Composed in 1830, in the young composer’s twenty-seventh year, Symphonie Fantastique remains one of the most original and imaginative works in the orchestral repertoire. Inspired by many influences, not the least of which were Goethe, Shakespeare, and the symphonies of Beethoven, and his own infatuation with a beautiful English actress named Harriet Smithson, Berlioz created a fantasy world in which he ably demonstrated his unique mastery of orchestral color and orchestration. In accordance with the composer’s strict directions, his original program follows:
Programme of the Symphony
A young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair. The narcotic dose he had taken was too weak to cause death but it has thrown him into a long sleep accompanied by the most extraordinary visions. In this condition his sensations, his feelings and memories find utterance in his sick brain in the form of musical imagery. Even the beloved one takes the form of melody in his mind, like a fixed idea which is ever returning and which he hears everywhere.
1st Movement: Visions and passions
At first he thinks of the uneasy and nervous condition of his mind, of somber longings, of depression, and joyous elation without any recognizable cause, which he experienced before the beloved one had appeared to him. Then he remembers the ardent love with which she suddenly inspired him, he thinks of his almost insane anxiety of mind, of his raging jealousy, of his reawakening love, of his religious consolation.
2nd Movement: A ball
In a ballroom, amidst the confusion of a brilliant festival, he finds the loved one again.
3rd Movement: In the country
it is a summer evening. He is in the country musing when he hears who shepherd-lads who play the ranz des vaches (the tune used by the Swiss to call their flocks together) in alternation. This shepherd-duet, the locality, the soft whisperings of the trees stirred by the zephyr-wind some prospects of hope recently made known to him, all the sensations unite to impart a long unknown repose to his heart and to lend a smiling color to his imagination. And then she appears once more. His heart stops beating, painful forebodings fill his soul. “Should she prove false to him!” One of the shepherds resumes the melody, but the other answers him no more…Sunset…distant rolling of thunder…loneliness…silence.
4th Movement: The procession to the stake
He dreams that he has murdered his beloved, that he has been condemned to death and is being led to the stake. A march that is alternately somber and wild, brilliant and solemn, accompanies the procession… The tumultuous outbursts are followed without modulation by measured steps. At last the fixed idea returns, for a moment a last thought of love is revived – which is cut short by the death-blow.
5th Movement: The witches’ Sabbath
He dreams that he is present at a witches’ dance, surrounded by horrible spirits, amidst sorcerers and monsters in many fearful forms, who have come to assist at his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, shrill laughter, distant yells, which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody is heard again but it has its noble and shy character no longer; it has become a vulgar, trivial and grotesque kind of dance. She it is who comes to attend the witches’ meeting. Friendly howls and shouts greet her arrival…She joins the infernal orgie…bells toll for the dead…a burlesque parody of Dies irae…the witches’ round-dance…the dance and the Dies irae are heard at the same time.
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