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Hector Berlioz 1803-1869

( Originally Published 1935 )



"Fantastic" Symphony, Opus 14-A

I. Dreams, Passions (Largo; Allegro agitato e appassionato assai)

II. A Ball (Valse: Allegro non troppo)

III. Scene in the Fields (Adagio)

IV. March to the Scaffold (Allegretto non troppo)

V. Witches' Sabbath (Larghetto; Allegro)

But now there steps proudly and defiantly across the stage of history a red-haired madman who was one of the most audacious composers that ever lived.

Hector Berlioz, the composer of the "Fantastic" symphony. There is something very splendid about him, and very heroic, and a little ridiculous and pathetically lonely. He had little musical background, and was not more than half-trained in his art when, as a calf of twenty-six, he fell desperately in love with an Irish actress, and observed the momentous event by producing a convulsive symphony which affected a whole century of music. Berlioz had nobody to help him in this task, no kindly and discerning critic, no model to go by, for the simple reason that nobody had dreamed of such a score. But he was fortunately quite mad in his attitude toward art and the expression of life, and, where his personal affairs and ideas were concerned, magnificently without humor. Otherwise he never could have projected his symphony.

The "Symphonie Fantastique" came of an era of quixotry and exhibitionism, but also greatness; and I could wish that life had for us the gorgeous hues that it wore for Berlioz and his fellow-romantics. They were the young men of 1830 in Paris, then a hotbed of strange artistic blooms. They were born, wrote Alfred de Musset in his "Confession of a Child of the Century," of unquiet mothers who hail never been far 'from the rolling drums and the roaring cannon of the Napoleonic wars. The ashes of the French Revolution were still smoldering. The ideas of Rousseau which had so much to do with that upheaval were rampant, and were mixed with all sorts of exotic trends of thought. The oceans were now completely traversed. The imaginations of men roamed to far distant lands. The young generation was overwrought by the nervous and emotional strains through which the race had passed; at-the same time it was inflamed and exalted by new democratic, socialistic, humanitarian currents of the day. As citizens had thrown off the bonds of despotic government, so were the poets, dramatists, musicians of the new order deter-mined to think and create, each man for himself, ac-cording to his own dreams and desires. Hence the more extravagant, the more wildly individualistic the conception, the better. They wore long hair, these young men, fierce mustachios, and red waistcoats, like the one that Theophile Gautier wore at the premiere of Victor Hugo's "Hernani." The millennium was at hand; they were to forge by means of their art the ideas of a new state of society. The marvelous thing is , what they actually accomplished, with all their struttings and rhetoric. Since the period of the Renaissance the world had not looked at life so richly, so impetuously. And Paris? It was not a hotbed, it was a conflagration of genius. In those days there walked the streets Hugo and Balzac and Heine and Delacroix, de Musset, Gautier, Dumas, Liszt, Meyer-beer, Rossini, Paganini, Chopin, George Sand—if I should turn to a chronicle of those days and name all the artistic figures of the epoch from 183o to I 84o, those native to the city and the country, and all the others who came from afar to the Mecca of art, such as Wagner, the list would be five times extended. Stich was the background and breeding-place of Berlioz's "Fantastic" symphony.

Berlioz, the son of a doctor, incorrigibly an artist, who read Virgil, Lamartine, Chateaubriand and James Fenimore Cooper, and knew the names of the islands of the South Seas better than he did those of the Departments of France, came to Paris at the age of twenty-one and undertook courses in medicine. But not for long. He quickly jumped through the window of the dissecting room, and took to music as a fish which disappears in its native element. After the laboratory he lived the life of an impecunious dreamer and firebrand in Paris; plunged into the scores of Gluck, Weber, Beethoven and a few other composers, whom he intimately comprehended and adored; learned instrumentation, of which he became one of the greatest masters, at first hand from scores and from players in orchestras; took valuable lessons in composition from a truly sympathetic soul at the Paris Conservatoire—Lesueur—and was chased around the table of the Conservatoire library by stanch old Cherubini, who hated him. Then he saw the Irish actress, Henrietta Smithson, act Shakespeare, and was gone, lost, demented with love. According to the story he said: "That woman shall be my wife, and on that drama I shall write my greatest symphony." The story is in no whit incredible. Young men talked that way before. The incredible thing, like other deeds of the romantics, is the symphony.

Berlioz wooed Miss Smithson wildly. He made her life a burden. He tried to poison himself in her presence and nearly succeeded. He had first: beheld her as Ophelia in 1827. He began to dream of the great: symphony which he would compose for a ?.r, advancing in the world by her side. At first she was indifferent to him. She said she liked him "well enough," which maddened our Hector of the flaming locks, as James Huneker called him. Miss Smithson went to London in 1829, and slanderous stories about her drove Berlioz insane, so that, according to legend, he wandered for two days, without food, without sleep, in desolate fields outside of Paris. He completed his symphony in -183o. It was an open letter, a reproach and an insult to Miss Smithson. In the last movement of the work he portrayed her as a vile courtesan in Hades, and, lest there should be any mistake about it, he furnished the score with a literary program which was explicit. Berlioz tried to secure the actress' presence at the performance. "I hope the wretched woman will be there," wrote our anguished roman-tic. "I do not believe it, however; she will surely recognize herself in reading the program of my instrumental drama, and she will take care not to appear." There was a mammoth orchestra. There were 2300 pages of music to be copied for the players, and the cost to Berlioz was far more than his purse could stand. Miss Smithson did not hear the symphony. That came later.

In 1832, after disastrous appearances in London, poor, at her wit's end, anxious if possible to open her own theater in Paris, the actress returned to the French capital. She received an invitation to go to a concert. With nothing else to do, she took a carriage, read the "program" of the symphony, which Berlioz had fortunately modified, remembered his desperate avowals and his incredible acts, and was flattered. This was one of the great moments of the romantic Paris. Heine, Dumas, Hugo were in the audience. So was Adolphe Nourrit, the celebrated tenor who was to create leading roles in Meyerbeer's "Huguenots" and "Robert le Diable." So was Paganini. Miss Smith-son sat in her box, and Berlioz, seated before the kettledrums, frowned in the orchestra. Also present was Fetis, the critic, sworn foe of Berlioz and his tribe. The program consisted ,of the "Symphonie Fantastique," which is but the first part of a work entitled "Episode in the Life of an Artist," and its sequel, a melodrama, "Lelio; or, the Return to Life." This last work required the services of an orator, and he was the actor Bocage. Bocage made an address. In doing so he deliberately imitated the speech and the gestures of Fetis in such a way that there was laughter, and all eyes were turned toward the critic of the "Temps" and the "Revue Musicale." The speech was punctuated with the audience's applause as Bocage grew heated in his eloquence, spouting furiously such gems of rhetoric as the following: "May they [the old school] be accursed!, They. outrage art in the most ridiculous fashion! Like those commom birds which inhabit our public gardens ... when they have put filth on the forehead of Jupiter or the breast of Venus, they exhibit themselves proud and satisfied, as if they had just laid a golden egg!" And more of the same. The performance proceeded. Heine observed that every time Berlioz caught Miss Smithson's eye he gave a furious roll on the drums—which chronicle must be a little romantic in itself, if one pauses to reflect that kettledrums play notes of certain pitch, and are used at certain times in a given score, and that if Berlioz had rolled them at any chance moment he would have greatly distorted the effect of his symphony. This we may be sure he did not do. Heine wrote later, after Berlioz's marriage to Miss Smith-son, that he had cut his hair, and no longer rolled furiously upon the kettledrums. In more ways than one the marriage was disastrous.

But the symphony was a success. It was received with tremendous enthusiasm by those who cried a bas with the shackles of ossified tradition and wanted to make art, in their own words, "as much like life as possible."

"As much like life as possible"! Heaven save the mark! Listen to the plot of the "Fantastic" symphony.

First Berlioz informs us—I employ his own words, as translated by William Foster Apthorp—that "A young musician, of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination, poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to result in death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, sentiments and recollections are translated in his sick brain into musical thoughts and images. The beloved woman herself has become for him a melody, liked a fixed idea which he finds and hears everywhere."

And so we have, at the very beginning of the symphony, the melody which, to composer and listener, is to typify the person of the beloved and the composer's thoughts of her. In the most diverse moods, amid the most diverse scenes, in the five movements of the symphony, this melody, in various transformations, reappears. The first movement is called by Berlioz "Dreams, Passions." It is music of causeless melancholy, anguish, fury, tenderness and "religious consolations." The second is "A Ball." In the midst of the dance the hero seeks his beloved. He sees her and her melody reappears in the orchestra. She is, for programmatic purposes, surrounded. by her admirers at a brilliant fete. The third movement is 'Scene in the Fields." Wandering in the fields on a summer evening, the musician hears two shepherds playing their pipes. "This pastoral duet, the scene around him, the light rustling of the trees gently swayed 1: y the breeze, some hopes he has recently conceived, all combine to restore an unwonted calm to his heart and to impart a more cheerful coloring to his thoughts; but she appears once more, his heart stops beating, he is agitated with painful presentiments; if she were to betray him! ... One of the shepherds resumes his art-less melody, the other no longer answers him. The sun sets... The sound of distant thunder... Solitude... Silence..."

The fourth movement is the celebrated "March to the' Scaffold." The morbid young man, dreaming under the influence of the opium, imagine;; that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death, and led to execution. "The procession advances to the tones of a march which is now somber and wild, now brilliant and solemn, in which the dull sound of the tread of heavy feet follows without transition upon the most resounding outbursts. At the end the fixed idea appears for a moment, like a last thought of love, interrupted by the fatal stroke."

After supping so full of horrors, what is left for the finale? This: Witches' Sabbath; orgy of witches; monsters, ghosts, celebrating the young man's death. "In the midst of a frightful group who have come together to celebrate his obsequies, he hears strange noises, groans, ringing laughter, shrieks to which other shrieks seem to reply. The beloved melody again appears, but it has lost its noble and timid character, it has become an ignoble, trivial, grotesque dance tune; it is she who comes to the witches' Sabbath ... howlings of joy at her arrival ... she takes part in the diabolical orgy. Funeral. knells, burlesque parody on the 'Dies iroe.' Witches' dance. The witches' dance and the 'Dies iroe' together."

The "Beloved melody," the obsessing idea, or its musical prototype, is announced at once at the be-ginning of the symphony, tenderly and dreamily, by the strings. In the second movement, "The Ball," it appears in an interlude between brilliant passages of dance music, and is there introduced by the flute. Various wind instruments have fragments of it in the "Scene in the Field," which is poetical, but long drawn out for our day. The movement: closes with fragments of the shepherd's song and the rolling of distant thunder. The "March to the Scaffold" is nightmarish. When performed it should be, not in the melodramatic manner but in half-veiled sonorities, through which, suddenly and deafeningly, cut savage howls and blares of the brass, the music has the character of the disordered vision of the opium-eater. Notice, about two-thirds through the march, the evil chucklings of the bassoons, like birds of ill-omen following the procession. With the opening of die "Witches' Sabbath" the theme of the Beloved is heard in a sardonic, distorted dance rhythm. The bell:; toll for the macabre festivity. The trombones and then the horns, as if in chorus, caricature the terrible old; plain-chant, the "Dies ire."

The origin of the Beloved's melody—the musical idee fixe—is typical of the romanticist' : progress. It was a song which Berlioz composed when a he was fifteen years old to an exquisite girl, Estelle Gautier, who was tall, with dark eyes, jet hair and pretty pink slippers. To Estelle Berlioz composed the melody which, in a later day, came in so handily as the theme song of the work that he created to gain the love of another woman! The melody was properly valued by the composer as the expression of a young heart tortured by longing and passion, as Berlioz, in his memoirs, frankly avers. In later years Berlioz and Estelle were to meet again. Very touching is the letter in which the composer, alone, fatigued with life and the terrible battles he had fought for art, addressed to this same Estelle, become a nice and sensible old lady. The old fellow, after two marital disasters—and how many tragedies?—fell again at the feet of the girl he had once loved and asked her to wed him. She gently, kindly and sensibly refused. You don't read their letters without a moistening of the eyes.

Berlioz's use of the "fixed idea" in his symphony is important and prophetic. We have observed the trans-planting of certain thematic material in the hands of Haydn and Beethoven. Berlioz's procedure is dictated by poetical as well as musical consideration. It leads directly to Liszt's practice in his symphonic poems. It precedes Wagner's use of musical "leading motives" to depict characters and ideas in his operas. This is the real beginning of modern program music.

Another epochal characteristic of the "Fantastic" symphony is its orchestration. Where did Berlioz learn this? He had studied profoundly scores of Beethoven, Weber and Gluck, who knew something of tone-painting. The "Pastoral" symphony considerably ante-dated the "Fantastic." The instrumental schemes of Weber, perhaps nearest those of Berlioz, had struck the authentic note of modern instrumentation. But Berlioz enriched the orchestral palette to an extent that neither Weber nor any other of his predecessors had dreamed.

Fortunately, he could not play proficiently on an instrument. This was good for him. It f reed his musical imagination. It freed him from thinking in any instrumental or technical patterns. Being the slave of no one instrument, he was master, by intuition and the sovereign power of his imagination, of them all. Neither Strauss, nor Mahler, nor Debussy, nor the whole Russian school of the late nineteenth century, could exist, orchestrally speaking, without Berlioz. All this is predicated by the "Fantastic" symphony.



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