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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIOZ, H.: Symphonie fantastique / Le corsaire (Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
Immensely influential, the remarkable Symphonie fantastique was composed while Hector Berlioz was suffering an intense and unreciprocated passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Its autobiographical tale describes a young musician’s opium-poisoned nightmares of jealous despair and fatal justice following the murder of his beloved. Berlioz wrote a second movement cornet solo into a subsequent revision of the score, here included as an optional extra. He wed his sweetheart actress but, recuperating in Nice, wrote Le corsaire after the final break-up of their marriage.
By Jerry Dubins
By John J. Puccio
Hector Berlioz (1803–69)
Le corsaire • Symphonie fantastique
Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère in 1803, the son of a doctor. He abandoned his own medical studies, on which his father had insisted, to become a musician, but was to remain an outsider as far as the musical establishment in Paris was concerned, his music seeming at times extravagantly bizarre, his character, to say the least, difficult, and his literary activities, as a music critic, controversial.
It was in 1824 that Berlioz finally gave up medicine. His first visit to the dissecting-room, described in lurid terms in his Mémoires, provided an initial and startling disincentive, as he saw birds fighting for scraps of human lungs, and rats in the corner of the room, gnawing vertebrae. At the same time Paris offered musical opportunities. There was the Opéra, and the Conservatoire Library was open to the public. He was able to profit, too, by lessons from Jean-François Le Sueur, whose class he was later to enter at the Conservatoire, where he became a student in 1826. In the same year Berlioz made his first attempt to win the Prix de Rome, a prize that not only brought considerable prestige and a period of residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, but a financial advantage in a stipend over the following five years. His first submission failed to pass the initial academic test. In 1727 he was successful in the preliminary round and submitted a setting of the obligatory text, La mort d’Orphée, which the judges rejected as unperformable. In 1828 he entered the contest again, now with the cantata Herménie, which has at its opening a theme that was to become familiar as the idée fixe that haunts the Symphonie fantastique. Herménie was awarded a second prize. In 1829 Berlioz tried yet again, now setting the set text of Cléopâtre, but on this occasion no first prize was given. In 1830 two first prizes were offered, and Berlioz at last was awarded the first of the two for his cantata Sardanapale.
During these years Berlioz had been active as a composer. In 1826 he had written his first opera, Les franc-juges, and a series of songs were further evidence of his wide literary interests. In 1829 he had completed his Huit scènes de Faust, later to become La damnation de Faust, a reflection of his new interest in Goethe’s play. In 1827 he had seen Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming, accentuated by the performance of Romeo and Juliet that he saw a few days later. During the season he had the opportunity to see much more of the visiting English company, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love.
Written in the spring of 1830, the Symphonie fantastique was conceived partly in reaction to the intense and unreciprocated passion Berlioz felt for Harriet Smithson. Berlioz had turned from her to embark on a brief association with the young pianist Camille Moke, whose mother insisted that her proposed son-in-law should show proper signs of material success, preferably in the opera house. In impatience at parental attitudes the couple seemed to have contemplated or even attempted elopement. Berlioz heard of Camille Moke’s change of heart and her engagement to the piano manufacturer Pleyel, when he was in Rome, provoking him to plans of extreme and immediate revenge. In the end Berlioz, in 1833, was to marry his Ophelia, a match that brought neither of them any lasting satisfaction, as her own career waned into querulous drunkenness and his musical and extra-marital amatory preoccupations assumed greater importance.
The Symphonie fantastique is a remarkable work, autobiographical in content and immensely influential in the path it suggested to future composers, anxious to extend the scope of musical expression in the generation after Beethoven. Described as An Episode in the Life of an Artist, the symphony is haunted by an idée fixe, a recurrent fragment of melody, symbolizing the beloved, a prototype of the Leitmotiv, to be developed by Wagner. In 1830 the autobiographical nature of the symphony represented something entirely new. The two programmes that Berlioz offered for the work, the first with the edition of the full score in 1845 and the second in a revision of 1855, differ in some details, with the use of opium added in the second version, in place of the vague des passions to which the artist’s turmoil had first been attributed. In the later introduction Berlioz gives less importance to the programme itself, suggesting that the movement titles should suffice in a concert performance.
A young musician, in despair, has poisoned himself with opium and in a long sleep has a series of vivid dreams and nightmares, the idea of his beloved coming again and again to his mind. He recalls the joys and depressions of the past, before she came into his life, and then the neurotic despair and jealousy that her appearance brought him, with passing consolation in religious serenity. The second movement evokes the music of a ball, at which, in the swirl of the dance, he catches glimpses of his beloved again. In a later revision of the work Berlioz added a cornet solo, now often omitted. This was presumably to be played by the virtuoso AJ Arban at the Liszt/Berlioz concert in Paris in May 1844. This is followed by a third movement that cost the composer much labour. In the countryside two shepherd boys play a melody to call the cows, the ranz des vaches, and all is tranquillity until the beloved appears again, with all the anxious questioning that that must provoke. One of the shepherds plays his pipe, but this time there is no answer, and as the sun sets distant thunder is heard, followed by silence. The March to the Scaffold, written in one night, brings a dream of the murder of the beloved, for which the hero is condemned to death. The march, with its steady tread, has its wilder moments, as the procession makes its way through the crowd. The beloved appears at the moment before the axe falls. The final movement is a Witches’ Sabbath, a wild orgy of diabolic celebration, the idée fixe of the beloved now a shrill mockery. The death knell is heard and the sound of the traditional chant of the Dies irae, the hymn of the Day of Judgement from the Requiem Mass, mingles with the dance, as the work draws to an end.
The overture Le corsaire, originally La tour de Nice and later Le corsaire rouge, was written in 1844. Berlioz composed the work in Nice after the final break-up of his marriage, staying in a tower above the sea, remembering earlier times spent in Nice and recovering from the state of exhaustion that his intensive concert activity in Paris and his domestic problems had brought him. The title of the work suggests Byron, although its second title, Le corsaire rouge, is the French translation of Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover. Whatever its literary connotations, the geographical inspiration is clear enough from the energy of the music.
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