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Why is it human nature to want what we can’t have? In 1827, the 23-year-old Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris; Harriet Smithson, a charismatic Irish actress, was playing Ophelia. Berlioz was smitten and wrote her an impassioned letter – Smithson did not reply. Undeterred, he continued to bombard her with messages but she left Paris without making contact.
Berlioz wrote to a friend: “You don’t know what love is, whatever you may say. For you, it’s not that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything.”
The composer had to find an outlet for his obsessive love – naturally, that was music. He formed the idea of a “fantastic symphony” portraying an episode in the life of an artist who is constantly haunted by the vision of the perfect, unattainable woman.
Central to the work is the "idée fixe" (“fixed idea”), a recurring theme of rising longing and falling despair – a depiction of gripping obsession and the epitome of Romanticism.
Symphonie Fantastique is cast in five movements: the first a dream, the second a ball where the artist is haunted by the sight of his beloved. After a country scene, the fourth movement slips into nightmare: “Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium,” explained Berlioz.
“The dose of narcotic plunges him into a heavy sleep. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution.”
Now everything descends into the thrillingly horrific Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath, which weaves in the medieval Dies Irae plainchant. The artist’s perfect beloved transforms into a whore and is cast into Hell (symbolically, perhaps, for Smithson was rumoured to be having an affair with her manager at the time).
Symphonie Fantastique was premiered in 1830 but Smithson did not hear the work until 1832, when she realised she might be the inspiration for it. Intrigued, she agreed to meet the composer and was blown away by the force of his emotion.
Despite neither speaking the other’s language, Harriet and Hector married on October 3, 1833. Happy ever after? Sadly, no – the obsession faded and they divorced seven years later.
So did Berlioz actually take opium or was Symphonie Fantastique the result of a fevered imagination? If he did, it’s a cautionary tale – as Bernstein put it: “Berlioz tells it like it is. Now there was an honest man. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
Did you know?
A master orchestrator, Berlioz wrote a part in his Symphonie Fantastique for the bass ophicleide, a brass instrument that looks like a cross between a bassoon and saxophone, with long, cone-shaped tubing and a mouthpiece similar to a trombone’s. The word “ophicleide” in Greek literally means “serpent with keys”. These days the ophicleide is almost extinct and its line is usually played by a tuba.