Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique
Notes by TŌN cellist Amelia Smerz
The Rise of Programmatic Music
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is considered by music historians to be an ideal example of programmatic music: music that follows a specific story or aims to depict a scene. Programmatic music rose to prominence in secular music during the Romantic era when Beethoven, one of the first to explore the style, composed his “Pastoral” Sixth Symphony. While Beethoven utilized a vignette-like structure, in which each movement depicted a different pastoral image, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique furthered the form and pursued a more comprehensive narrative where each movement represented a different event of the story. Symphonie fantastique solidified the epic potential of programmatic music and the distinct emotional effect it could achieve. However, many were skeptical of the compositional style. Some argued that absolute music—music with no narrative—was a more pure, essential, and therefore higher form of music. These critics condemned programmatic music’s reliance on a story, seeing it as a deficient musical style that necessitated a narrative crutch.
In Berlioz’s case, critics of programmatic music, and even those who supported the style, could find something controversial in the Symphonie fantastique’s narrative content. The symphony follows the story of an artist who falls in love instantly with a beautiful young woman. Because his infatuation is so extreme and yet so superficial, the one-sided love affair quickly devolves into chaos. The artist finds himself at a ball where the image of the beauty torments him and he questions whether the glimpses he catches are real or imagined. The third movement’s pastoral scene in the country provides an atmosphere for the artist to wrestle with his feelings of loneliness and hope, as well as a fear of rejection by the subject of his infatuation. From here, the piece escalates in emotion and in surreality. The artist, convinced that he has been spurned by the illusive love interest, ingests opium and descends into drug-induced dreams that he has killed his love. From an omniscient point of view, he watches himself as he faces trial and execution for his crimes. The finale of the symphony comes as the artist sees his funeral transform into a witches’ sabbath. He watches with horror as the only guests at his interment take the shape of sorcerers, monsters and other nightmarish figures there to mourn or perhaps celebrate his death. Though the symphony certainly provides a potent story, the subject material falls far from the expectation of high art. The scenes of opium-fueled debauchery, the paganist presence of sacrilegious figures in the final movement, the chaos and fear represented in Berlioz’s programmatic symphony not only conflict with the values of the concert hall, but the values of Victorian culture in general. This conflict would explain the chaos that erupted upon the symphony’s premiere, as well as Symphonie fantastique’s legacy as a pioneering piece of programmatic splendor.