Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gothic Soundtrack: Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830)

(at left: Eugene Delacroix's portrait of Berlioz)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is a truly Romantic composer, with a liberal pinch of the Gothic as well.  Inspired by the grandiose vision of Beethoven, he wrote music chiefly for orchestra, and often for gigantic forces; on one occassion, he asked for as many as 400 instruments to play one of his works (at the time, a typical orchestra had about 30).  Berlioz read voraciously--including many Gothic works--and found his greatest inspiration in stories of ghosts, curses, old legends, and of course, tormented love.  He wrote a vocal symphony based on Romeo and Juliet, and opera on Much Ado About Nothing, and another symphony/concerto (a symphony with a large role for solo viola) loosely based on Byron's Harold in Italy.  However, his most celebrated work was autobiographical, based on the drama (largely imagined) of his own tortured love life.  In 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet by a touring English theatre company; he didn't understand more than a few words of English, but this didn't prevent him from becoming instantly smitten by the actress playing Ophelia, Henrietta Smithson.  Berlioz was a man of extreme sensibility, and he immediately imagined a torrid love affair between the two, and attempted to woo her through intermediaries (and his own music).  She left Paris along with the company soon afterwards, but upon her return a few years later, he had written his magnum opus, the Symphonie Fantastique (Fantastic Symphony--not that it was "great," but that it was "fantastic"--sublime, unusual, uncanny!).  The symphony, in five movements, was preceeded by the following synopsis by Berlioz:

"A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination in a paroxysm of love-sick despair has poisoned himself with opium.  The drug, too weak to kill, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by strange visions.  His sensations, feelings, and memories are translated in his sick brain into musical ideas and images.  The beloved one herself becomes for him a melody, a recurrent theme that haunts him everywhere."

The symphony opens with a "theme" which represents Henrietta, and undergoes several transformations throughout the work.  The first movement is a melancholy, haunted movement, which sets the scene for his love and his opium-induced trance.  The second movement is a ball scene, where frenzied dancing occurs as he searches for his beloved.  The third movement is a set in the countryside, where the composer is assuaged by the comforting powers of nature--until a distant storm intervenes (cue the sublime).  The fourth movement is stirring, martial music, as the hero is swept up into a frenzied "battle" with his imagination.  This is immediately followed by the trumpets signaling the "dies irae," a famous medieval melody that accompanied the Catholic mass--literally, the "day of wrath."  This theme conjures up a movement that Berlioz suggested was a "black mass," an orgy of witches and goblins led by his beloved, who has become grotesque and "uncanny."  Her theme appears in this movement transformed, no longer comforting but mocking him.  A new theme is taken up by the orchestra, which is the orgy proper; soon, the dies irae sounds at the same time and the two themes crash into one another, dashing toward the inevitable finale, where Berlioz writes the artist is brought to the scaffold by his beloved and decapitated!

In 1830, she attended the premier of this work, though was unaware of her role in inspiring it.  As Berlioz writes in his memoirs, "So astonished was she at the unprecedented murmur of conversation which she was plainly the object, that without being able to account to herself for it, she was filled with a kind of instictive terror, which moved her powerfully...When I came in panting and sat down beside her, she, who until then had doubted whether she were not mistaken in the name at the head of the program, saw and recognized me.  "It is the same," she said to herself.  "Poor young man.  No doubt he has forgotten me.  I hoped that he has."  The symphony began and created a tremendous impression.  The success and the passionate character of the work were bound to produce, and did in fact produce, an impression as profound as it was unlooked for upon her." 

This is only partially true; according to other sources, she was fairly horrified by her "role" in the symphony, and only came to speak with him by degrees.  Nevertheless, they did eventually marry (though he spoke little English and she little French), though it was not a happy marriage.  Perhaps the only true result of the relationship is the symphony itself, which is a high water mark of musical Romanticism, and a fitting companion to Frankenstein, Kubla Khan, and de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. 

A You Tube link to a performance by the NHK Symphony (Japan) of the 4th movement is below:

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