Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique
Thu, 15 Feb 2018

Last time we discussed Berlioz’s failed love affair with Camille Marie Moke. The young composer also had eyes for the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first saw perform in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Again, he allowed his emotions to get the best of him, only this time his passion turned into what became a symphonic work still enjoyed by audiences today.

Despite his numerous love letters to Harriet, the actress seemed uninterested, likely due to the fact that they had never met. Desperate for attention, Berlioz poured his emotion into a new composition using Harriet as the inspiration. Symphonie fantastique contains a theme referred to as the idee fixe that represents the object of Berlioz’s love: Harriet Smithson. Throughout this five-movement work, this theme transforms in various ways in order to best express the various feelings the composer felt toward the young girl.

The first movement contains the idee fixe surrounded by musical figures that depict the beating of Berlioz’s heart as he notices his lover. The second movement transforms the idee fixeinto a waltz as the composer goes to a ball and watches his love from afar. The third movement, “In the Country,” continues the story of Berlioz’s obsession as he walks through the country dreaming of the woman for whom he longs. After the composer realizes that his love is not returned, he dreams of his own execution during the fourth movement. Only the opening of the idee fixe appears before he is guillotined and the audience can hear his head drop to the ground. The final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme from the Mass for the Dead as the composer dreams that his beloved appears at his funeral as a witch.

The best part of this fun piece is that it won over Berlioz’s beloved actress. Smithson joined Berlioz in marriage in 1833. Though happy at first, the marriage quickly declined and the couple eventually separated.

Listen here to Symphonie fantastique and let me know how your affections are moved after hearing this story and listening to Berlioz’s famous piece.

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