Virtual Music Hour

  Berlioz Archive

  Introduction to Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

  Listen to the Music

Movement 1

Movement 2

Movement 3

Movement 4

Movement 5


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Nothing is quite so engaging and wild a tale as the one behind Symphonie fantastique. The music is also engaging and wild, so it’s a pretty good fit! Whether this is your first time or fortieth to hear and learn about this ‘Fantastic Symphony’ enjoy gaining some new perspective on Berlioz’s compositional process.

  French composer Hector Berlioz composed Symphonie fantastique in 1830 when he was just 27 years old and only a handful of years after he dedicated himself to music composition. It was premiered later that same year at the Paris Conservatory.

  Symphonie fantastique is in five sections: Reveries-Passions, A Ball, Scene in the Fields, March to the Scaffold, and Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. In the span of about 50 minutes it tells the story of a young musician who meets a woman and instantly falls in love, then becomes obsessive and paranoid she might not care for him so he decides to poison himself with opium which causes a terrifying hallucination of her murder, and his own execution and funeral. Something light and fun for your summer evenings!

  Spoiler alert, the story is about Berlioz and his obsession with a famous Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. After a ton of letters to her went unanswered he composed Symphonie fantastique. This caught her attention, they met, and married soon thereafter. Apparently, the ending of the symphony didn’t bother her...

  About the piece, American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein is quoted as saying “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip; you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

  Berlioz called for a very large orchestra. 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides, 4 timpani, 4 harps, percussion, and a large string section of “at least” 30 violins, 10 violas, 11 cellos and 9 basses. Note: in most modern performances tubas are substituted for ophicleide, often only 2 harps are used, and the string instruments can vary in number.

Here is a listening map that can guide you through the music. Read it in advance or while you’re listening!

Movement 1: Reveries – Passions

This music sets the stage for the story with music of thoughtfulness and of the Romantic ideal of tortured love feelings. We hear the idée fixe melody in its simplest state in this movement, although it takes on both the characteristic of beloved, and anxieties about the beloved.

Symphonie fantastique: Episode de la vie d’un artiste… en cinque parties, or Fantastical Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist… in Five Sections, is one of the most popular pieces of music for full orchestra from the Romantic era. It is a programmatic work, which means the music is intended to tell a story without using words. Like Wagner’s Ring Cycle from our broadcast a few weeks ago, it uses a musical technique called leitmotif, or in this specific case, idée fixe. These are each terms for short musical phrases or ideas that are assigned to a particular character, place, action, or feeling in the musical story. Berlioz makes one melody for his idée fixe which he then alters for each of the movements’ different characteristics. He also uses the 13th century Dies Irae melody from the Latin mass to evoke fear and awe.

  Considering the storyline of Symphonie fantastique, in what ways do you think Berlioz would want to alter the idée fixe to suit each new situation?

  Why do you think it might’ve been important for Berlioz to use one unifying melody rather than assigning unique musical expressions for each situation?

Hector Berlioz was best known for his skill at orchestration, which is making choices about which instruments or combination of instruments might be best to achieve a particular sound in the orchestra. The fourth movement of Symphonie fantastique is a march. Think about what musical elements might be necessary to make music sound like a march.

  What particular instrument or group of instruments might be necessary to convey the sound and feeling of a march?

  Does a march need to have a particular tempo or pace, and if so, what might it be?

  Compare some examples of march music from other composers:

Tchaikovsky's "March of the Toy Soldiers"

Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March #1"

Sousa's "The Washington Post March"

  What did you hear that supported your answers?

  What surprising or unexpected elements did you hear?

Berlioz’s march music is during a dream sequence featuring a prisoner being marched through a town with a crowd watching.

  How do you think he might incorporate these story elements into his march music?

  What instruments do you think he would choose to use and how?

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around Symphonie fantastique it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. Sing/hum/whistle along, move and dance, journal or draw what you hear, or just turn the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure!



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


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