“Fantastic” In Every Sense: How Berlioz Burst the Boundaries

July 11, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen

The word “fantastic” has largely lost its original connotation. The true definition of the word is “imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality.” Of course, the meaning has shifted toward the  informal definition, something along the lines of “extraordinarily good or attractive.” According to the manuscript, the most famous work by Hector Berlioz is properly titled Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, Symphonie fantastique en cinq parties (Episode in the life of an artist, Fantastic symphony in five parts). Although it is certainly correct to refer to the work in English as the “Fantastic Symphony,” the original French title Symphonie fantastique is more commonly seen.

With the colloquial meaning of the English word, perhaps it does seem a bit odd to shout out the equivalent of “Come listen to this totally awesome, bitchin’ symphony, dude!” But such an advertisement would not be inaccurate. And I would not hesitate to use that very invitation to the Colorado Music Festival’s concerts on July 25 and 26, when it will be conducted by music director Peter Oundjian. If we consider the sheer audacity of the program Berlioz provided for the work, the boldness of its orchestration, the daring innovations in both structure and sound, the aspect of the piece that seems most “fantastic” of all is that the premiere performance on December 5, 1830 was less than four years after the death of Ludwig van Beethoven.

That composer, of course, had revolutionized the symphony on several occasions. His Third, the “Eroica,” expanded the genre beyond anything it had experienced before. His Fifth linked the last two movements directly, employed trombones, and boldly traveled from severe minor to emphatically brilliant major. His Sixth used descriptive movement titles amounting to a program and added a fifth movement to the usual four. And finally, his Ninth expanded things to an even greater degree and introduced the element of the human voice.

But nothing Beethoven or anybody else had written sounds remotely like the Fantastique.

The orchestration alone would ensure that, but it goes beyond that. The musical materials and their transformation—not to mention their use to illustrate extramusical events and images—go well beyond anything Beethoven ever imagined. Surely those who heard the symphony at its first performances did not know what to make of it.

Robert Schumann, in his capacity as a music critic, wrote a famous and highly perceptive analysis of the symphony in 1835 which is even more remarkable given that he was working with a piano transcription by Liszt and not the full orchestral score. But even he was puzzled and confounded by certain aspects of the work. (Because of a misprint in the first program, Schumann believed that the symphony was composed in 1820, which would predate Beethoven’s Ninth and make Berlioz seventeen years old at the time of composition!)

An English Actress Inspires the First Great French Symphony

Like many great composers of the early 19th Century, Berlioz had an exceedingly romantic temperament, and in his case, that word can be applied in all its current and former senses. The failed medical student who recognized his own musical talent was remarkably tenacious in his zeal to nourish that talent. A native of southeastern France, born not far from Grenoble in 1803, Berlioz did find his way to the Paris Conservatory after recognizing that the career in medicine planned for him by his father was decidedly not his destiny.

Even from his earliest works, he provoked amazement and a total lack of understanding among the conservative French musical establishment. Every bit as interesting as his musical development, however, was his emotional state of mind, particularly his attitude toward romantic love. Long before he arrived in Paris, Berlioz had strong notions of passionate love at first sight, of the epic romance that struggled against time, space, and circumstance, and of pursuing that idealized love against all odds.

Thus, when an English theatre company arrived in Paris in 1827 to perform a season of Shakespeare, Berlioz attended the first night of Hamlet—and was immediately and irrevocably smitten with the vivacious Anglo-Irish actress who played Ophelia. Her name was Harriet Smithson, but throughout his life, Berlioz would Frenchify her name to Henriette. The story of his pursuit is long and at times torturous. He devoted most of his energy to bringing his name to her attention. She learned of his existence and received his letters, but they had not met before she left Paris in 1829.

In the meantime, vicious gossip about Harriet began to circulate, driving the composer to the dark state he was in when he conceived the symphony and its program, which occupied him for most of the year 1830. While the program and the symphony would undergo revisions, the outlines of both were essentially as we know them before the first performance. The idea of a musical motive to represent the beloved—the famous idée fixe—was always present, as was the five-movement scheme. The last two movements were both elements of a vision or dream that occurred after the young artist of the program “poisoned himself” with opium.

The initial versions of the program were harsher on the heroine, and Berlioz would gradually soften these. For a time, his obsession with Miss Smithson cooled, and he even embarked on another affair with a more willing target. During that year, recognition of his gifts as a composer increased, and he won the coveted Prix de Rome that fall. He was determined to stage the premiere of his symphony before that award’s requisite trip to Italy.

While in Rome, Berlioz occupied himself with certain revisions of the symphony and composed a little-known “sequel” that is rarely performed today. That work, Lélio or The Return to Life, is a strange musical monodrama with a narrator and chorus that supposedly continues and concludes the story of the suffering protagonist from the Fantastique. Its importance largely lies in its role it played in stimulating the fateful second performance of the revised symphony in December 1832, two years after the first one.

Berlioz obtained permission to return early from Rome to prepare for the concert—at which both works would be performed in succession—and on arriving back in Paris, was astonished to find that Miss Smithson was back in the city, now as the director of the English company, which was struggling somewhat to gain audiences this time around. Through a series of remarkable coincidences (if the composer’s memoirs are to be believed), Miss Smithson was persuaded to attend the concert without knowing who the featured composer was. When the program was distributed, she realized this. And the knowledge that she was the subject of both works became particularly apparent with the references in the text of Lélio to roles she had played such as Ophelia and Juliet. If she viewed him as a nuisance or the 19th-Century equivalent of a stalker two years prior, she was now overwhelmed by both his talent and his passion and agreed to meet him the next day.

They were married the next fall in 1833. Against all odds, Berlioz had attained his impossible romantic dream. And he did it through the composition and performance of a major milestone in the history of the symphony and of western music in general. But there would not be a “happily ever after.” The marriage fell apart within a few years, and the two separated in 1844. Even thereafter, Berlioz still held her in high regard and never spoke ill of his first wife. Her death in 1854 was one of a series of personal blows at that time that met him in relentless succession.

The Program and Its Limits

Most classical music fans and patrons are well acquainted with the program, and in music appreciation classes, the symphony has become a sort of poster child for 19th-Century instrumental program music. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (which will be heard at the CMF August 1) is also often cited, but the program of the Fantastique is so detailed, the story behind its conception so epically romantic, and its actual nature so utterly bizarre that it is an ideal example to illustrate the concept.

Berlioz himself had an ambivalent attitude toward musical depiction and imitation. He was against doing it in a gratuitous way, and concrete images in the Fantastique are used surprisingly sparingly—there is the shepherd’s dialogue at the beginning of the “Scene in the Country” and the rumbling thunder at the end of that movement. The fall of the guillotine’s blade at the end of the “March to the Scaffold” is obvious. But things like the idée fixe theme itself and the second movement waltz are far more general. Even the famous quotation of the “Dies irae” chant melody is only associated with death in a general sense.

That is why Berlioz provided a written program. He knew and argued for the fact that music alone cannot really tell us what the composer wanted to say unless the composer explains it. And if music can say things on its own, there is no need for an explanation. Once the listener has the explanation, however, it is impossible to banish it from the mind when hearing the music.

Berlioz did change the program as it evolved from a description in a letter to his friend Humbert Ferrand to what was printed at the premiere (which remained the standard for over 20 years) to a revision Berlioz produced in the 1850s. The latter was likely created specifically for performances that were paired with Lélio. The successive versions of the program become gradually kinder to the woman depicted in the idée fixe. In the letter to Ferrand, she becomes not just a witch, but a prostitute in the final movement! This changed when it became clear that the salacious rumors about Miss Smithson’s morality were untrue.

The most significant change in the 1850s version was the placement of the opium dose at the very beginning, thus incorporating the whole symphony and not just the last two movements. This change does not make much sense, as the first three movements are still essentially grounded in the real world, while the last two are clearly “fantastic.” And the ominous timpani rolls—the thunder that accompanies the now unanswered shepherd’s pipe at the end of the third movement—is an excellent symbol for the young man’s psychotic break.

The First Movement and the Idée Fixe

Berlioz called the large-scale first movement “Rêveries, Passions” (“Dreams – Passions”). He made it clear that the substantial introduction represented the dreams and the main part of the movement the passions. Schumann devoted great attention to this first movement, as did scholar Edward T. Cone in his excellent Norton Critical Score of the symphony.[1] Schumann perceived that the movement was in a type of the “sonata-allegro form” used for first movements, and the presence of a slow introduction was common enough as well.

Berlioz’s intent is made clear by the inclusion of the standard “exposition repeat.” But there are deviations. The “exposition” is unusually short and while there is a “second theme,” its initial statement is inextricable from its connection to the “first theme” (which is of course the idée fixe). And while this second theme has a recapitulation in the main key, it precedes rather than follows the main theme. It is really a type of arch, with a prominent statement of the idée fixe in the middle of the central development section.

Unlike most symphonies, the Fantastique is rarely identified by its key, but it is in C. The slow “Largo” introduction is in C minor. It begins with a short curtain-raiser in the winds, followed by the melancholy introduction theme in the strings. A livelier major-key interruption follows, which Berlioz noted was particularly difficult for the orchestra to execute. The melancholy theme returns and is varied with extensive decoration, and there is an extended transition to the main part of the movement in C major. Lest there be any ambiguity about the character, Berlioz headed it “Allegro agitato e appassionato assai” (“Fast, agitated, and very passionate”).

Before the idée fixe theme itself appears, there is a brief prelude that introduces a rapid hammering two-note rhythm that will accompany the theme’s first appearance. The statement of the theme, presented by violins and flutes, is where Berlioz marks the beginning of his exposition. Its first two phrases are set up as a typical antecedent/consequent pair, or a statement and answer. The yearning upward surges and the long-short “dotted” rhythm are its primary characteristics. The subsequent elements are shorter and include sighing gestures that borrow a note from the minor key (A-flat) only to quickly change this back to major (A-natural). There is also a distinctive downward leap (a seventh). The theme reaches full closure, whereupon the transitional material alternates between stormy, agitated music and a gentler cadence phrase that also includes a downward leap.

The second theme in the expected key of G major appears late in the marked exposition and is intertwined with elements of the idée fixe theme in the winds. But its prominent characteristic—a longer note followed by a jagged descent—is highly distinctive, and the theme will play a larger role as the movement continues. Some conductors do not observe the exposition repeat, citing the unusually long introduction and the movement’s dramatic trajectory. I argue that it is good to take it. It is not long, and because the idée fixe is so important, it cannot hurt the audience to hear its full statement a second time before it is developed and manipulated. And Berlioz approaches the repeat skillfully.

In contrast to the brief exposition, the development is long and involved. It begins with a sequence of the main theme in the low bass, followed by prominent statements of the second theme in the winds and strings. A passage of harmonized “chromatic” scale motion (moving by half-steps without skipping notes outside the major or minor scale) leads to a dramatic and unusual three-measure pause.

Here is the center of the movement. After the pause, a single horn and rising string figures lead to a full woodwind statement of the idée fixe theme, now in the secondary key of G major. Another agitated and contrapuntal section leads to an almost triumphant statement of the second theme in the home key of C. In a typical sonata-allegro form, the home-key statement of the second theme would follow the recapitulation of the first theme, also in the home key. But the recapitulation has not yet arrived, for there is still more developmental material based on the idée fixe theme. This includes a new and highly emotional idea presented by the oboe against a dialogue on the theme in the low strings.

The buildup becomes increasingly intense until the idée fixe is finally stated in radiant glory in C major, decorated by extra faster notes in the strings and marked by the movement’s only appearance of trumpets (Berlioz scored for four instruments, two valve cornets and two natural trumpets—today all four parts are typically taken by standard trumpets). This is amplified in a continuation that includes a piercing piccolo. Just when things are at their most excited, Berlioz scales things back for some gentle statements of the idée fixe in the woodwind instruments. But things pick up again and the music reaches a decisive hammered cadence.

Originally the movement ended here, and that ending was jarringly abrupt. In the revised version heard in 1832, Berlioz added a coda that cools things down. A series of alternating leaps settles into a final statement of the theme’s opening in the violins. And then the closing takes the form of chorale-like chords including Amen-style “plagal” cadences. Berlioz explicitly marked this closing “Religiosamente,” and he added a reference to “religious consolations” to the program that was not originally there.

The Harps Are the Stars of the Ball

In the initial draft of the program included in the letter to Ferrand, the “Ball” movement was third, following the Scene in the Country. The switched order makes more dramatic and musical sense, placing two more character-like pieces in second and fourth position with the large slow movement in the center.

The waltz itself in fast 3/8 time is brilliant, but the virtuosic use of the harps is its most distinctive characteristic. This instrument was not yet a standard part of the orchestra, even one of them. To ask for two—and to ask for them to play in only one of five movements—was bold indeed, and one difficulty in arranging the first performances was the need for two extremely skilled harpists.

The waltz is in the bright key of A major, but it is introduced by an atmospheric, slightly ominous introduction in A minor, the “relative” minor key to C major. This helps to seamlessly bridge from the first movement. The waltz theme emerges after the major key bursts through. It is presented by the strings and its contour is somewhat reminiscent of the idée fixe. Berlioz does not hesitate to ask for dramatic slowing at certain points. A descending sequence of a repeated-note figure provides a contrasting phrase, and this in turn develops into a reiterated gesture that crosses against the waltz rhythm.

The movement is in a three-part form, and the central section is none other than a full presentation of the idée fixe, transformed into a waltz rhythm and given in the distant key of F major (also the key of the third movement) by woodwinds. Fragments of the waltz appear in the strings. A halting transition leads into the full, exuberantly decorated return of the waltz theme.

The coda is very long and increasingly breathtaking as the waltz theme builds up to a level of unrestrained excitement. But this is abruptly cut off by the clarinet, which unexpectedly plays the idée fixe again. This isolated statement, virtually unaccompanied, is rather unnerving in the context of the swirling waltz. But the orchestra is having none of this, and forcefully breaks in on a series of loud chords that resumes the tumultuous apotheosis. Through it all, the harps bathe everything in their flowing, colorful sheen.

Shepherds in the Country

The third movement, the “Scène aux champs” (“In the Country”) begins with the dialogue between the piping shepherds, the near one playing the English horn (another instrument not yet standard in the orchestra) and the answer in the distance from the regular oboe. Eventually, they are underpinned by rumbling strings before the main part of the movement begins.

The main melody in F major (a key associated with “pastoral” colors before and after Beethoven used it for his Sixth Symphony) is, like the idée fixe, first played by violins and flute. It spins itself out and obtains a plucked string accompaniment. There is a contrasting phrase with a sighing, descending line, then a more urgent passage with repeated downward leaps (of a sixth).

A mildly skittish transition leads to another presentation of the main melody, now in low strings and bassoons with an active violin accompaniment continuing from the transition. Another transition builds in intensity.

The middle section gives the first real signs of trouble ahead. As in the waltz, its main argument is the idée fixe, transformed into the pastoral 6/8 meter of this movement and played by the woodwinds. But this time it is preceded by an angry sounding recitative-like outburst in the cellos and basses, accompanied by a very rapid tremolo (unmeasured fast repeated notes) in the upper strings. Fragments of this recitative interrupt the lines of the familiar melody, now played in yet another key, B-flat major. As the idée fixe reaches a piercing high note, it holds there and does not reach completion. At the same time, the recitative forcefully asserts itself and it takes a loud chord with tremolo strings to restore order.

After things settle down, the flutes and oboes use pleasing harmonized thirds in a rise to the return of the main pastoral theme. This time it is played in a highly decorative variation with isolated woodwind counterpoint. A second statement is like the one right before the middle section, but the lower strings accompany with ominous fast repeated chords. This final statement is slightly extended, and the idée fixe returns toward the end of the movement, as it had in the waltz. Flute, clarinet, and oboe alternate on fragments. Then there are a series of long-breathed descents (of a seventh) preceding more idée fixe fragments. Finally, the repeated downward leaps of a sixth, familiar from the first section, lead to a full closure.

It seems probable, based on revisions to the program, that the movement once ended here. Berlioz added the dramatic coda, in which the single shepherd portrayed by the English horn calls out again, this time without answer from the companion oboe, but accompanied by an extremely graphic depiction of thunder played on the timpani. Berlioz directed that there be four players, an incredible luxury, because each drum has such a distinct part. The thunder and the lonely shepherd fade away before the strings and horn close things off with quiet chords.

Berlioz marked the movement “Adagio,” and although it is not long in terms of material, it does tend to be significantly extended in terms of performance time. I have always found this to be a bit of a miscalculation on Berlioz’s part. Despite the drama at the end, the movement comes dangerously close outstaying its welcome.

A Witness to His Own Execution

If what has proceeded thus far was already new and different, the last two movements completely explode all boundaries. Here, Berlioz brings on the brass, including two of those strange predecessors of the tuba, the “ophicleide” or “serpent” (invariably played on tubas today). The ingenious use of the timpani at the end of the previous movement continues here in the introduction of the “March to the Scaffold” in G minor. The opening calls are played by stopped horns, with specific instructions on tone production from Berlioz.

This introduction builds to the entry of the main march, which has two principal themes. The first in G minor, a leaping octave and a descending line, is played five times in succession with varying instrumentation: first, cellos and basses alone; second, the same with bassoon counterpoint; third, more forcefully by the violins, with re-entry of the timpani; fourth, a second statement with this orchestration, bridged by a brass outburst; and fifth, again in the lower strings against its own inverted form in the violins, with a new counterpoint in the bassoons.

This last statement builds to the extremely familiar fanfare-like B-flat-major second theme in the brass and woodwinds. After its twofold presentation, Berlioz indicates a repeat of all that has proceeded thus far—a controversial repeat because of what comes after it.

Following the repeat sign, there is a short and forceful descending figure in the brass that is stated twice. This leads into a skeletal version of Theme 1, broken between strings and winds. Now something strange happens. Theme 2 is stated again, in its entirety without changes, and is followed again by the two elements just described. Thus, we have a huge repetition of a large section of music, part of which occurs before the repeat sign and will therefore be heard three times if the repeat is taken.

After this material passes by again, the real buildup begins. Theme 1 is played in the trombones and tubas against urgent figures in the strings. This builds up to a massive climax as Theme 1 is blasted out by the full orchestra with cymbals and bass drum. Theme 1 is then inverted, leading to an extremely excited passage, mostly in long-short rhythm, rushing toward the conclusion. It includes another famous moment. Berlioz has the woodwinds play repeated chords of D-flat major in alternation with string chords on G minor. These harmonies are not related and according to the rules should not directly follow each other. Schumann had much to say about this spot, and Berlioz had to include a footnote that it was not a misprint. To our ears that have experienced Stravinsky and Schoenberg, it is hard to hear why this was such a big moment then, but we need to imagine ourselves with the ears of 1830. Everything is suddenly cut off as the clarinet plays a fragment—and only a fragment—of the idée fixe.

After Berlioz’s most graphic musical depiction of an event in the symphony—the fall of the guillotine blade—cuts off the idée fixe,thunderous G-major chords with rolling drums bring this movement—which can almost be described as a musical heart attack—to its close.

The Grotesque Dance of Death

It is possible to see the influence of Goethe’s Faust on this final movement. Berlioz certainly knew that major literary work and would later write his own semi-opera on the story. The scene of the movement seems specifically inspired by Goethe’s “Walpurgis Night” scene. The movement is vast, but its outlines are clear. The home key is once again C minor/major, but the key of E-flat (“relative” to C minor) plays a large role. Like the first movement, it is preceded by a large introduction that includes the final and most radical transformation of the idée fixe.

The introduction begins with rumbling, rising low strings against tremolo upper strings and timpani. A series of short descending figures seems almost like a depiction of cackling. There are octave descents in woodwind instruments and stopped horns which Berlioz directs should be bent downward—as close to a gliding glissando as wind instruments can get. These elements are then repeated.

And then we hear the clarinet play the idée fixe as a vulgar dance melody in its piercing tone, with added grace notes and trills, accompanied by timpani. A massive outburst in the orchestra interrupts this and moves the key to E-flat major. There, accompanied by bagpipe-like oboes, there is a more complete presentation of the transformed idée fixe, now from the small, shrill “piccolo clarinet” (or “E-flat clarinet”), joined shortly by the more familiar piccolo flute. This is expanded and made even more vulgar, and then the strings enter. Another transitional buildup with hints of the Witches’ Round Dance cuts things off. We will not hear the idée fixe again.

What we do hear is the sound of low bells intoning a descending octave on C, along with anticipatory fragments of the upcoming Witches’ Round Dance. These are heard three times, the last time quietly, and then comes the presentation of the “Dies irae” chant in C minor. Here Berlioz exploits his ophicleides (tubas). They play the first phrase of the chant in regular slower notes. Horns then play it at half the speed, and then woodwinds speed it up even more, in the rhythm of the round dance. This alternation is repeated for the second phrase and the longer third phrase, with added off-beats in the low strings. Then follows the transitional buildup to the main element, the “Witches’ Round Dance.”

The “round dance” is in C major, 6/8 time, and unfolds at first as a massive fugue. It begins with a regular exposition of four voices with continuing countersubjects. One thing to be noted is a loud syncopated punctuation that occurs at the end of each statement of the fugue “subject.” There is then an episode of contrasting material to the main fugue such as descending scale lines and repeated half-steps. The fugue is then presented again in a partial statement, but this is cut off. Beginning in E-flat major (again), the fugue is abandoned for a large-scale development of the contrasting material. Fragments of the round dance fugue “subject” begin to appear in transformed, spectral “chromatic” versions, and the horns even sneak in with the “Dies irae.”

Finally, there is a buildup over a bass drum roll using one of the “chromatic” transformations of the round dance fugue theme. This culminates in loud syncopated chords from the full orchestra, and then the strings sing out the round dance theme in C-major unison. And now Berlioz is ready for the last big compositional feat: the combination of the “Dies irae” in the winds with the round dance fugue theme in strings and timpani. The latter dissolves quickly into rushing scales.

At this point, the string players are directed to play a series of repeated notes by beating strings with the wood of the bow, a technique later known as col legno and one with a particularly eerie effect. Against it, the woodwinds play a drawn-out version of the round dance theme. The last pages are in pure C major but still maintain the sense of the grotesque. Loud chords and a final “Dies irae” statement with rumbling bass drum lead to the closing peroration based on the round dance, complete with powerful trombone descents and a blazing closing chord.


[1] Hector Berlioz, Fantastic Symphony: An Authoritative Score, Historical Background, Analysis, Views and Comments, edited by Edward T. Cone (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1971).

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