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Berlioz's Unbridled 'Symphonie Fantastique'

The fifth and final movement of the <em>Symphonie fantastique</em> is set at a witches' Sabbath.
Hulton Archive
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The fifth and final movement of the Symphonie fantastique is set at a witches' Sabbath.

On Sept. 11, 1827, Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet at the Paris Odeon in which the Irish actress Harriet Smithson played the role of Ophelia. Overwhelmed by her beauty and charismatic stage presence, he fell desperately in love. Artist that he was, he found a way to channel the emotional upheaval of l'affaire Smithson into something he could control: a "fantastic symphony" that took as its subject the experiences of a young musician in love.

A detailed program, written by Berlioz himself and published prior to the work's premiere, leaves no doubt that he conceived of the Symphonie fantastique as a romantically heightened self-portrait. In it, Berlioz traces the infatuation of his hero through a series of scenes — a ball, a melancholy evening in the country, an opium dream of the artist witnessing his own execution, and finally a witches' Sabbath, in which the hero's beloved appears as a hideous participant in the orgy.

Throughout the symphony, the beloved is represented by a brief melodic motif called an idee fixe. This device is just one aspect of the revolutionary treatment of melody Berlioz introduces with this work. More remarkable still is his brilliantly innovative orchestration, as he makes groundbreaking use of multiple timpani, sponge sticks, orchestral bells, augmented brass and unusual effects such as percussive col legno bowing, in which the string players bounce the wood of their bows off the strings. Together, these innovations make the symphony one of the seminal works of Romanticism.

Colin Davis: Best In Berlioz

I can't think of a better conductor for this music than Sir Colin Davis. He has such a sense of its passion and its elegance. The string playing in particular is quite refined, and the brass playing is very tight. Davis has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, and this performance showcases the mature thoughts of a man who has given a great deal to the service of Berlioz.

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Ted Libbey