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    Receptive History of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique


    This short article is transferred from Mark Evan Bonds’ discussion on Berlioz’s ground breaking work. Hope you can enjoy reading it. I have a few editings dropped on it.


    Berlioz – Receptive History of Symphonie Fantastique


    All three of Berlioz’s symphonies are programmatic to varying degrees. The first of them, Symphonie fantastique of 1830, as already mentioned, is based on a detailed program of Berlioz’s own invention. Inspired by the composer’s infatuation with an actress named Harriet Smithson, the program relates the increasing emotional turmoil of a young musician as he realizes the woman he loves is spurning him. The emotional trajectory of the symphony is thus almost the reverse of Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven’s symphony moves from a turbulent first movement to a joyous finale; the Symphonie fantastique, in contrasts, moves from a joyous first movement, which evokes of the young musician’s first infatuation, to a dark finale, labeled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” which evokes the image of the musician’s beloved dancing demonically at his funeral. The sound of the Dies irae, (“Day of Wrath”) from the well-known plainchant Mass for the Dead within the finale serves as a dark counterpoint to Beethoven’s theme for the vocal setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the finale of the Ninth. Instead of a vision of heaven, we are given a vision of hell and the triumph of evil.


    Not everyone found Berlioz’s program for his Symphonie fantastique helpful. Robert Schumann, in an otherwise favorable review of the work, argued that the movement titles alone would have been sufficient, and that “word of mouth would have served to hand down the more circumstantial account, which would certainly arouse interest because of the personality of the composer, who lived through the vents of the symphony himself.” German listeners in particular, Schumann argued, disliked having their thoughts “so rudely directed,” all the more so given their “delicacy of feeling and aversion to personal revelation” But Berlioz, Schumann rationalized, “was writing primarily for his French compatriots, who are not greatly impressed by refinements of modesty. I can imagine them, leaflet in hand, reading and applauding their countryman who has depicted it all so well; the music by itself does not interest them.”


    Berlioz’s handling of the orchestra was also unusually forward looking for 1830. At the beginning of the Symphonie fantastique, for example, he calls for the high winds to play pp, then ppp, and then to decrescendo, presumably to an inaudible level. And in the fourth movement, the “March to the Scaffold”, he introduces a brass sound never before heard in the concert hall: massive, forceful, and rhythmically charged. Berlioz also peppers his scores with instructions of a hitherto unknown specificity. In the Symphonie fantastique, for example, he marked exactly what kind of stick head – wood, leather, or felt – percussionists should use in any given passage. Previously this kind of choice would have been up to the individual performer.


    The Symphonie fantastique is also notable for its realism: Berlioz avoids prettifying ugly or grotesque themes, representing them instead with what were for the time, harsh-sounding musical devices. The last movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” for example, opens with an extended diminished seventh chord, a dissonance that may seem rather tame (even clichéd) today, but that would have sounded jarring at the time, conjuring for listeners a world of dark spirits. In measure 11, Berlioz briefly dispenses almost completely with triadic harmony in his effort to conjure the chaos and depravity of the imagined gathering of witches. The strings play a series of fourths of a guitar, the only instrument Berlioz himself ever mastered. The moment is fleeing, but it signals the beginning of an assault on what had been the foundation of Western harmony for at least two centuries. The return of the idée fixe, the theme associated with the beloved, in measure 40 on the Eb clarinet is also fittingly grotesque. The beloved, according to the program, has lost her noble and shy character and assumed the form of a witch.

    David Leung (Leung Sir, theorydavid)

    2012-08-30 published

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