Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique: The symphony that caused an uproar

Berlioz's spectacular Symphonie fantastique is truly fantastic, says Jane Jones.

I think this really is a fantastic symphony – not only in name. 

This was the first of four symphonies that Berlioz composed and with it he firmly made a break from the norms established by Beethoven for the symphonic form. Berlioz moved the symphony into something altogether more like story-telling. That's not to say that Beethoven didn't tell stories through his music – for example, he did it in the Pastoral symphony – but in Berlioz's epic work you can practically visualize all the details of what's going on from the way the music evokes events and the feelings of the main character. 

Berlioz, like a lot of composers, loved the ladies and his Symphonie fantastique was famously inspired by his stormy relationship with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. He was completely obsessed with her – so much so, in fact, that she initially thought him to be insane. The couple eventually married – but they were far from blissfully happy. Instead, it turned out that she’d entered into the marriage only for financial reasons, and they eventually parted company. 

Symphonie Fantastique was premiered in 1830 during one of Berlioz’s periods of intense, pre-nuptial infatuation with Harriet. It’s really one long, musical expression of his passion, embodied in the person of a struggling artist who is mired in depression and seeking solace for the fact that his cries of desire go unanswered. 

Part One describes a young man who sees and immediately falls in love with the woman of his dreams. To represent Harriet, Berlioz had a special idea; he wrote a musical theme which he called his idée fixe, which appears in the first movement and then reemerges throughout the Symphonie fantastique in different forms and played on different instruments. 

In the second part, the artist finds himself in a variety of locations and situations, but everywhere he goes his beloved’s image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind. 

In Part Three, he finds himself one evening in the country and hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. 

Part Four shows the artist - convinced that his love is unappreciated – poisoning himself. The dose of opium plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. 

In the fifth and final part, he sees himself at a witches' sabbath, where a terrifying troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, gather for his funeral. In the midst of it all, his beloved appears but in a grotesque form. 

When it was first performed, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was so novel and so shocking that it immediately caused an uproar. Even his friends were astonished that he would put into music something so explicitly personal. Whatever one’s feelings there’s no doubt that Berlioz used the orchestra and the symphony in a way – and with an expressive force – that has rarely ever been surpassed.