Who composed Symphonie fantastique

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Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (3/3)

The Symphonie fantastique was practically the first presentation of his own style, the first official statement by a composer who wanted to write music history and take Paris by storm. Berlioz found only one appropriate way here, namely to invent a new genre. His brilliant plan was to merge genres and break conventions. He created an “instrumental drama” that required an explanation in the form of a literary accessory - a program.

We are in the year 1830. The French capital was dominated by the French opera and international music found it difficult to survive. The Paris audience hardly knew musical genres such as the symphony, as it was traditionally more at home in German-speaking countries. However, this began to change when the respected conductor François-Antoine habeneck performed the Beethoven symphonies. And so a renaissance of the German composer and the symphony was initiated in Paris. In order to pursue the question of genre a little further, one must also mention the “Fantasia” at this point. The title Symphonie fantastique was chosen very deliberately by Berlioz. The characteristics of the “fantastic” allowed Berlioz freedom and independence in the musical sense - an approach that the French audience of the 1830s soon met their expectations.

For him, the Symphonie fantastique was the only way to calm and process his intense emotions and blossoming imagination. The reason for this "love rush" was a lady named Harriet Smithson. The British actress enchanted all of Paris with her acting of the Shakespeare dramas, and so did Hector Berlioz. He saw her for the first time in 1827 in a Hamlet performance and the event was of such great intensity that it became the occasion for the epochal work.

As a young and relatively unknown composer, Berlioz was of course aware that he needed a special advertising strategy to fill the room of the Conservatoire de Paris for such a large and complex piece. An unrequited passion came in handy to arouse the curiosity of the sensational Parisian audience. Because he decided without further ado to stage a secret affair with the British theater star in public, which he even succeeded and resulted in a sold-out concert hall.

The first performance on December 5, 1830 was a complete success. The reasons for this may be complex, but they probably lie in the conception of the work. Berlioz knew how to surprise and received the audience with a program sheet, where the abstract love story of his own person with the British actress was to serve as a template and literary description of the symphony. In doing so, he steered the audience's sentiments in his favor right from the start. He also surprised musically with his revolutionary innovations and ideas for instrumental music.

Berlioz was, so to speak, the inventor of program music, a new genre. This work, which the young 26-year-old French created, was so new that he felt obliged to provide an explanation after a conscious break with genre boundaries and conventions. In a sense, he wanted to legitimize the piece for the French concert hall of the 19th century. There had never been anything like it before: combining literature in the form of a scene description of the individual movements with pure instrumental music. The "note" provided the form-giving element for the symphony, which was not structured like a typical symphony in the Beethoven sense. The program also had a creative function. It describes the content of the listening experience and is intended to stimulate a wealth of associations. As a listener, you experience the process of the main character yourself, comparable to a rousing film. Berlioz did not use a composer as a model for this, but literati, more precisely William Shakespeare or Victor Hugo.

Berlioz picked up a theme that was supposed to symbolize the mistress of the artist who was the main character. These Idée fixe pursues the artist at first in love and with hope, but in later sentences it appears more and more gloomy and distorted. Berlioz used the technique of the semantic memory motif from opera and transferred the system to instrumental music - a novelty. This memory motif - a melody of four to eight bars - occurs in all movements and shows stations in the course of the form. However, Berlioz does not develop the motif further or work with it compositionally, as it would traditionally be, but it occurs in ever new combinations with others Motifs of the individual sentences and is mutilated and distorted until the end.

  1. Dreams and passions: It's about a young artist (Berlioz himself) who is consumed by a fresh young love and who hovers in the vagueness of passions.
  2. A ball: The artist is in the midst of the tumult of a ball, where his lover meets him again and again and does not let go.
  3. Scene in the country: The initially calming peace in the country is clouded by dark premonitions until the sun goes down and a gloomy rumble of thunder remains.
  4. Walk to the place of execution: Poisoned in his desperation, he dreams in an opium intoxication that he has killed his beloved and is now witnessing his own execution.
  5. Witches Sabbath: The artist is at a funeral in the midst of ghosts, monsters, witches and his lover who takes part in the diabolical orgy.
  1. Leonard Bernstein speaks about Hector Berlioz ’Symphonie fantastique in an episode of the“ Young People’s Concerts ”
  2. In addition, Bernstein conducts the work at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris
  3. For comparison, experience Daniel Barenboim's interpretation with the West-Eastern-Divan-Orchestra

Find out more about Hector Berlioz's life in this blog post and get to know his work HERE


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