Dr. Sophia Tegart returns for a look into this grand, drug-induced, grotesque symphonic work.
Casey Bozell : 0:08
Today on keep classical weird, Dr. Sophia Tegart is back to talk about the strange, creepy, and oddly gory world of Symphonie Fantastique.Sophia Tegart : 0:19
It’s funny because these students nowadays you know can watch a movie like, Kill Bill Volume One right? So much blood, right? And like limbs getting cut off and just all this craziness. And then you tell them about this, you know piece that was written in, like 1830 that talks about a guy getting his head chopped off and they’re like, oh my god. What?Unknown Speaker : 0:57
Welcome friends to Episode Three of Keep classical weird. I am your host Casey Bozell, and today we’re discussing Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. It was a game changer in many ways, but it does stand out as a unique and pivotal piece in the orchestral world. French composer Hector Berlioz wrote this piece in 1830 not too long after he had finished his work as a music conservatory student. There are two main reasons that this piece is such a standout and the first is the story behind it. The story that accompanies the musical score involves someone Berlioz simply called the artist and the artist’s love interest. And the full synopsis and motivation for this plot is kind of bonkers, but we’ll get to that. The second reason is because there are several components of the symphony that Berlioz championed or even pioneered, that set the stage for more modern orchestral works. The first one we’re going to talk about is the main theme that pops up again and again throughout the work. And this theme represents the character of the artists love interest. Berlioz name this theme the idée fixe. The idée fixe is a compositional concept that was actually later picked up by Wagner in his ring cycle operas, although he named it a leitmotif. An idée fixe or leitmotif, the idea of playing a particular theme and reference to a character is still used today. Take a second and think of Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars. I’m pretty sure if I play it on the podcast right now I’ll owe money to someone so you’ll have to sing it to yourself. But that theme is played when Darth Vader is on screen and also when he’s referenced or even just thought about by other characters. It’s a powerful device that shapes the way we watch stories play out and film or television and Berlioz really cemented its practical application. Symphonie Fantastique is what’s known as a programmatic piece. Dr. Tegart can explain. Sophia Tegart : 3:45
So, a programmatic piece just essentially means that the music is depicting a story or a program. So you’ll you’ll have music that can use either specific tiny events to represent something that’s happening or it can create a mood that kind of walks you emotionally through a story. So there’s there’s different ways that that can happen. But essentially you’re being walked through a story via music.Casey Bozell : 4:16
And would you know what the story is? Would you be given the story ahead of time most of the time?Sophia Tegart : 4:23
Well, it depends on the composer. But with Berlioz with this piece in, in, in fact, he did want the story line to be in the program to accompany what was going on. At first he wanted the text to actually be written before each or be read before each movement, but then it just kind of settled to a short description that people can read on their own.Casey Bozell : 4:50
The instrumentation of this piece is massive. It calls for a minimum of 90 – nine zero musicians. It’s grander and longer than traditional symphonies that came before it. A symphonic structure was up to this point, usually four movements. Berlioz bumped that up to five. So now let’s get into the meat of it. Here’s the motivation behind the original composition. Let’s talk about the story.Sophia Tegart : 5:39
First of all, it’s his musical reaction to having fallen in love with someone. So he he fell in love with Harriet Smithson, who was this famous actress, famous for playing Ophelia in Hamlet and he just he he saw her on stage and fell in love with her and was like writing letters to her for several years and wrote this piece as in a way it’s like a love letter to her. It’s a very creepy love letter to her, but it is a love letter to her. He starts out this story of this – it’s a story about an artist who sees a woman and falls in love. That’s kind of the first movement. He sees her. He recognizes that he’s falling in love and it’s beautiful. And then he and then it, it kind of the second movement and you find him at a ball and he’s he sees her and he sees her everywhere. It seems like he just keeps not being able to forget her. So he keeps seeing her in these random situations and in places. So this time he is convinced he sees her at the ball. He decides that he’s never going to be with her. He’s, he’s sad, he’s lonely, and so he starts brooding and that’s where we get the third movement, which is essentially he’s in a field watching some shepherds, and he’s like, Oh, woe is me. I’m so lonely. I love this woman and she doesn’t know I exist. The Fourth Movement, he takes opium to, you know, to try and kill himself so that he can you know, he’s just too forlorn. Everything’s just horrible, you know. And so he’s like, I’m, I can’t live, I love her too much. And so he takes this, he takes opium, but it’s not enough to actually kill him. It’s just enough to send him into this crazy state of hallucination, though, he imagines that he has killed her and that he’s been sentenced to death. And so this fourth movement, which is the march to the scaffold is essentially him marching to be guillotined, or have his head cut off and and that’s where we hear the famous plop of his head.Casey Bozell : 9:10
Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and restate that because it’s where the story really escalates. Berlioz writes that the artist is so distressed by this obsessive love that he takes opium and imagines that he’s killed her, and he’s sentenced to death by guillotine. He uses the idée fixe in the clarinet to imagine his love one last time. And then you hear the blade of the guillotine slammed down and his head plop down and land in the basket below.Sophia Tegart : 9:49
And then it ends with a witch’s dance Sabbath thing where I don’t know that that’s the weird one. That it’s just this Crazy ending, where there’s these witches. They’re, you know, doing all sorts of witchy things. And then maybe he dies. I don’t know or like it’s symbolic death or something. I don’t know that last moment, although it’s one of the most performed,Casey Bozell : 10:17
I understand it the least. The fifth movement contains a line that is one of the most quoted series of notes in all of classical music, and it has roots in the church. It’s a chant from the Middle Ages known as the dies irae or the day of wrath. Berlioz originally wrote the dies irae theme for two instruments that are not used in modern day orchestras, a serpent which is a wind instrument that does indeed look like a snake. And an opheclide, which is a brass instrument that looks like a slender version of a tuba. The serpent couldn’t play this line very well, so Berlioz amended the part to two opheclides. In 1835, five years after this piece had been published, the tuba was invented, and modern performances will feature two tuba players along with four bassoon players to create a really terrifying sense of the Day of Judgment.Sophia Tegart : 11:47
Of course, it’s representing the death of the artist.Casey Bozell : 11:52
And when you say the artist, you’re talking about the character that Berlioz created to represent himself in the story.Sophia Tegart : 11:58
Yes. Of course.Casey Bozell : 12:01
Cuz that that makes the most sense.Sophia Tegart : 12:05
That’s like the 19th century version of “asking for a friend.”Casey Bozell : 12:14
So whatever happened to those crazy kids Hector Berlioz and his obsession with Harriet Smithson?Sophia Tegart : 12:21
Harriet Smithson finally heard the piece and realized that Berlioz was like this great composer, and then they married. The end. Not really. Yeah, they finally did get married and then they became very bitter because they were unhappy maybe because they didn’t really know each other and they just got married. And then I think they lived apart. So that’s a very lovely story.Casey Bozell : 12:50
So, you know, boy is tortured by girl that he can’t have. So boy takes opium and has a vision in which he kills said girl, and is then sentenced to death, and then surrounded by witches.Sophia Tegart : 13:06
Yeah. Casey Bozell : 13:08
That’s, it seems highly problematic. Sophia Tegart : 13:15
Yeah. And then to be the woman who that piece was written for and to think, “Wow. That’s so amazing. He must really love me.”Casey Bozell : 13:23
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, wow. Thank you so much, Dr. Tegart for talking to us about the trippy, figuratively and literally trippy Symphonie fantastique. This was incredible.Sophia Tegart : 13:41
I had a lot of fun. So thank you.Casey Bozell : 13:44
And that’s our show. Many many thanks to Dr. Sophia Tegart at Washington State University for joining us. The theme music you’re hearing is by the amazing Thomas Barber. Check out more of his stuff at thomasbarber.com. Web development and sometimes emotional support is provided by Tina at citybeautifuldesign.com. Keep Classical Weird is created and edited by me Casey Bozell, find us on Facebook and Instagram. For more music appreciation in a bite size form subscribe to my patreon at patreon.com/caseybozell. Thanks for listening everyone. Stay safe and stay weird.
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is no more strange and weird than Sibelius’ Kullervo, a lovely story about incest, taxation, genocide, suicide and yellow socks.
Awesome! Thanks for the comment – I would LOVE to produce a future episode on this work! Thanks for listening!
It’s a very interesting work, not just for the subject matter, but the fact that Sibelius wrote it to prove that Finnish was no more difficult to sing in than Italian, French or German. And somehow, it still manages to get performed outside the Finnish-speaking world. Finnish is NOT an easy language. To speak OR to pronounce if you’re not Finnish.