Symphonie fantastique- March au supplice: Hector Berlioz

We're going to break with tradition this week.  Yes, I know you all were expecting another piece of music for the "Dramatic Music" series, but I made an executive decision.  And since I'm the only employee making decisions around here, there was little room for dissension.

This week, being the last Friday before Halloween, will be dedicated to one of my favorite pieces of music, coincidentally, one of my favorite pieces to share and discuss around this time of year.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote Symphonie fantastique in 1830.  We've discussed music of this era before, classifying it as Romantic and examining the luscious and overtly sensual nature of the melodies produced during this era.  Berlioz was also breaking boundaries in the arena of what came to be known as Program Music. Essentially, a piece of music crafted to tell a story without the use of words. A composer would usually leave notes in the score, describing his intentions and try to paint scenery and props and characters and plot with notes and rhythms.

It became unusually successful.

Berlioz himself was forever fighting bad press.  The critics in Paris found his music discordant and loathesome, and seemed to take great delight in writing scathing reviews of his work. In reading of Berlioz, I think it went past the point of discouragement for him, but drew out a sardonic wit that endears him greatly to me. He wrote a piece, L'enfance du Christ, which was programmatic music that detailed various parts of Jesus' young life with his family.  It originated with an organ piece entitled, L'adieu des bergers, which translates into "the Shepherd's farewell". It recreates the last moments of the shepherds' visit with the newborn, baby Jesus.  Eventually, he turned it into a choral work and decided to play a prank on his antagonists in the newspaper business.

He premiered the new version of the piece and claimed it to be written by some obscure 17th century composer named "Ducré" who totally didn't exist.  It ended up being a resounding success, being praised by almost every critic that had previously scorned Berlioz.  My favorite bit is a quote from presumably a female critic in the French newspapers that read: "Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece by old Ducré".  If the internet had been invented in the 1800's, Berlioz might've responded thusly...

Yeah, she mad.
So, Berlioz really came into his own with his Symphonie fantastique, a wild ride that follows an artist who decides to kill himself by overdosing on opium as a recourse from being rebuffed by the woman he loves. There is some parallelism here within Berlioz's own life, having fallen madly in love with the actress, Harriet Smithson, and being rejected quite profoundly.  So, in his fantasy, Berlioz's artist takes enough opium to cause him to fall from reality, but not quite enough to kill himself.  He drifts through five movements of various dream-like imagery, all the while following his beloved to the tune of an idée fixe, which is a repeating melody that represents this lovely woman.

We'll focus primarily on the fourth movement.

Here are Berlioz's program notes:

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, 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. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. 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 when his head bounced down the steps.

That last bit is important.  You'll hear a processional-like march fading in as you can imagine a small crowd of people leading a carriage with the condemned man up a hill to a scaffold built on the crest of the bluff. This carries on for a bit, you can imagine the crowd being quite pleased that this scoundrel will soon be out of their presence. The scaffold, as you might imagine, is in fact the guillotine, the French weapon of choice in the 19th century for dispatching ne'er-do-wells.  And as he's strapped down into this insidious device, he gazes out into the crowd.  And for a fleeting moment, he sees his beloved!  Hooray!


Bump, bump.

So, sit back, and enjoy what is almost certainly the first musical representation of an artist's severed head bouncing to the ground.

Happy Halloween!

Homework: Just listen to this one.  It's really awesome.  If you want extra credit you can listen to the whole thing.  Look it up.  It's totally on YouTube.

See you next Friday.