphony." Beyond the story that he tells about it, there is no sense of continuity from one movement to the next. Even considering the storyline, the second movement ("A Ball") seems totally out of place. It doesn't have the same feel, and is, quite frankly, rather boring.

As I mentioned, I really liked the fourth movement. In this movement, he is supposedly being led through town on his way to the scaffold. The march is bright and joyful one moment, perhaps symbolizing the cheering crowds. The next moment, it is dark and dreary. The entire movement has a very determined and solemn presence that is appropriate for a man about to die.

Berlioz, Hector. "Program Notes to Symphonie Fantastique."
MacDonald, Hugh: "Berlioz, Hector," Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed April 20, 2004), uploaded Tue April 20 2004 at 1:17 PM
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