Sunday, December 11, 2005


Berlioz: the Fantastic Symphony

The First Symphony of Berlioz, which he called Episodes in the Life of an Artist, or Fantastic Symphony, in C major, Op.14, was written in 1831. The subject, which was of Berlioz' own invention, could scarcely be adjusted to the classic lines of the traditional symphonic form, since it presented a definite poetic program, and involved of necessity those modifications that gave being to the Symphonic-Poem.

The idea is defined by Berlioz in these words: "A young artist, in love, and tired of life, takes opium; the dose, too weak to kill, intoxicates him, and in his fevered dreams he reviews his own imaginary love-history, which culminates in a fantastic and dreadful ending." This poetic material is divided into five Episodes or Movements:

1. Reveries, Passions. For this first Episode Berlioz adopts the sonata-allegro design, and follows it as best he may, for it must be well understood that he himself had no intention of violating or rejecting the classic structural traditions, and was doubtless unaware of the vital consequences that were to attend his novel artistic purpose. There is a stately Introduction, followed by the regular Allegro, the principal melody of which is what Berlioz called the idee fixe of the youth's hallucinations, and which recurs as "Leading Motive" in every Movement of the Symphony. Thus Berlioz unconsciously conceived the germ of the Leit-Motif, that later assumed such immense artistic significance in the works of Liszt and Wagner.

2. The Ball, Waltz, A major.

3. Scene in the Country, Adagio, F major.

4. March to the Scaffold, Allegretto, G minor.

5. Witches' Sabbath, Allegro, C major. This Finale contains a remarkable Fugue which is a masterpiece of contrapuntal skill, but as music repulsive.

The melodies of Berlioz, not alone in this work, but evereywhere, are original, radically different from those of any other composer. Compared with the bland melodic lines of the great classic leaders, the melodies of Berlioz seem, on a first hearing, singularly uninviting, stiff and angular; but they are true to his musical purpose, and impress the unprejudiced hearer more and more upon closer acquaintance, until their signal beauty is at last revealed. His harmonies and modulations are normal; his counterpoint baffling; his structure generally convincing---though in many respects his music betrays the lack of thorough early discipline. Above all, his instrumentation is phenomenal: he enriched the orchestra extensively, adding harp, English horn, ophicleide (or tuba) and other instruments, multiplying the bassoons and trumpets, thus increasing the resourcefulness of the orchestral body, and demonstrating himself with superb vision how its resources might be utilized.


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