Thursday, February 3, 2011

symphonie fantastique

Are you all ready for a bit more classical music history?

This time I'll share with you a piece by the French composer Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique.

Said to be modelled after his own obsession over an actress named Harriet Smithson (who he eventually did marry), it was written in 1830, but changes after the initial performance have made it what you're hearing today.
In high school, I was part of a youth symphony that played part of this.  I will always remember the giggling and poking that went around when our conductor told us about the fourth movement where a head is chopped off and goes bouncing down stairs.  But then we heard it and understood. 

Also, listen closely for the recurring melody.  It represents the woman or obsession.

Berlioz, like Respighi, wrote program notes and requested that they be distributed whenever the piece is performed.  These notes have been translated and can be found here, but I'll cut and paste to make this easier while you listen.

"The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme* must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.
*This programme should be distributed to the audience at concerts where this symphony is included, as it is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic plan of the work. [HB]

Part one: Daydreams, passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two: A ball

The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three: Scene in the countryside

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four: March to the scaffold

Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five: Dream of a witches’ sabbath

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae,** the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
**A hymn sung in funeral ceremonies in the Catholic Church. [HB]"

I don't think there's much more I could add!

Enjoy and happy quilting,

PS I hope to get some good photos of recently completed quilts to share this weekend!


Sandy said...

More lovely music, and a bit of education too. Thank you Katie.


---"Love" said...

Isn't it amazing how emotions of all kinds are brought out in our imaginations as we listen to beautiful music like that? Indeed it stirs the soul. Having read your program notes, one can almost envision the story as the music progresses. Thanks for sharing. ---"Love"

Beth said...

Katie, I enjoyed reading the post but I had no music??? I have had music before but this time...nada.
Look forward to the photos.

Beth said...

Don't know why, but when I hit post the music started. So I came back to listen. So much more interesting when you know what it is about. Thanks for the lesson.

Liriopia said...

No music here but a very cool history. However, I am partial to the old cartoons that were backed with classical music. Bugs Bunny springs to mind, LOL.