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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique
Hector Berlioz (1803- 1869)
Symphonie fantastique Opus 14
(An Episode in the Life of an Artist)
(Largo - Allegro appassionato e
(Rêveries - Passions)
A Ball Waltz (Allegro non troppo)
Scene in the Country (Adagio)
(Sc ne aux champs)
March to the Scaffold (Allegro non
(Marche au supplice)
Witches' Sabbath (Larghetto - Allegro)
(Songe d'une nuit de sabbat)
Hector Berlioz was born in the French
province of Isere 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,
It was in 1824 that Berlioz finally gave
up medicine. His first visit to the dissecting-room, described in lurid terms
in his Memoirs, 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
Opera, and the Conservatoire Library was open to the public. He was able to
profit, too, by lessons from Lesueur, whose class he was later to enter at the
Conservatoire, where he became a student in 1826.
The following year Berlioz saw
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.
The Symphonie fantastique was
written in reaction to the intense and unreciprocated passion Berlioz felt for
Harriet Smithson, and with something of the resentment he felt, possibly
augmented by his brief association with Camille Moke, who was to marry the
piano manufacturer Pleyel. In the end Berlioz 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 idèe fixe, a recurrent
fragment of melody, symbolising the beloved, a prototype of the Leitmotiv, to
be developed by Wagner. In 1830 the autobiographical nature of the symphony
represented something entirely new.
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. This is followed by a third movement that cost the composer much labour.
In the countryside two shepherd boys playa melody to call the cows, and all is
tranquillity until the beloved appears again, with all the anxious questioning
that that must provoke. A shepherd 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 idèe 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.
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra
The Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra
(Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at
the instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities in the
sphere of music. The orchestra was first conducted by the Prague conductor
Frantisek Dyk and in the course of the past fifty years of its existence has
worked under the batons of several prominent Czech and Slovak conductors.
Ondrej Lenard was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its
conductor-in-chief. The orchestra has recently given a number of successful
concerts both at home and abroad, in West and East Germany, Russia, Bulgaria,
Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, and Great Britain.
Pinchas Steinberg has been since 1985
General Music Director of the Bremen Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra. Born
in Israel in 1945, he settled in the United States of America in 1963,
continuing his musical education at Indiana University and at Roosevelt
University. By the age of 22 he was leader of the Chicago Lyric Opera and it
was in Chicago that he began his career as a conductor, taking over in a performance
of Don Giovanni, when the conductor was taken ill.
In 1971 Steinberg moved to West Berlin,
where he took lessons in composition from Boris Blacher. In 1974 he made his
concert debut with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and this was followed by
a number of invitations from other European orchestras, including the London
Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the
Munich Philharmonic, the Stockholm Philharmonic, the Paris Nouvel Orchestre
Philharmonique, RAI Milan and Rome and orchestras in Cologne, Brussels,
Hamburg, Basle and Berne.
As a conductor of opera Steinberg first
directed Rigoletto in Frankfurt in 1979, following this with engagements
in Hamburg, Stuttgart and at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. At Covent Garden he
conducted Verdi's Luisa Miller, in Florence Capuletti i Montecchi,
in San Francisco Il Trovatore, in Rome Tosca, in Lisbon Rheingold
and for Trieste and Palermo Samson and Delilah, Macbeth, Trovatore and Don
In 1986 Steinberg undertook his first
tour to Japan, where he conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In the same year
he made his debut at the Paris Opera with a new production of Medea, with
Shirley Verrett in the title role. During the 1986 - 1987 season he conducted Goetterdaemmerung
at the Liceo in Barcelona and Catalani's La Wally, Elektra, Salome
and The Flying Dutchman in Bremen.
In June 1987 Pinchas Steinberg opened the
Bremen Festival with a performance of Ernani, following this, in the 1987 -
1988 season, with performances of Tannhaeuser and Szymanowsky's King Roger in
Bremen and Norma in Monte Carlo, while continuing a busy schedule of
engagements in Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Italy.
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BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique