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Symphonie fantastique, Op 14

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Movement 1: Rêveries – Passions
Movement 2: Un bal
Movement 3: Scène aux champs
Movement 4: Marche au supplice
Movement 5: Songe d'une nuit de sabbat

Symphonie fantastique, Op 14
For a long time the controversy surrounding the Symphonie fantastique prevented a thorough and sensible examination of the music itself – a serious analysis of what was in it and how it was put together. Yet Berlioz was certainly not the first or the last composer to re-use existing material (think of Beethoven, think of Brahms) – or to find musical stimulus in literary sources: in this case, the writings of Chateaubriand, Goethe and Victor Hugo. In one of the poems in Hugo’s Odes et Ballades the striking of midnight on a monastery bell precipitates a hideous assembly of witches and half-human, half-animal creatures who execute a whirling round-dance and perform obscene parodies of the rituals of the church, an image that Berlioz transmutes into his highly original and skilfully constructed finale. Hugo’s passionate fictional tract against capital punishment, Le dernier jour d’un condamné, which Berlioz read shortly before he began to compose the symphony, was another source. There we find the phrase ‘an idée fixe haunting the mind every hour, every moment’, and, as the chained convicts dance in a ring in the prison courtyard, ‘the clash of their chains’ serves as ‘orchestra to their raucous song’, the whole picture being the ‘image of a witches’ sabbath’.

None of this in any way militates against the symphony’s claim to be a coherent work of art. As always, what matters is not what may have gone into the making of a work but what comes out. Modern commentators and critics have decisively vindicated the integrity of the Symphonie fantastique – what Wilfrid Mellers calls its ‘taut design’ and Edward Cone the unity that ‘goes much deeper than the mere recurrence of the idée fixe’.

The work used to also be treated as a completely unheralded event in the history of music, coming out of nowhere – the most miraculous birth, it was said, since Athena sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus. That is no more than at best a half-truth. With all its innovations – including the introduction of instruments, textures and rhythms new to symphonic music – the Symphonie fantastique has roots, deep roots, in other music, past and present: not least the music of Gluck and Spontini, which was for several years Berlioz’s main diet and whose melodic style he absorbed into his innermost being when he first came to Paris in 1821, a boy of seventeen who had never heard an orchestra.

A few years later, the discovery of Weber, and still more of Beethoven at the Conservatoire concerts in 1828, 1829 and 1830 (paralleling his discoveries of Goethe and Shakespeare), had an even more profound effect on the young musician till then reared on French classical opera. The Fantastique is unthinkable without Beethoven’s Pastoral and Fifth, and without Der Freischütz. Above all, the revelation of the symphony as a dramatic form par excellence, and of the orchestra as an expressive instrument of undreamed richness and flexibility, became, for Berlioz, the springboard for a leap into unknown territory. It opened before him a new world which he must at all costs enter and inhabit.

On the point of starting to compose the Fantastique, in January 1830, he told his sister Nancy: ‘Ah, my sister, you can’t imagine what pleasure a composer feels who writes freely in response to his own will alone. When I have drawn the first accolade of my score, where my instruments are ranked in battle array – when I think of the virgin lands which academic prejudice [in France] has left untouched till now and which since my emancipation I regard as my domain – I rush forward with a kind of fury to cultivate it’.

Already, in a letter written to a friend a year earlier, when ideas for the symphony had begun to take shape in his mind, we get a sense of Berlioz’s intense excitement: ‘Now that I have broken the chains of routine, I see an immense territory stretching before me which academic rules forbade me to enter. Now that I have heard that awe-inspiring giant Beethoven I realise what point the art of music has reached. It’s a question of taking it up at that point and carrying it further – no, not further, that’s impossible, he attained the limits of art, but as far in another direction’.

The influence of Beethoven, however, could only be general, not specific; it was a matter of inspiration, not imitation. Without doubt there are sounds and colours and gestures in the work that are indebted to Beethoven’s example. One can cite the emancipation of the timpani, used as an independent instrument, not just as reinforcement of the tuttis; the macabre, grotesque effect of bassoons in the high register in the ‘Marche au supplice’, inspired by the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth; in the third movement, the ‘Scène aux champs’, certain country images like the cry of the quail (from the Pastoral) and, in the movement’s great central crisis and its resolution, the successive fortissimo diminished sevenths of the Fifth’s first movement and the irregular diminuendo chords of Florestan’s aria in Fidelio. But the form of the work is Berlioz’s and no one else’s. So, though he is deeply concerned with issues of musical architecture, he works out his own salvation. Though he will learn from Beethoven’s technique of thematic transformation, he will not use it as a model. He composes in melodic spans rather than in motifs. The work’s recurring melody – the idée fixe – is forty bars long; and its repetition two thirds of the way through the first movement represents not a sonata reprise but a stage in the theme’s evolution from monody to full orchestral statement.

No one – not least in France – had composed symphonic music or used the orchestra like this before. As Michael Steinberg says, ‘no disrespect to Mahler or Shostakovich, but this is the most remarkable First Symphony ever written’. It was typical of Berlioz’s boldness and freedom of spirit that his first major orchestral work comprised a mixture of genres analogous to what the Romantic dramatists were attempting after the example of Shakespeare – bringing the theatre into the concert hall – and that in doing so he should override the normal categories of symphonic discourse and create his own idiosyncratic version of classical form in response to the demands of the musical drama: the ‘Episode in the Life of an Artist’ that is the work’s subtitle.

Yet the score given at the Conservatoire Hall in December 1830 was, to him, a logical consequence of the Beethovenian epiphany that he had had two years earlier in the same hall. It was addressed to the same eager young public and performed by many of the same players, under the same conductor, François Antoine Habeneck.

It might embody autobiographical elements: not just his much publicised passion for the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, but his whole emotional and spiritual existence up till then – as he wrote at the front of the manuscript, quoting a poem by Victor Hugo, ‘All I have suffered, all I have attempted … The loves, the labours, the bereavements of my youth … my heart’s book inscribed on every page’. For Berlioz, however, all this was not essentially different from what Beethoven had done in his Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Carrying on from him, he could use intense personal experience, and movement titles, to bring music’s inherent expressivity still further into the open and, at the same time, extend its frame of reference and blur still more the distinction between so-called ‘pure music’ and music associated with an identifiable human situation. All sorts of extra-musical ideas could go into the composition, yet music remained sovereign. It could describe the course of one man’s hopeless passion for a distant beloved and still be – as Beethoven said of the Pastoral – ‘expression of feeling rather than painting’, the whole contained within a disciplined musical structure.

The literary programme offered to the Conservatoire audience gave the context of the work; it introduced the ‘instrumental drama’ (to quote Berlioz’s prefatory note) whose ‘outline, lacking the assistance of speech, needs to be explained in advance’. It is not this that holds the symphony together and makes it a timeless record of the ardours and torments of the young imagination. The music does that.

The five movements may be summed up as follows:

(1) Slow introduction; sadness and imagined happiness, creating out of a state of yearning an image of the ideal woman, represented (Allegro) by the idée fixe – a long, asymmetrically phrased melodic span, first heard virtually unaccompanied, then gradually integrated into the full orchestra. The melody, in its alternate exaltation and dejection, its fevers and momentary calms, forms the main argument. At the end, like a storm that has blown itself out, it comes to rest on a series of solemn chords.
(2) A ball, at which the beloved is present. Waltz: at first dreamlike, then glittering, finally garish. Middle section with the idée fixe assimilated to the rhythm of the dance.
(3) A shepherd pipes a melancholy song, answered from afar by another. Pastoral scene: a long, serene melody, with similarities of outline to the idée fixe and, like it, presented as monody, by flute and first violins, then in progressively fuller textures. Agitated climax, precipitated by the idée fixe, which later takes on a more tranquil air (without its characteristic sighing fourth). Dusk, distant thunder. The first shepherd now pipes alone. Drums and solo horn prepare for:
(4) ‘Marche au supplice’. The artist, under the influence of opium, imagines he has killed the beloved and, accompanied by noisy crowds, is being marched through the streets to execution. The dreams of the first three movements are now intensified into nightmare and the full orchestral forces deployed: massive brass and percussion, prominent and grotesque bassoons. The idée fixe reappears pianissimo on solo clarinet, but is cut off by the guillotine stroke of the whole orchestra.
(5) Strange mewings, muffled explosions, distant cries, as a throng of demons and sorcerers, summoned from far and wide, gather to celebrate Sabbath night. The executed lover witnesses his own funeral. The beloved melody, now a lewd distortion of itself – a vulgar, cackling tune on a shrill E flat clarinet – joins the revels. Dies irae, parody of the church’s ritual of the dead. Witches’ round dance. The climax, after a long crescendo, combines round dance and Dies irae in a tour de force of rhythmic and orchestral virtuosity.

from notes by David Cairns © 2012

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