Jean-Philippe Tremblay has, at age 31, an impressive and varied international career. He has conducted l’Orchestre national de France, the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington), the London [...]
They spoke about it
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
When Berlioz wrote his Symphonie fantastique, he had no idea the effect it would have on the course of music. Did he realize that he had created a model for orchestral composition that would still be in use two centuries later? Of course not. In the direct symphonic line from Beethoven, but without imitating him, Berlioz brought orchestral music to its highest level of development, an achievement recognized by Franz Liszt and later by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.
To fully understand how this all began, we must go back to the years 1818-1819. In the library of his father, young Hector was discovering and devouring the writings of Chateaubriand (René), Sénancour (Oberman) and especially Florian. His favourite book was Estelle et Némorin, a simple tale of great narrative beauty that captured Berlioz’ imagination and ignited in him the hope for a pure and selfless love.
Subsequently he discovered Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an Opium Eater, a book that surely, if perhaps unconsciously, inspired the psychedelic trip that is the Symphonie fantastique. Then came Shakespeare’s plays and Goethe’s Faust. In 1830 he wrote in his Mémoires: “… still under the influence of Goethe’s poem, I am writing my Fantastic Symphony with much difficulty in certain parts and with incredible ease in others.” In 1830, Berlioz was only 26. Just six years had passed since the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and just three since this composer had died.
It is impossible to think of the Symphonie fantastique and not of the idée fixe, for this is the very key to understanding and appreciating the work. The storyline is simple: a young artist (Berlioz), under the influence of opium, has a series of visions, each depicted in one of the five movements in which a young woman appears to him in a different form.
The recurring theme is first heard in its full, unadorned shape, then in various melodic, harmonic and rhythmic modifications throughout succeeding movements as befits the composer’s imagination.
In these five movements, Berlioz gives full expression to his obsessive love in musical terms that served as the point of departure for romantic symphonists for the next hundred years. French romanticism was born.
As Wagner was to do with the leitmotif, this recurring musical idée fixe represents an idea or character, and served as the generating force for much of the program music to come. A century later, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun would shock the musical world just as had the Symphonie fantastique, all works that appeared perhaps prematurely in the course of music history.
The idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique has a name: Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen in the roles of Juliet and especially Ophelia. In 1830, she was all the rage in Paris, the city that had just recently discovered Beethoven and was now in the throes of Shakespeare. The woman who would later become Berlioz’ first wife had not the slightest interest at the time in the letters and notes he was sending her. On the evening of the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz reserved a seat for her in a loge, but she did not come. Undeterred, he found comfort in the music in which she was bound up with him.
In this large-scale, five-movement Symphonie fantastique, born of a dream of a sick mind and depicting madness in music, Berlioz inspired an entire generation of composers and artists. His genius remains unique in the history of music, his career a defining era that still today moves and inspires both audiences and musicians.
© Jean-Philippe Tremblay, 2012
Translation: Robert Markow