Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique | Symphony Study No. 21 of 118

by Glenn on December 6, 2015

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
(Episode in the Life of an Artist, Fantastic Symphony in Five Parts, Opus 14)
First Performance (Original Version): Paris | 5 December 1830
First Performance (Revised Version): Paris | 9 December 1832

Herbert Blomstedt | Berliner Philharmoniker | Digital Concert Hall

Following Beethoven, the next composer (in alphabetical order) and symphony in Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide is Hector Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique. I’ll admit to a certain Let’s get this over with attitude as I approached this one because I’ve always felt something creepifying about this work.

Fortunately, reading Steinberg’s notes took some of the dread away. Steinberg is helpful for understanding why this music is significant and should be included on a list of best symphonies, although he hasn’t turned me into a Berlioz fan or anything. His opening line:

“No disrespect to Mahler or Shostakovich, but this is the most remarkable First Symphony ever written.”

Berlioz wrote four symphonies after this, but this is the only one that makes the book. Steinberg takes some time to describe the inventiveness that was going on around the world in 1830—for example, Paris without a king (and no Divine Right of said). His conclusion is that you would also expect some inventiveness in the field of music.

Written only six years after Beethoven’s Ninth, the Symphonie Fantastique shows that Berlioz was “in debt to Beethoven” but, more importantly, that he “strove to write ‘new music.’” Steinberg continues, “[Berlioz] succeeded. The Fantastic symphony sounds and behaves like nothing ever heard before.

1. Berlioz creates a new orchestra, including Eb clarinet and english horn, four bassoons, two harps, much percussion, and two ophicleides which Steinberg notes are “generally replaced nowadays by boomier and fatter-sounding bass tubas.” Berlioz creates all kinds of new colors with this new orchestra.

2. Berlioz takes the idea of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to a new level in this highly personal (autobiographical?) programmatic music.

My problem with the program of the Fantastic is that it is either too bland or too out there. The first three movements are lovely, but largely unmoving. The second movement, where (in Berlioz’ words) “The artist finds himself in the most varied situations in the midst of THE TUMULT OF A FESTIVITY …” is beautiful, but I prefer the waltzes by the Strauss family for their style, delight, and inventiveness.

(To check myself, I listened to the 1997 New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic with Riccardo Muti. I felt terribly indulgent listening to this. Absolute aural elegance. There is nothing quite like the Vienna Philharmonic playing a Strauss waltz.)


The fourth and fifth movements are just not my thing. From Berlioz:

“Part Four: March to the Scaffold—Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he had loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing HIS OWN EXECUTION.”

Berlioz gets major points for creativity, but this is not an experience I want anything to do with, which I suppose I attribute to some mix of fear and judgmentalism. It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in terms of subject matter from Beethoven’s “brotherhood of man” six years earlier, but I’m not sure the distance we’ve traveled is necessarily better. We’ve come so far, but where are we now? Celebrating (?) a drug trip. Berlioz is “keeping it real” as we like to say, but I don’t think that is necessarily a virtue. Or, at the very least, the virtue of honesty doesn’t exist alone.

The fifth movement is worse. Again, from Berlioz:

“Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath—He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral.”

If you believe in evil powers, why celebrate them? Lately, I’ve seen advertisements for a new television show, Lucifer. What are they thinking? Lucifer as a protagonist?

Leonard Bernstein in his Young People’s Concerts (see videos at end of post) gets very close to making this music palatable for me. He is an exuberant teacher who does a masterful job of explaining the music and showing how remarkable it is—so close to Beethoven’s time, so modern in its sounds and sensibilities. For me, though, Bernstein rides a little close to glorifying it all, although I like what he said about the fifth movement:

“Now all this horror builds up into a most brilliant ending—but brilliant or not, I’m sorry to say, it leaves our hero still in the clutches of his opium nightmare. It’s brilliance without glory—that’s the problem. I can’t honestly tell you that we have gone through the fires of hell with our hero and come out nobler and wiser, but that’s the way with trips, and Berlioz tells it like it is. Now there was an honest man. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

This is the problem of this work for me. It feels a little purposeless. Self-indulgent. Art doesn’t have to be (shouldn’t be?) moralistic, but I want it to celebrate the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

The performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker was pristine. Herbert Blomstedt seems to treat the music as music, not overemphasizing the extra-musical ideas. In other words, where a line of music represents shrieking, for example, it isn’t played representationally with a shriek, but sonorously.


What was interesting for me is that after I finished listening to the Fantastic Symphony, I later found myself conflating it with another symphony by a French composer. I thought I was remembering bits from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique but instead was recalling Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. The link between the two is that both use the Dies Irae. Here is a YouTube link to hear it:



[…] No. 2 is: It’s not for me. Sometimes it’s a judgement—like I have with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—sometimes it’s a rejection of the aesthetic—with a couple of […]

by Symphony Study No. 30 of 118: Charles Ives | Symphony No. 4 « on 7 February 2016 at 2:32 pm. #

[…] ☑ Symphonie fantastique | #21 | Herbert Blomstedt | Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert […]

by The Symphony Project « on 6 March 2016 at 10:15 am. #