1830: Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, age 26

I. Reveries – Passions, C minor – C major

II. A Ball  –  A major

III. Scene in the Fields – F major

IV. March to the Scaffold – G minor

V. Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath – C minor – C major


Berlioz was a man of extreme passion, and his choice of instruments was extremely unusual.

  • 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling cor anglais) (in movement III, the first oboist plays briefly offstage), 2 clarinets (one doubling E♭ clarinet),4 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides (modern performances use tubas)
  • 4 timpani (played by two players), cymbals, snare drum (used in movement IV), bass drum, bells in C and G
  • 2 harps (used in movement II)
  • Strings

Otto Klemperer

Klemperer was known for slower tempos and very rich readings full of details that other conductors missed. Everything is stretched, timeless, and that makes this recording very special for me.

1st movement

The music is both passionate and dreamy, so it is probably one of the strangest music you will ever hear. It’s never quite peaceful, but when you read the story of the mood Berlioz was in when he wrote this symphony, you know why.

2nd movement

Do you hear a ball? It’s a very fast waltz, or something like that. Most interesting to me is the flow from C major to A major. It’s always an interesting change, because normally we associate A minor with C major, the relative minor.

3rd movement

This is a true morph. A C# E moves to A C F, two 1/2 steps. More and more in the late Classical era and into the Romantic era composers morph, and that’s what gives music the “slithering” feeling of music and sliding from one place to another. Two of the most famous composers for doing this were Berlioz and Wagner, but the others all did it too.

4th movement

Supposedly Berlioz dreamed about dying, so the idea is gruesome. But that’s not what I hear, because today scary music is just a lot more weird and frightening. For me this is just odd, not scary, and I enjoy the sound. It’s just a really crazy march with incredible accents, and it’s the opposite of balanced and rational. Everything is extreme. I love the bass trombone in this movement.

5th movement

The idea that this is about witches absolutely does not connect to me at all. I could never accept this as frightening, or evil, or threatening. In the 20th and 21st century we learned how to write music that truly sounds evil, and it’s totally different. As a description of what Berlioz was after, this is for me a total fail. To me it’s a joke to think it means what Berlioz wanted to make it mean. But I love the drama, and the excess, and the sound experience. It does not scare me at all, or make me feel even sad. It’s just pure fun!

He wanted a serpent…

Yes, you read correctly. Berlioz originally wrote a part for one serpent:

A serpent is a  bass wind instrument sounded by the vibration of the lips against a cup mouthpiece. It was probably invented in 1590 by Edme Guillaume, a French canon of Auxerre, as an improvement on bass versions of the closely related cornett.

A part for an ophicleide: (ophicleide pronunciation)…

An ophicleide is an obsolete bass brass instrument much like a serpent with keys, used in bands in the 19th century but superseded by the tuba.

Exit one serpent and one ophicleide…

The serpent proved to be difficult to use, so he switched to two ophicleides. First he got rid of the serpent and changed it to two other weird instruments, but later both these weird instruments were abandoned as impractical. Today tubas usually play those parts.

60 string players…

Berlioz specified at least 15 1st violins, 15 2nd violins, 10 violas, 11 cellos and 9 basses in  the score. I don’t know if that many string players play this music today, but it’s an interesting thought. Berlioz, like Wagner, had a huge ego and always thought big.

“Episode in the Life of an Artist”, the subtitle…

That’s the other name of the music, and there is a long story behind it. But you will have to check it out for yourself, because I have absolutely no interest in Berlioz’s drama and histrionics. He was young, he was in love, and he was more than a bit of a drama queen. The way “troubled lovers” of that era go on and on about their passions and suffering I find indescribably childish and narcissistic.

I just like the music for the music’s sake.

Written in 1830…

Berlioz was still 26 most of the year because he did not turn 27 until December. So he was still quite young when he wrote this.

He made a big deal about the story when he was young…

But later he downplayed it when he was older and wiser. In 1855  he wrote:

If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert […]  one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.

In other words, Berlioz later apparently understood that either his music would stand on it’s own, with a minimum of description, or it was a failure.

Is this really a symphony?

I suppose you can define any group of three or four parts of something as a symphony, but it’s really a very odd symphony. It has five movements instead of three or four as was conventional for symphonies of his time. However, his idea of unifying the whole thing with a common theme that was developed differently in each movement was unusual, and I think all symphonies should do that, to prove that the different movements really connect as a whole.

Idée fixe – what is it?

This is what others name Berlioz’s main theme, or perhaps more than one. It has too meanings. One is something obsessive, and you might think of someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who can’t stop doing the same thing over and over again, or who can’t stop thinking about one idea. In music it is simply a very persistent theme and is much like a Leitmotiv.

3 thoughts on “1830: Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

  1. 5th movement

    I did not find this music to be scary or frightening. This movement was filled with an abundance of energy and excitement. Quite a workout for the orchestra and the conductor. All of them did a wonderful job. I would give it a 5 star, out of 5, rating.

  2. It can certainly be enjoyed as music without a storyline, or even knowing there is a story. Though maybe with a story one can have fun trying to imagine those scenes there. The Ball did sound like a ball — they climb up some gold stairs lined with sparkling silver banisters before the music starts, don’t they? 😉

  3. I can see the Ball. Grand sweeping 3/4 time, slowly picking up tempo. Plenty of brightness and cheer.

    As for the rest, who knows. You want scary witch music, let’s listen to Tam o’ Shanter.

    The whole piece is a strange one. Didn’t he write this after being spurned by a woman?

    And here I was sitting, thinking your favorite was the Stokowski ;o)

    I know you lent me that CD but now I can’t find it. Did I return it?

    This one’s just as tasty tho. I like Klemperer.

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