Romantic Music I: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

And so we begin with Hector Berlioz, the original tortured Romantic in an era that was full of them.  Musicologists routinely talk about the “Three Bs”—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  But for me, the third “B” has been and always will be Berlioz.  And I’m not alone: The original phrase, coined in the 1850s, specifically included Berlioz and I know many musicians who share my view.  Berlioz, however, fell out of favor.  The Germans hated his music—Mendelssohn called Berlioz’s scores “dirty”; Schumann opined that Berlioz’s music was “insufferable.” So did the Italians—Rossini remarked “it’s lucky it’s not music.”  Successive French composers similarly cast aspersions on the first great Romantic genius.  As a group, only the Russians appear to have held Berlioz universally in high esteem. 

Disappearing nearly entirely by the end of the 19th century, it was not until Sir Colin Davis (a Brit!) rescued Berlioz’s reputation in the second half of the twentieth century did his music return the world’s stages.  Even today, who recalls that Berlioz was responsible for orchestrating the French national anthem—which is undoubtedly why the full orchestral version of La Marseillaise is so moving.

But let’s begin with Berlioz the student, studying composition at the Paris Conservatorie and quickly building himself a reputation.  In a letter written during his final year of study, Berlioz wrote: “So many musical ideas are seething within me! . . . Now that I have broken free of the bonds of orthodoxy, I can see huge vistas opening up before me, which academic stuffiness had previously forbidden me to explore.”  Those ideas manifested in his final student composition, the Symphonie Fantastique.  That’s right, the sonic bomb that set off the Romantic Period in music was written by a grad student.

The Symphonie Fantastique is more than just a symphony. It is a story. A story of “love, passion, obsession, murder, madness, demonic orgies, and drug induced hallucinations” told without words and solely through the music. Crazy and revolutionary in equal measure, there has never been anything quite like it. Berlioz’s inspiration was, naturally, his own life. He was also inspired by the great artists who preceeded him. Like many of the Romantics, Berlioz was deeply influenced by Goethe, and his Faust in particular. Goethe’s influence is particularly pronounced in the supernatural movement that concludes the symphony. But Goethe was not Berlioz’s only, of even primary, literary influence. That honor goes to the one and only Bard: William Shakespeare.

In 1827, the Odèon Theatre (still in use today) presented the French premiere of one of the great artistic achievements in history, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Despite having been written over two-hundred years earlier, Hamlet and many other works by Shakespeare proved to be an ongoing source of inspiration for Romantic artists. From the indecisive yet deeply passionate prince of Denmark to his ill-fated, mad lover Ophelia, Hamlet was tailor-made for the young Berlioz. Berlioz was so deeply affected by Hamlet that he resolved on the spot never to attend another performance of Shakespeare’s works. He kept that resolution for all of five days, after which he found himself back at the theatre to see the French premiere of Romeo and Juliet. And that was it for Berlioz. While other composers were primarily inspired by other composers, Berlioz would worship at the altar of Shakespeare for the rest of his life:

Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Where is he? Where art thou? It seems to me that he alone amongst intelligent beings can understand me, and must have understood us both; he alone can have had pity on us, poor artists, who loved each other and were torn asunder. Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Thou must have been humane and kind; if thou existest still, thou must receive the wretched! thou art our father; thou art in heaven, if heaven there be. God is stupid and atrocious in his indifference; thou alone art the God good for the souls of artists. Receive us into thy bosom, father, embrace us!

Hector Berlioz

In addition to Shakespeare, Berlioz had also found another person worthy of his obsession, the firey and beautiful Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who had portrayed both Ophelia and Juliet to rave reviews at the Paris premieres. To say that Berlioz was obsessed with Smithson is an understatement. He wrote dozens (if not hundreds) of letters to her, rented an apartment near hers, and, to be frank, stalked her to the point of arriving unannounced in her dressing room. Smithson had become more than just a woman for Berlioz–she was his ideal. Part Irish beauty, part mad Ophelia, part passionate Juliet–Smithson was as much fantasy as reality for the young student.

For a year, Berlioz wallowed in his obsession and despair. And then, in 1828, something nearly as momentus happened: The French premieres of the mature symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. At this moment in time, the French music scene had become complete dominated by all forms of opera. But Berlioz’s problem was that opera was too concrete an art form to express the range of his emotions at the time. He needed something more abstract. And he found that form in Beethoven’s monumantal symphonies. In them, he saw how he could tell his emotional narrative through pure music.

But Berlioz was still not ready to compose his masterpiece. Two fraught years of emotional turmoil, illness, and study culminated in the news that Smithson was having an affair with her manager. How this affected Berlioz, we can only guess. But six manic weeks later, his symphony was done.

Berlioz’s symphony broke new ground in that it was accompanied by a program that described a narrative for each movement. Beethoven had done something similar in his Pastoral Symphony, but Berlioz took Beethoven’s idea to an entirely new level. The first movement is described thusly:

Part one
Daydreams, passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

As the symphony opens, there is a sense of a curtain rising on a nighttime scene. The key is C Minor and a sense of melancholy is already apparent in the music: This is a “tale of woe”. As Mozart did in the overture to Don Giovanni, we are forewarned: there will be no happy ending. Here, Berlioz takes us back to his youth, to a composition he wrote about a young girl in his village who, naturally, had rebuffed him. Her name was Estelle and Berlioz had taken verses from a poem about the nymph Estelle and set them to music. These simple country tunes open the Reverie, as the first movement is titled. But, as always with Berlioz, more is at work here. His orchestrations are lush, presenting new harmonic ideas, new colorations, and new sounds.

The great innovation however was the idée fixe. Berlioz had likely found inspiration in Beethoven, specifically from his obsessively repetitive rhythmic motifs. But Berlioz was also interested (no surprise here) in the emerging field of psychology and the idea of monomania in particular. The idée fixe is monomania set to music–an obsessive theme that is heard throughout the symphony and which represents the Beloved–the object of the artist’s desire and Harriet Smithson in particular. The idée fixe is, at its most basic, a music theme:

On another level, it is a searching, yearning theme accompanied by a bass-grounded line that replicates a heartbeat. And on its deepest level, the idée fixe represents the tumolt in contemporary philosophy at the time. Having seen the rationality of the Enlightenment-inspired Revolution devolve into Terror, the question of the day was whether mankind was too irrational to ever achieve the objectives of the Enlightenment. And monomania–the domination of thought by one all-consuming idea–was one of the many emerging psychiatric disorders being diagnosed, particularly in artists, at the time. Berlioz self-diagnosed himself as a monomaniac: He is the artist who becomes entirely consummed by the idea of the Beloved.

Berlioz conveys the instability of the artist’s emotions in this movement through a variety of techniques, which have since become standard tools for composers. He varies the rhythm, tempo, and dynamics, as Beethoven would have done. But to this, he adds revoutionary harmonic progressions that end on unstable diminished chords, contrary to the then-accepted rules of composition. Instead of satisfaction and resolution, Berlioz’s music provides the converse–instability, uncertainty, and dread.

Just as contemporary audiences were reckoning with these revolutionary tones, Berlioz also flipped the script on form. For the better part of a century, the sonata form dictated that a second theme should be presented in contrast to the opening theme, those contrasts then developed before achieving resolution in the recapituation and coda. Beethoven had stretched the sonata form up to the breaking point; Berlioz shattered it. His music would serve his narrative, not some predetermined structure. So what we get is more idée fixe. And more idée fixe. And when Berlioz finally gets around to presenting a new theme–a drop dead gorgeous oboe melody–fragments of the idée fixe drown it out. Feverish passages lead back to the idée fixe in full, a brief recapitulation of the main–and only–theme. We reach a natural ending point, which indeed was Berlioz’s original conclusion to the movement. But in one of his many revisions, Berlioz added a brief coda marked religiosamente. The idée fixe (what else) returns as sweetly as originally presented, followed by a series of Amen chords. Berlioz’s artist is more than simply obsessed with his Beloved–he worships her as a goddess.

Part two
A ball

The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

To follow this dramatic and entirely revolutionary opening movement, Berlioz does something completely unexpected. He scores a waltz. Waltzes, at the time, were considered to be light fare and wholly unsuitable for inclusion in the symphonic form. Many composers, including most notably Tchaikovsky, would include waltzes in their symphonies but Berlioz, as ever, was the first to do so. Berlioz’s waltz has a narrative purpose, however, and was more suited to the evolving storyline than a traditional minuet or scherzo. Through the music, we are instantaly transported to a party where our protagonist tries to put aside his obsession with the Beloved and reengage with society.

Opening in A minor, the movement is related harmonically to the tonic of the first movement, C major. It is not hard to imagine the glittering crystal and gold, the richly dressed dancers, full of festive good cheer. Through the eyes of the artist, the scene devolves into horror. The key changes to F major and the idée fixe returns, this time in 3/4 time. The waltz returns, but obsession is taking over. The tempo increases–beyond what is reasonable danceable–and the idée fixe returns in the clarinets. This is now a chaotic scene, with dancers whirling around the artist, who flees.

Part three
Scene in the countryside

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony influenced Berlioz on many fronts. From its proto-programatic form to its unusual five-movement structure, Berlioz borrowed many elements from the German master. Beethoven’s influence is most keenly felt in the third movement, where the scene moves to the countryside which so animated Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. An English horn opens the movement playing a simple shepherd’s theme. An oboe answers, playing the same theme, and the duet continues (perhaps the artist imagining that his soul’s call is being answered by his Beloved?) before turning sharply minor–prefiguring again that all will not end well.

Here, Berlioz’s artist is seeking peace from the calm of the countryside. Berlioz’s sensitivity to timbre is on full display here, as he uses coloration in orchestration to covey the protagonist’s shifting emotions. A storm, as it does in Beethoven’s Sixth, intrudes on the peaceful scene. But whereas Beethoven’s storm is all wind and rain, Berlioz’s storm is apparently within the soul of the artist himself. The English horn sounds its theme, but instead of a response from the oboe, all we get are thundering timpani. The Beloved has betrayed the artist.

Part four
March to the scaffold

Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

In the fourth movement, Berlioz’s symphony begins to earn its Fantastique sobriquet. Berlioz’s artist has taken opium and fallen into a dream. He has killed his Beloved and is now to be executed by guillotine. This nightmare was likely inspired by contemporary literature, which detailed the fevered dreams of opium users. Opium would become the inspirational drug of choice for the Romantics (even the highly rational Sherlock Holmes dabbled in opium use) and it begins here, with Berlioz.

Berlioz composed his march in decending G minor scales, conveying the artist’s resignation to his fate. Along the way, we hear the jeering of the crowd, the shuffling feet of the guards and the anxiousness of the condemned artist. With a crash and fanfare, the guillotine comes into view. The artists struggles with his captures and has to be forced up the stairs. As the artist puts his head through the stocks, the idée fixe returns–his last thoughts are of his Beloved until fate and a sharp blade cruelly interrupt his thoughts, to the general applause and amusement of the crowd.

Parisians were obviously more open to new musical ideas than their Viennese counterparts.  While Beethoven’s Ninth had received a tepid reception upon its true premiere just a few years earlier, the Symphonie Fantastique received wide popular acclaim from the start.  At its premiere, the audience demanded (and received) an encore of this fourth movement before allowing the orchestra to move on to the finale.  They probably should have waited. Because over the last ten minutes or so that comprise the finale of his symphony, Berlioz would move beyond Classicism to a very different place. It is, in my opinion, one of the most important passages in all of music history. It is quite simply genesis for the Romantic movement.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

The Symphonie Fantastique is an exciting, if exhausting, piece to perform.  And my right ear still rings the horns that were placed just behind me (I played viola for this—the morale of the story is to practice harder to get away from the horns or into the violin section).  It is this finale—The Witch’s Sabbath—that is the reason to pay the price of admission.  Utilizing the repeating phrases that Beethoven and Schubert popularized in their late symphonies, the music is infused with a new raucousness and chromatic color previously unknown in music.  He begins by having the strings play a tritone–the devil’s chord. While tritones had been used previously, Berlioz brings them front and center in his score. The effect, especially on contemporary audiences, was dramatic. This sounded new and wrong in equal measure. Berlioz enhances this unsettling effect by dividing each violin section in to three parts, creating a very thin sound. The woodwinds enter and are asked to unnaturally slide their notes, turning the music sour. This music is decidedly ugly–perhaps this is why Rossini derisively remarked “it’s lucky it’s not music.”

The idée fixe returns, not as a beautiful, longing theme, but rather as a vulgar dance. The artist’s Beloved is coming to the witches’ sabbath. You can practically hear the witches cackling at her arrival. The clarinets take up the demonic dance, squeaking like the instruments of the damned rather than the sonorous voice of nature from earlier movements. Here, Berlioz’s focus on the timbre of instruments–and how those timbres can be manipulated–is on full display. Prior to Berlioz, composers simply didn’t do this–they told performers which notes to play, how long to hold them, and how loudly and how fast to play them. Berlioz instructs his performers how to play the notes themselves. He is bending sound to his will. To this day, Berlioz’s chromatic language is the soundtrack for horror and the supernatural.

The witches’ sabbath now begins in earnest, with the chiming of bells. The traditional dies irae, the Gregorian chant for the dead, is bleated out by a combination of bassoons and tubas (Berlioz originally scored this for an ophicleides, a now largely obsolete brass instrument that is generally replaced by tubas in modern orchestras). The full brass section enters to lead the final dance, as the swirling and nearly chaotic orchestra comes into resolute focus–it is a parody of the dies irae. And it is a fugue. In truth, this was probably a bit of a dark bit of humor from Berlioz who had struggled with fugue composition at school. Here is his revenge, taking Bach’s godly compositions and giving them, wholesale, to the devil. It is a bravura moment–combining the truly separate and distinct dies irae with the witches’ dance themes into one seamless fugue.

The newness of the music was underscored by a final request–for the strings to play certain parts col legno, a technique that in practice requires the notes to be played by bouncing the wood part of the bow on the strings and in reality results in string players bringing two bows each to the performance—this really can damage your bow. You’ll know it when you hear it (a little over a minute before the end). The symphony ends in sound and fury with no redemption. Fade to black.

Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14:

Leonard Bernstein would describe the Symphony Fantastique over a century later as the first musical expedition into psychedelia and speculated that Berlioz had composed it under the influence of opium:

Berlioz tells it like it is.  You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.

Leonard Bernstein

No wonder Kubrick uses it in The Shining. But more importantly, the symphony made an early and lasting impression on a 19-year old Hungarian Franz Liszt, who had recently moved to Paris from Vienna. Already a decade into a career as a piano prodigy, Liszt met Berlioz the night before the premiere of the Symphonie Fantastique and likely attended the performance. Although he had published some minor works piano during his time in Vienna, Liszt was captivated by Berlioz and his music. Many of Berlioz’s ideas and innovations found their way into Liszt’s own music, still to come, and which would in my view prove to be the most influential if not the greatest of the entire Romantic Period. The Conversations between Berlioz and Liszt are, for me, the pinnacle of the next 50 years of music history.

The Symphonie Fantastique would prove extremely popular with Parisian audiences. At a performance upon Berlioz’s return from Italy in 1832, the composers Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin attended, as did Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and George Sand, among many others. Chopin, of course, would end up in affiar with Sand, but they would not be introduced for another four years. And what about Harriet Smithson? Well, as it turned out, she attended one of these performances and was quite shocked to learn that she, in fact, was the Beloved that had inspired Berlioz’s composition. The two met and were eventually married. But no woman could live up to the impossible ideal of the Beloved and the marriage, predictably, ended unhappily.

For most of my life, the Colin Davis/Concertgebouw recording remained unsurpassed. But surpassed it has been. Sir Simon Rattle is one of the great conductors of our age and his 2008 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is truly one for the ages. Not only because Berlin’s characterically muscular strings tear into Berlioz’s score with appropriate gusto, but also because blessed with what may be the finest brass section in the world, Rattle amps up the drama like no one before or since. The Warners recording is also finely detailed, allowing every nuance of Berlioz’s remarkable orchestration and color to come through as it sitting in the hall live.

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