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Music In The Romantic Era

Program Music and Hector Berlioz

Peter Kun Frary


Instrumental music that evokes extra-musical meaning—tells a story, suggests a scene, imitates nature, champions political ideals, etc.—is called program music. These works normally have a descriptive title, an accompanying poem and/or a program. Program music flourished in the Romantic era but isolated examples were written as early as the Baroque. For example, Vivaldi's Four Seasons used poetry, descriptive titles and evoked the sound of bird song and storms.

Hector Berlioz 1863 | Pierre Petit (1832–1909 | Bibliothèque nationale de France | Berlioz was among the most innovative nineteenth century composers of program music.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the foremost French composer of the Romantic era, was born in the mountains near Grenoble, the son of a physician. His father wanted Hector to become a physician too and, fearing he might become a musician, forbade the child from leaning piano. Instead, he received haphazard lessons on flute and guitar.

In 1821 Berlioz began medical school in Paris but was sicken by the dissection room. He shocked his parents by dropping out of medical school to pursue music. In 1826, at 23, he entered the Paris Conservatory, distinguishing himself in composition. His innovative and unconventional style set him at odds with many faculty, musicians and musical organizations of Paris. The French, unlike Germans and Austrians, were conservative and preferred the Classical style. While Berlioz’s progressive Romantic style made him revered in other parts of Europe, it left him somewhat scorned in his own country.

After being passed over several times in a composition competition, the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatory, Berlioz won in 1830. While in Rome, Berlioz heard his fiancée, pianist Maria Moke, had married another man. He stormed out of Rome by stagecoach with pistols and poison to avenge the betrayal but changed his mind en route.

Prior to the engagement, Berlioz had been writing impassioned love letters to a famous Shakespearean actress, Harriet Smithson, whom he had not met. She, of course, ignored his letters.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), 1863 | Édouard Manet (1832–1883) | Musée d’Orsay

Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz wrote his most famous and innovative work in 1830, Symphonie Fantastique, an autographic work depicting his “endless and unquenchable passion” for Harriet Smithson:

If she could for one moment conceive all the poetry, all the infinity of love, she would fly into my arms.

Symphonie Fantastique has five movements, each with a narrative describing his hopes, dreams and love for Harriet Smithson. The symphony is about an hour long.

    1. Reveries, Passions (15:20)
    2. A Ball (5:58)
    3. Scene in the Country (16:32)
    4. March to the Scaffold (7:07)
    5. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath (9:30)

As the movements progress, he slips ever downward until, in an opium fueled rage, he murders her, is executed by beheading and drops into hell. He meets Harriet in hell where she dances at a witches' sabbath and participates in a "diabolical orgy." Leonard Bernstein explains it this way: "Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral."

Harriet Smithson 1822 | George Clint (1770–1854) | Yale Center for British Art

Harriet Smithson (1800–1854), the beloved, is represented by what Berlioz calls the idée fixe, fixed idea. The idée fixe is a melody that symbolizes Harriet Smithson or thoughts about her. The idée fixe is presented in each movement, but transformed according to the narrative. Initially it sounds innocent and hopeful. By the fifth movement it is twisted and grotesque. Here's the idée fixe:

Unfortunately, Harriet Smithson missed the premier in 1830, but attended a performance of Symphonie Fantastique in 1832. When she realized this work depicted her—“she felt the room reel about her; she heard no more but sat in a dream.” They met the next day and were married the following year. It was not a happy marriage and they eventually separated. Berlioz took up with a young opera singer, Marie Recio, whom he married when Harriet died in 1854.

A Concert of Hector Berlioz 1846 | Andreas Geiger (1765-1856) | Musee de l'Opera | The French press was hard on Berlioz as a composer and, ironically, he joined their ranks as a music critic, a profession he despised.

Symphonie Fantastique is scored for a large orchestra of flutes (2), oboes (2), clarinets (2), bassoons (4), trumpets (2), cornets (2), French horns (4), trombones (3), tubas (2), timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals and strings. Basically an orchestra and brass band merged together, allowing tremendous dynamic range and timbre variation.

We'll focus on the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold. Here's a translation of the narrative from from Berlioz's 1845 program notes:

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.

The "final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow" is the idée fixe is played by a lonely solo clarinet. The fall of the guillotine blade interrupts the idée fixe, symbolized by a fortissimo orchestra chord, and two soft pizzicato notes immediately afterward depict the bounce of the severed head. The movement concludes with a powerful timpani roll and fortissimo orchestra repeating the final chord.

Symphonie fantastique, IV. March to the Scaffold (7:07) | Hector Berlioz

Although he enjoyed mild musical success in France—had a devout fan base of progressive artists and musicians—Berlioz was forced to support himself as a music critic—a profession he despised—and as a librarian at the Paris Conservatory. Unlike composers like Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven, Berlioz was not a skilled instrumentalist and could not supplement his income and reputation with performances beyond guest conducting.

Richard Wagner characterized Berlioz as one of the world’s three greatest composers, the other two being himself and Liszt! That said, Berlioz was seen somewhat of a musician's musician and novelty in his homeland. He had the respect of other progressive artists across Europe—great for one's ego—but at the same time not nearly as financially rewarding as being a superstar like Beethoven or Liszt. It wasn't until two hundred years after the birth of Berlioz that his musical achievements were widely recognized and his music celebrated as both serious and original for its time.

If you have a spare hour, enjoy all five movements of Symphonie fantastique:

Symphonie fantastique (1:00:45) | Hector Berlioz

La dame aux éventails (Woman with Fans), 1873 | Édouard Manet (1832–1883) | Musée d’Orsay


program music, Hector Berlioz, idée fixe

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved