The French composer Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was one of the earliest composers following Beethoven to typify the romantic era. As a young man, he played several instruments and wanted to be a composer. However, his parents insisted that he study medicine. He hated medical school and eventually left it for the Conservatoire in Paris. He characterized a new school of composing, pushing the boundaries of harmony and chromaticism at a time when most composers were still using classical styles.
The Symphonie Fantastique (1830) is Berlioz’s best known work. A programmatic symphony, it described “various episodes in the life of an artist.” The underlying theme is love unrequited, represented by a melody which recurs throughout the symphony termed the idée fixe.
The beginning of the symphony recalls the symphonies of Haydn and early Beethoven, but the resemblance is fleeting; by the second bar, the mood changes. Throughout the first movement, Berlioz shifts from light, quick sections to darker sections portraying the artist’s passion. To quote Berlioz, “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.” Through all of this, the idée fixe appears, first in the middle of the movement, 12 bars after rehearsal mark 5, but again later in various guises.
The second movement is dominated by a ball through which the artist’s thoughts keep drifting back to his beloved. The waltz music is repeatedly interrupted by the idée fixe but returns stronger after each interruption, as if the artist throws himself into the festivities to drown her out.
The third movement is the turning point where the artist, hopeful of a happy end to his romance, begins to have doubts. The music portrays a countryside where two shepherds play a duet. The music is calm and cheerful, but darkens as he questions whether she returns his love.
The fourth movement is a drugged dream in which he has murdered his beloved and is marching to the scaffold. The music is a march, and becomes increasingly frantic as the scaffold approaches. Finally at its peak, everything falls silent as the idée fixe appears one last time in its original form; his last thought of love. The guillotine falls.
The final movement starts eerily as the artist sees himself amidst a “hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.” He suddenly realizes that his beloved is coming, however the idée fixe is now a grotesque dance tune; she is a witch. The church bell tolls amidst a parody of the Dies Irae. The witches join in a round dance later underscored by the Dies Irae, driving the work to a raucous conclusion.
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Berlioz, Hector. “Symphonie fantastique, H 48 (Berlioz, Hector).” 1907. IMSLP / Petrucci Music Library. 9 September 2010 <http://imslp.org/wiki/Symphonie_fantastique,_H_48_%28Berlioz,_Hector%29>.
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