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1830 Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique

1830 Berlioz (1803 – 1869) Fantastic Symphony
Instrumentation Strings, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling cor Anglais), 2 clarinets (one doubling Eb), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tuba, 2 harps, timpani and percussion (cymbals, snare, bass drum, bells)
Movements I: Rêveries – Passions II: Un bal (A Ball) III: Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields) IV: Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) V: Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath).
Overview Berlioz takes his lead from Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sixth in writing a five-movement programmatic symphony. In the first movement an artist ‘remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations’. The following movements include a ball, a nightmarish dream that the artist is being executed for killing his beloved and finally a ‘witches’ sabbath’ in which all sorts of ghouls and monsters gather for his funeral. The fourth movement is the equivalent of the second (slow) movement and follows on from the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica (listen to opening of fourth movement below).

See a full score / watch on Youtube

 A) Overall form  A bit like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Berlioz’s has five programmatic movements, although the narrative is both more explicit and bizarre (see above)! Again, as with Beethoven, the middle movements include a dance movement (this time a waltz) and a slow movement.

One major innovation that impacts on the overall form, however, is Berlioz’s use of a recurring them (the idee fixe) to tie the work together (see notes at end of this page).

D) 3rd mov. / Minuet The second movement of the symphony is the equivalent of the minuet/scherzo and in this programmatic piece it represents a Waltz at which the artist sees his beloved. The movement is remarkable for its use of two harps at the opening, which dominate the accompanying texture. See the score for opening of the Waltz.

Listen to opening of Waltz:

An additional point of interest is the way in which Berlioz combines the original Waltz theme with the Idee Fixe idea from the first movement. See how themes from the Waltz combine.

Listen to Waltz combined with Idee Fixe

F) Dev. of orchestra The orchestration of this piece is not only remarkable for the huge forces that Berlioz required (see above – including the specified sizes of the string section, Berlioz’s score needs nearly 100 players) but also for the novel effects that he creates. Among the many examples, the following three are representative:

1)    The fourth movement – the march to the scaffold – opens with a terrifying rumbling on timpani (see the very specific instructions Berlioz gives to the timpanists on the first page of this movement) plus cellos and double basses divided into four low parts. The effect is quite unlike anything that had been written before.

Listen to opening of fourth movement (Booklet: Extract 4):

2)    The fifth movement on the other hand begins with violins and violas divided into eight parts playing high tremolo, creating an otherworldly feeling before the continuing nightmarish vision of a witches Sabbath (score of strings and timps at beginning of fifth movement / Listen to this movement on YouTube (Booklet: Extract 5i)).

3)    Later in this movement, Berlioz uses the high Eb clarinet, not used before in the orchestra (being an instrument of marching bands) to create a nightmarish distorted version of the Idee Fixe (see below in topic I)

I) Melody / theme One of the notable things about this symphony is Berlioz’s use of a melody that recurs throughout the work. This melody, which Berlioz called an Idee Fixe (means ‘fixed idea’ but has also a connotation of obsession), it is used in a more-or-less complete form each time but is transformed by its context, changing rhythm, orchestration etc.

At the opening the artist’s ‘beloved’ is introduced using the following melody (Booklet: Extract 1):

In the second movement, we hear the ‘beloved’ represented at a ball, combined with a waltz theme (Booklet: Extract 3):

In the last movement at the Witches Sabbath, the theme returns but this time nightmarishly transformed on high Eb clarinet (Booklet: Extract 5ii):

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