Sex, drugs and Berlioz

In 1830 the fiery Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, completed his First Symphony, the 'Fantastique'. But it wasn’t a symphony the way the world knew it, for this symphony had a story. It was not a story like Beethoven’s Fifth, where we intuitively understand broad ideas of struggle and triumph. It was not even like Beethoven’s Sixth, where he explicitly says it is about rural country life. No, Berlioz is doing something altogether new. And with his astonishing First Symphony, decisively catapults all of music into another eon. 

Here’s why.

Berlioz calls his new work Symphonie Fantastique, which is usually mistranslated as the Fantastic Symphony. ‘Fantastic’ here means FANTASTICAL and refers to fantasy (not how amazing Berlioz thinks his music is.) Here is the preface Berlioz provides, saying it should be thought of like the unspoken text for an opera:

A young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair. The narcotic dose he had taken was too weak to cause death but it has thrown him into a long sleep accompanied by the most extraordinary visions. In this condition his sensations, his feelings and memories [of her] find utterance in his sick brain in the form of melody in his mind, like a fixed ideawhich is ever returning and which he hears everywhere.

Awesome – Berlioz is about to give us the first ever drug-inspired album.

The ‘fixed idea’ Berlioz mentions is a huge innovation just by itself. Berlioz decides that a melody can now represent not just a general mood, but something - or someone - very particular, in this case, the musician’s beloved with whom he is obsessed. (Wagner was deeply inspired by this and took it even further in his epic Ring saga. It is also where the film composer John Williams got the idea to represent characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker with their own ‘theme music’.) So, Berlioz is essentially treating his symphony like an opera. He has composed ‘theme music’ to represent the lover of his main character, and he then places both of the characters (the drug-taking protagonist and his beloved) in several different scenarios, like in a drama. Each distinct scene is a vivid hallucination, and in each setting the 'fixed idea' morphs and transforms, as you will hear. 

So let's take a look at the music!

The work opens with the musician having just taken a whole heap of drugs. He is utterly dejected and despondent, and the music hovers in between being awake and dreamy fantasy. Consciousness drifts in and out, the music keeps wavering and trailing off. As the drugs come on stronger we sink further into our haze until it takes hold completely and reality slips away. The rest of the entire work is now a series of imagined visions, phantasms, and nightmares. 

The ‘fixed idea’ is, at first, reticent and demure, but intensely passionate. The melody advances and recedes, as if it can’t decide whether to approach the girl at the party or not. It rises with an urgent kind of hopefulness, but it always collapses, like a rejected lover. It is also accompanied by the quickening heartbeat of the desperate musician. Have a listen here:

Leonard Bernstein, one of my favorite conductors, composers and writers, calls the winding road of the first movement ‘the meandering of a sick mind’. When we eventually arrive at the climax of this first movement the theme has become completely manic and delirious. The trumpets caw raucously and crassly while the strings whirl and spin all about the place. There is a dizzying din of rowdy noise. It reminds me a bit of a drunk 21 year old being dragged home from the party because he’s too wasted while madly professing his love for the girl he just met. The scene closes with what sounds like a church 'Amen', which Berlioz himself describes as ‘fleeting religious consolation.’   

The next scene starts out of focus and vaguely distorted. We don’t know where we are. We hear the gentle swish of a harp behind us but every time we turn to look, it evaporates like an apparition. A mild anxiety begins to set in, but the fog suddenly lifts and we realize we are in the midst of a glittering ballroom. A charming tune is heard in the violins as we leisurely weave in and out of the dancing couples.  And then - through the crowd - we catch sight of her! She is haunting us! The fixed idea has been transformed into a waltz (it even has an “um-pah-pah” accompaniment.) How radiantly beautiful she appears; just seeing her makes our heart race. Oh the exquisite pain we endure, as she beguiles us with her serene grace. And in a blink the whole scene vanishes.      

The third movement opens on a vista of the countryside. We hear a long-distance conversation between two lonely shepherds playing their pipes to each other across the fields. Finally, out here in nature, we have found peace and escaped the torment of our unrequited beloved. Or so we think. Once again her visage returns; even here, we cannot outrun her. We try to shake ourselves out of it but she persists in plaguing our drug-addled brains. One of the shepherds tries to start up the pipe-conversation again, but there is no answer. It’s so lonely out here. A thunderstorm threatens off in the distance, a reflection of our unstable headspace.       

The March to the Scaffold is a fabulously macabre new setting. We imagine we have murdered our beloved in a fit of ecstatic agony and are now being marched to the guillotine for beheading. Our fantasy is turning into a nightmare. We are being forcefully marched solemnly through the crowd, but they are jubilant and boisterous (nothing like a bit of bloodlust.) The music is cast with two distinctly contrasting moods to capture the scene. Just before we die we see her specter floating before us, just for an instant, and we hear an unaccompanied clarinet sing the fixed idea. The guillotine slams down and our head bounces a few times before landing with a dull thud (this is a great moment in the music.) The crowd gleefully cheers, roaring “huzzah!”

Now we plunge into the depths of a really bad acid trip. We are in HELL. We hear what Berlioz calls ‘strange noises, groans, outbursts of laughter, distant cries’. Demons and monsters have gathered to dance on our grave. It is a devilish orgy. We hear the fixed idea, our beloved, but now grotesquely transfigured into a deranged dance. She is here to taunt us! In this wild tumult, there is sudden quiet. The ancient Latin mass for the dead is chanted by the low instruments in a lifeless monotone with funeral bells tolling. It is all a gross and sinister parody. Everything has gone horribly wrong.  The dance returns, and our trip ends with the orchestra savagely rejoicing in the bizarre and surreal bacchanal of horror.

To quote my other all-time favorite writer on music, Michael Steinberg, ‘with its deep bells, squawking clarinet, strings beaten with the wooden stick of their bows, slimy slides in the woodwind, and violent alternations of very loud and very soft…we have left the Old World for good.’ Berlioz composed this only six years after Beethoven’s final symphony (the famous Ninth, nicknamed Ode to Joy) but we are a universe away.

Watch the whole of Symphonie Fantastique here:

Oh, one last thing: the story of the symphony is actually loosely autobiographical. Berlioz was insanely in love with Harriet Smithson, an English Shakespearian actress he had seen onstage. He wrote her a bunch of letters that went unanswered and eventually composed the Symphonie Fantastique as a way to impress her. She heard it two years after its premiere, they got married, and then lived quite unhappily for several years before finally separating.

Kirsten Hicks