Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reading Symphonie fantastique

French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-69) wrote his Symphonie fantastique when he was 26 years old. Just as the title of the Pathétique Symphony does not mean that it's pathetic music, in the present-day colloquial sense, so also the epithet fantastique is not a boast about how fantastic it is. Also titled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist," it is the very epitome of "programme" music. Part fantasy, part autobiography, it uses purely instrumental music to sketch a series of vivid scenes and to tell a story of infatuation, obsession, heartbreak, drug abuse, and madness. It is also an example of "cyclical" composition, with a theme (symbolizing a character in the story) woven into all five movements. And finally, it was the first major work by one of the giants of Romantic music, written when he was still a brash young turk. Yet it continues to be admired and enjoyed as one of the great concert pieces of its time.

Out of a throbbing woodwind phrase, a silky-soft Largo emerges. This slow introduction sets a scene of empty melancholy. The musical "portrait of the artist as a young man" idly engages with several contrasting moods and ideas. Already Berlioz shows a flair for unusual yet effective melodies, original harmonies and instrument combinations. Around the 3:30 mark, the energy begins to pick up.

At 4:45, we first hear the famous idée fixe, the theme heard throughout all five movements, symbolizing the object of the artist's obsession. (In real life, she was an actress named Harriet Smithson, who would eventually become Mme. Berlioz.) It is first played on a flute doubled by violins. An "agitated and very passionate" Allegro follows, expressing the ecstasies and agonies of the distracted lover. The idée fixe frequently returns, representing either glimpses or thoughts of the beloved, giving rise to a series of moods ranging from complacent to stormy. The movement isn't exactly in sonata form, but it doesn't have to be. The music tells a story that one is compelled to follow. It climaxes near the end in a triumph so irrationally ecstatic that it could actually be a foreshadowing of doom. The movement ends, after some 14 minutes, in a moment of peaceful tenderness.

Movement II is a butter-smooth Waltz in which two harps play a notable role. One senses the giddiness of the romantic lead as he contemplates the grace and good cheer of his company. But his thoughts are repeatedly drawn back to his beloved, whose appearances in his thoughts (or perhaps in the crowd) are signaled by a reprise of the first movement's idée fixe. Each time it resumes, the dance becomes more charming, building to a rapid coda like the final scene of a comic opera - though this, too, is interrupted by a melancholy recollection of the beloved.

Movement III, Adagio, is a gentle pastoral number depicting a day in the countryside. It begins with a dialogue between an onstage English horn and an offstage oboe, symbolizing two shepherds piping to each other from a distance. The main theme enters hesitantly over a spare accompaniment of plucked strings. The country setting seems to have cooled our hero's fevered brow for a bit, filling him with pure peace and pleasure for the first time since he set eyes on his beloved. But inevitably, his thoughts return to her (the idée fixe turning up again, midway through the movement), bringing along all kinds of anxieties to torment him. From then on moments of unease alternate with thoughts of happiness. After the main body of the movement ends, the English horn tries to recall the offstage oboe to their dialogue, but its increasingly concerned inquiries are answered only by thunder (played on the timpani).

Movement IV is a grim march, depicting an hallucination in the artist's opium-addled brain. He dreams that he is about to be hanged for murdering his beloved. The march's menacing tones, crass gestures, and occasional bursts of triumphal gaiety, portray his progress to the guillotine, accompanied by the frightful figure of the hangman, the taunts and jeers of the crowd, and a grossly inappropriate holiday atmosphere. The march builds to a climax, then flips upside down to depict the condemned man's ascent up the steps of the scaffold. At the last moment, a brief reminiscence of the idée fixe crosses his mind before the blade very palpably falls. The closing chords of the movement depict the crowd's gruesome satisfaction.

Movement V is another movement that could only be analyzed as a sonata with great difficulty. It begins, again, with a slow intro featuring the wolflike howling of an E-flat clarinet. The same instrument then kicks up a nasty little witch's dance based on the idée fixe. For our hero dreams that his spirit has been summoned to a witches' sabbath in which his beloved gleefully joins. Bells ring as the Gregorian-chant melody of the Dies irae, from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, indicates that all these dark creatures have gathered over the hero's grave. In their satanic mockery of his funeral, the theme of the witch's bacchanal is finally superimposed on the Dies irae.

Combining multiple themes simultaneously was a specialty of Berlioz's, and he was no stranger to the macabre either (as his Damnation of Faust bears witness). Above all, he was a master of highly expressive orchestration, often using unusual instruments and combinations thereof to paint vivid details into his musical artwork. This movement, for example, features a percussive string technique called col legno to create an eerie effect like the rattling of bones in a dancing skeleton. He brings the symphony to a close with another rapid coda full of eldritch shrieks and evil cackles. It would be disturbing if it wasn't so much fun.

If you want a more detailed analysis of the Symphony, the programmatic titles of the movements, and a more detailed account of the storyline Berlioz wrote to go with them, wiki that stuff right here. I've tried to account for it, as much as possible, on a purely musical level - but it's really hard to do without getting narrative associations mixed in. Because of its scandalous, bohemian character, its grotesque colors, and its ear-catching quirkiness, it has a lot of appeal to college students who may be at just the right time of life to appreciate what it's all about. This is why I used Symphonie fantastique many times, during my salad days, to introduce friends to the joys of fine-art music. Many of them came away deeply impressed, and surprised to learn that the classics can really rock!

Here is Charles Dutoit conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo) in the fourth movement (march).

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