Symphony Fantastique Berlioz Analysis Essay

One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of being a musician, specifically as a performer, is the process of deciding how exactly to perform a piece of music. One would think that all necessary information is offered on the page, given by the composer in clear instructions. The truth is, though, that a large amount of information is up to the performer. Such freedom for interpretation is a byproduct of ambiguity or error in the score or simply results from the composer’s intention to allow the musician the opportunity for individual expression. This variability is even more conspicuous in regards to prominent historical works, compositions that introduce variables such as instruments and personnel available, as well as the tradition of performance by which musicians today are preceded.

One example that poses many topics for discussion is Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a programmatic work composed in 1830. The symphony is widely performed today and is considered a staple of Romantic orchestral music. There exists, however, a large variety of performance techniques when it comes to this piece, and these disagreements stem from a variety of sources. Berlioz himself edited the piece heavily over several years and there exist several versions of the symphony. Furthermore, when performing a work nearly two centuries old, there is inevitably disagreement over the importance of presenting the piece in a historically accurate manner.

My paper will examine the circumstances in which Berlioz wrote and revised Symphonie fantastique, offer various arguments for Berlioz’s motivations for making one musical choice over another throughout the compositional process, and discuss the manner in which the symphony should be performed today in light of both historical and contemporary views.


Berlioz’s Biography: Inspiration from Real Life

Symphonie fantastique is often described as autobiographical, though its programmatic qualities do not attempt to depict Hector Berlioz’s life in a literal fashion; rather, the sentiments that the story uphold are meant to mirror the emotions Berlioz felt in his life and the sentiments he explored in his head. The following discussion is based primarily on the extensive biographical work of David Cairns, supplemented by the work done under Michael Tilson Thomas in association with the San Francisco Orchestra and the memoirs of Berlioz himself. [1-3]

Berlioz grew up in a small town in the Swiss Alps where he was homeschooled by his father, a successful doctor. He played flute and guitar from a young age and later picked up percussion as well. Even early on, those around him knew how susceptible he was to his emotions. At age 12, after a girl (several years his senior) rejected his affections, Berlioz declared that he would never love again. Around age 16, he developed severe mood swings, emotional issues that would follow him his whole life. His parents wanted him to study medicine, and he did—for a time at least. His passion for music, however, soon pulled him away from his medicinal studies before he could graduate. Berlioz informed his parents of his intentions to become a composer; his mother disowned him, never to talk to him again; his father told him that his decision was only acceptable if he would became world-famous in his career.

During the 1820s, Berlioz worked hard at the Paris Conservatoire to fulfill his father’s conditions. Symphonie fantastique, perhaps his first truly large-scale work, came out of this hard work there, as well as some inspiration from an English actress named Harriet Smithson. Smithson was working for a troupe that touring Europe. Shakespeare was especially popular in Paris during this time, and it was in the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Othello that Berlioz first laid eyes on Smithson. Although Berlioz did not speak any English, Smithson fascinated him and the emotions she was able to convey with her melodramatic acting style changed his life forever. He became fixated on her, writing her love letters that were never answered. When she left Paris at the beginning of 1830, the two had still never met. Berlioz composed Symphony fantastique as a final effort to express his unrequited love.

The work was completed in just less than three months while he was a student. Berlioz rushed to complete the project in time for a scheduled premiere in May of 1830. There was much difficulty during rehearsals, however, and an uncompromising Berlioz as conductor left those involved exasperated and unwilling to perform. The premier was postponed until the end of the year, under the provision that a new conductor would be procured. Although frustrated, Berlioz used this postponement to edit large chunks of the work. It was then officially premiered on December 5th, 1830 in the Great Hall of the Conservatoire after months of publicity. Among those in attendance were Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Alexander Dumas, and Heinrich Heine. Absent, however, was Harriet Smithson, who declined Berlioz’s invitation.

Not only was Smithson’s absence a disappointment to Berlioz, but also the symphony itself was met only with mixed reaction. Although some revered the work and its composer, it did not provide Berlioz with the financial support he needed. Soon after the premiere, he entered the Prix de Rome composition contest and won, earning a two-year study in Rome. Berlioz spent these years heavily revising Symphonie fantastique. This version, completed in 1832, became the most well known due in no small part to a piano transcription by Franz Liszt. The “second” premiere of the symphony took place exactly twenty-four months after the first, in the same hall, with most of the same musicians. This time, however, Harriet Smithson decided to attend and, after the immensely successful performance of the work, agreed to meet Berlioz in person (despite the fact that neither could speak the other’s language).

Smithson was not impressed with Berlioz in person, after all, and declined his advances. Months later, still in love with the actress, Berlioz promised to kill himself if she did not marry him. With her continued denial, he swallowed a lethal dose of opium in front of her. Smithson consequently promised to marry him and he produced an antidote from his pocket. Berlioz survived, and after weeks in the hospital, the two were married in 1833 with Franz Liszt as the best man. Unfortunately, the two separated roughly a year after the marriage.


The Fantastical Program

The program of Symphonie fantastique in many ways mirrors the events of the composer’s own life. These similarities, however, arise from an emotional and psychological likeness, however—not a literal interpretation of events. The symphony, subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist,” tells the story of “an artist gifted with a lively imagination.” [4] In the first movement (“Rêveries—Passions”), the artist first sees the “woman who unties all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of.” [5]  He begins to daydream about this woman, the “beloved,” and worries that they may not be together. In the second movement (“Un bal”), the artist attends a party in which he continually glimpses the beloved as they waltz around the room. The third movement (“Scène aux champs”) depicts the countryside in which the artist broods in his loneliness. Distant thunder ruins the pastoral quality of the setting. Convinced that the beloved will never return his love, the artist, at the beginning of the fourth movement (“Marche au supplice”), takes a lethal dose of opium. The drug, however, does not kill him, but simply puts him into a hallucinatory stupor. He dreams that he has killed the beloved, is convicted, and is forced to witness his own execution. He is beheaded amidst a large crowd. The nightmare continues in the fifth movement (“Songe d’une nuit de sabbat”) as the artist descends into hell, where he witnesses witches dancing for their sabbath. Amidst the cacophony, the artist sees the beloved—in the form of a witch—dancing along in celebration of his death. [6]


The Many Versions of Symphonie fantastique

 Although the story behind the symphony remained relatively the same throughout this piece’s history, large portions of the work did not. D. Kern Holomon, a musicologist and professor at UC-Davis, has undertaken perhaps the most thorough research ever done on Berlioz and his revision process. The following discussion is largely indebted to him and his book, The Creative Process in the Autograph Musical Documents of Hector Berlioz.  Symphonie fantastique went through numerous revisions from its inception in 1830 to its final general publication in 1845, and exists in what are thought of as five different versions. The original version, used for rehearsals in May of 1830, exists only on parchment and in scraps with edits made in bright red chalk. The first revised edition that was used for the premiere in December of that year is quite similar, with only a few major differences, mostly involving orchestration or simplification of difficult passages. [7] The edits the composer made to Symphonie fantastique after the premiere occurred during his years in Rome. These changes are much more significant and are reflected in the 1832 performance, especially in the first three movements. This version, however, was not published for many years after that, however (aside from the Liszt piano transcription). An advance edition was prepared in 1844, with a general publication (with slight changes from the advance edition) occurring in 1845. The work, then, was published as Berlioz’s Fourteenth Opus, despite its origins very early in his career. [8] A reissue of the work was presented in 1855. This version has the same music as the 1845 edition with a slightly altered program to accompany the music. [9]

It is one project in itself to simply note the revisions made to Symphonie fantastique over the years, but it is a far more fruitful and laborious task to examine why these changes were made. As performers and musicologists, it is important to attempt to understand why the composer made one decision over another at any given time and place. When the composer’s intentions are understood and consequently weighed against other factors, the manner in which a composition is to be performed becomes more clear.

Holoman’s analysis of Symphonie fantastique concludes that edits made between May and December in 1830 were primarily of practical concern. Details from the scores themselves seem to support this. The orchestration for this work was groundbreaking; with over ninety instrumentalists, this was the largest orchestra ever called for up to this point. [10] Some of Berlioz’s more exotic ideas, however, were cut from the May version and did not make it to the premiere. For example, as most people know, the symphony includes two parts for ophicleides (played most often today with tubas). In the original score, however, the ophicleides were joined by a pair of instruments called serpents. [11] A serpent, a descendent of the cornett, is a brass instrument with woodwind-like holes. [12] It was soon decided that it was too cumbersome to have two of these massive wooden instruments on a stage that was already quite small. This was also an era in which the serpent was beginning to fall out of fashion, making way for the brief supremacy of the ophicleide and ultimately the tuba. [13] Other innovations, such as doubling harp and timpani or the inclusion of church bells remained intact throughout revisions despite their logistical concerns. [14] A common problem that composer run into is that certain passages–especially those involving new or extended techniques–don’t sound quite the same in one’s head as they do when played out loud. Amazingly, it seems that all of Berlioz’s groundbreaking techniques remained from the first sketches to final drafts. These include the col legno technique in the strings and the use of sponge-headed sticks in the percussion–sounds that existed only in Berlioz’s head until that rehearsal in May 1830. [15] Despite these successful innovations, these rehearsals were ultimately a source of embarrassment and frustration for the composer. To avoid such a fiasco again, Berlioz hastened to cut passages that were simply to difficult for the musicians to perform. Facsimiles of omitted music can be found in the New Edition of the Complete Works of Hector Berlioz, edited by Hugh Macdonald. Indeed, these sketches indicate that the symphony was not edited to any great extent in 1830 for any musical or philosophical shortcomings, but rather for practical considerations–instrumentation and performability. [16]

Motivations for edits made during Berlioz’s two-year stay in Rome are more difficult to trace. Many scholars from Berlioz’s contemporaries to today have offered various hypotheses for the composer’s intentions. Some paint the composer as a fickle amatuer, simply re-manipulating his symphony out of ennui or a lack of creativity. [17] Camille Saint-Saëns once deemed Berlioz a “paradox in human form,” but a close look at the composer’s sketches and memoirs seems to indicate a much more driven and self-aware artist than many of his polemics would maintain. [18] Berlioz knew that his symphony was great even before it was finished. He demonstrates disbelief when confronted with setbacks. This can be seen in his depictions of the tepid initial reaction to the premiere or in his recollections of continued failed attempts to win the Prix de Rome. For Berlioz, the fault was always in the performers, the conductors, or the critics–they just were unable to understand the greatness of Symphonie fantastique. [19] In this light, I would argue that the majority of the edits during his time in Rome came from a continual progression towards what Berlioz viewed as perfection.

Berlioz was rushed to complete the work in time for rehearsals in 1830. Scholars have noted that in order to finish in time, he ended up borrowing a considerable amount of existing material. For example, the main theme of the fourth movement is lifted directly from Les Francs-junges, an opera that Berlioz left unfinished. Around the same time, Berlioz had begun a ballet based on Faust. Elements from this show up in the third movement and the fifth. [20] The opening melody of the symphony comes from a folk song Berlioz sung as a child, while the pastoral oboe and English horn melodies that end the third are taken from actual shepherd calls heard in the Swiss Alps. [21] Some even argue that the idée fixe–the crux of the symphony–was simply adapted from the melody of a cantata Berlioz had written years earlier in an unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome. [22] All of these examples point to either a composer out of ideas or a composer confronted with a deadline. His meticulous revisions for decades and his refusal to compromise tend to preclude a theory involving Berlioz’s ineptitude. It is evident that Berlioz had very clear ideas about what his symphony should be.

Various scholars attempt to identify motivations for specific edits the composer made. Holomon suggests that Berlioz often worried about the length of the pieces, opting to cut sections to make the symphony more manageable as a listener. Many of the revisions after 1930 involve scaling back the music, especially in coda sections. [23] A theory offered by Paul Banks of the Royal College of Music, is that Berlioz felt somewhat ostracized after the premiere. Berlioz already felt out of place in Paris, both musically and socially; his frustratingly inefficient work with local musicians and his relative isolation during these years left him feeling subordinate and misunderstood. Furthermore, he considered Beethoven’s music as the greatest ever written and in many ways adapted Beethoven’s style; he was then understandably concerned about fitting into a society that protested the first performance of the Eroica in Paris. [24] Worried that he was writing in a musical language incomprehensible to Parisians, Berlioz sought to mold his symphony into a work more representative of the time and place in which he was writin. The edits made in Rome, Banks argues, are an ingratiating attempt to follow existing patterns in composition. These conventions specifically included a sense of unity within a multi-movement work; Parisians thus took great offense at Beethoven’s flippant treatment of form. [25]

There exists a great variety of opinions on the motivations for Berlioz’s revisions made after 1830; only a small sampling of today’s scholars is offered here. Moreover, despite the large amount of information available, there will always be questions unanswered. For example, at the premiere of the symphony, Berlioz insisted that the program be handed out to all audience members. The story circulated for months beforehand; Berlioz writes that the program “is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic plan of the work.” [26] It is remarkable to see, then, that twenty-five years after the premiere Berlioz decided to drop such language from the published version of the symphony, instead declaring at the opening of the program his aspiration “that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.” [27] Berlioz mentions this detail in his memoirs clinically and without justification, leading many to wonder why the radical proponent of programmatic music would now want his symphony to be understood on purely musical terms. This is just one example of the separation between what is known, what is presumed, and what will never be fully understood in deciphering composers’ intentions.


Performing the Symphony Today

Inexorably, this leads to more practical considerations regarding how historical works should be performed today. Especially with pieces like Symphonie fantastique that exist in multiple forms, this discussion becomes increasingly muddier. Taking into account the arguments above, viz. that Berlioz continued to work over the years as a progression towards to best possible symphony, it is logical to assume that the only version that should be performed is the most recent (that published in 1850). But even with that assumption, not all questions are answered. Today, certain changes to the score are considered perfectly reasonable: tubas are almost always substituted for ophicleides; percussionists more often than not will use felt mallets on the timpani rather than the sponge-covered mallet Berlioz so specifically designates. Such changes are widely considered acceptable. An example of a contemporary performance can be heard on the 1988 RCA recording of Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch. [28] The opposing opinion would hold to the score more closely, playing on on the instruments Berlioz had to work with. And example of this type of historically-informed performance is that of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner. [29] Some scholars, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, would argue that Berlioz never got what he wanted; he never achieved the perfection he sought. He had every intention of including serpents in his orchestration, but practicality held him back; various passages in the first and last movements were deemed too difficult to perform. Would a performance that was entirely true to Berlioz’s intentions reconstruct these instruments and restore such passages that are playable by today’s standards? [30] It is an interesting question and not one that has a simple answer. Musicians must always balance the composer’s intentions with that which is practical and musical. Berlioz wanted over 130 musicians and insisted that it only be performed in the Great Hall of the Conservatoire. [31] Such stipulations are simply not possible for most people today. Many options of performance, therefore, are possibly and entirely valid. Symphonie fantastique was and is a remarkable piece of music and has caused more than a few musicologists to stop and think over the years. These kinds of questions are important ones to ask and are necessary for the musical, informed performance demanded of any musician today.


[1-3] This discussion takes into account the following three sources:

Berlioz, Hector, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Trans. David Cairns, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Cairns, David, Berlioz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Thomas, Michael Tilson, Keeping Score: Berlioz—Symphonie Fantastique, DVD.

[4] Berlioz, Hector, Fantastic Symphony, An Authoritative Score, Historical Background, Analysis, Views and Comments, Norton Critical Scores, Edited by Edward T. Cone and Robert Schumann, New York: W. W. Norton, 1971, 18.

[5] Berlioz, ed. Cone, Fantastic Symphony, 22.

[6] Ibid, 31.

[7] Holoman, D. Kern, The Creative Process in the Autograph Musical Documents of Hector Berlioz, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979, 266.

[8] Ibid, 273.

[9] Berlioz, ed. Cone, Fantastic Symphony, 20.

[10] Ibid, 9.

[11] Berlioz, Memoirs, 52-55.

[12] Montagu, Jeremy, “Instruments,” Early Music 25/2 (05/01/1997): 341.

[13] Berlioz, Memoirs, 61-66.

[14] Berlioz, ed. Cone, Fantastic Symphony, 34.

[15] Holomon, The Creative Process, 281.

[16] Berlioz, Hector, Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz: New Edition of the Complete Works, Vol. 16, Edited by H. MacDonald, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1967, 31.

[17] Boschot, Adolphe, The Young Romantic: Hector Berlioz, Trans. David Cairns, Paris: Plon, 1926, 44-47.

[18] Saint-Saëns, Camille, Portraits et Souvenirs, Paris: Société d’édition artistique, 1900, 53.

[19] Berlioz, Memoirs, 81-89.

[20] Berlioz, ed. Cone, Fantastic Symphony, 12-13.

[21] Thomas, Keeping Score.

[22] Berlioz, ed. MacDonald, Symphonie Fantastique, 34-35.

[23] Holomon, The Creative Process, 268-70.

[24] Berlioz, Memoirs, 32-34.

[25] Banks, Paul, “Coherence and Diversity in the ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’” 19th-Century Music 8/1 (Summer 1984): 37-40.

[26] Berlioz, Memoirs, 34.

[27] Ibid, 42.

[28] Berlioz, Hector, Symphonie Fantastique, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, conductor, New York: RCA Victrola, 1988, Compact disc.

[29] Berlioz, Hector, Symphonie Fantastique, Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor, Amsterdam: Philips Digital Classics, 1993, Compact disc.

[30] Thomas, Keeping Score.

[31] Cairns, Berlioz, 81.


Banks, Paul. “Coherence and Diversity in the ‘Symphonie Fantastique.’” 19th-Century Music 8/1 (Summer 1984): 37-43.

Berlioz, Hector. Fantastic Symphony, An Authoritative Score, Historical Background, Analysis, Views and Comments.  Norton Critical Scores. Edited by Edward T. Cone and Robert Schumann. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

—. The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz. Trans. David Cairns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

—. Symphonie Fantastique. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Charles Munch, conductor. New York: RCA Victrola, 1988. Compact disc.

—. Symphonie Fantastique. Hector Berlioz: New Edition of the Complete Works, Vol. 16. Edited by H. MacDonald. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1967.

—. Symphonie Fantastique. Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique. John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. Amsterdam: Philips Digital Classics, 1993. Compact disc.

Boschot, Adolphe. The Young Romantic: Hector Berlioz. Trans. David Cairns. Paris: Plon, 1926.

Cairns, David. Berlioz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Holoman, D. Kern. The Creative Process in the Autograph Musical Documents of Hector Berlioz. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979.

Montagu, Jeremy. “Instruments.” Early Music 25/2 (05/01/1997): 339-42.

Saint-Saëns, Camille. Portraits et Souvenirs. Paris: Société d’édition artistique, 1900.

Thomas, Michael Tilson. Keeping Score: Berlioz—Symphonie Fantastique. DVD.

Posted in: Considering Composition

Berlioz Music Scores

Symphonie Fantastique (H 48)

This page is also available in French

I: Rêveries, passions
II: Un Bal
III: Scène aux champs
IV: Marche au supplice
V: Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat

    See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    The Symphonie Fantastique was initially composed in 1830 and first performed in December of the same year under the direction of Habeneck. Berlioz however revised the work extensively during his trip to Italy in 1831-2 and in subsequent years and did not publish it until 1845. The work as we now know it is thus substantially different from the original of 1830, which can no longer be reconstructed in full detail.

    The Symphonie Fantastique has always been the work with which Berlioz’s name is most closely associated. The composition of this revolutionary masterpiece marked a breakthrough in the composer’s career, at once the culmination of his years of apprenticeship, and the starting point of his mature work as a symphonic composer. The impact that Beethoven had on Berlioz is evident in the work, but no less evident is Berlioz’s originality in opening up new paths that Beethoven had not explored, and the sound world of Berlioz is entirely his own.

    The programme on which the symphony was initially based went through a number of changes between 1830 and 1855. It does not need to be repeated at length here (the full text of the two principal versions, those of 1845 and 1855, is given in Texts and Documents). Under the influence of opium (in the 1855 version), a young and sensitive artist (Berlioz himself), experiences a series of visions – the different movements of the symphony – in which his beloved figures as a theme, the idée fixe, which recurs in every movement, though each time in a different form (cf. the Memoirs chapter 45 in relation to Harold in Italy). The theme had already been used by Berlioz in his cantata Herminie written for the Prix de Rome of 1828 (H 29), though it is much more fully developed in the symphony than in the cantata.

    The idée fixe pervades the volatile and tempestuous first movement. The opening melody of the slow introduction (itself taken from an early song composed by Berlioz, cf. his Memoirschapter 4) alludes to it, and prepares the listener for the first full statement of the theme at the start of the allegro (bar 71 and following). The allegro is in sonata form, but hardly has a second subject. After a series of long and stormy developments the end of the movement alludes retrospectively to the introduction.

    The second movement, an elegant waltz rather like a rondo in form, makes a complete contrast with the first. The movement is notable for its scoring, at once delicate and brilliant, and the use of two harps gives the music a festive glitter that is characteristic of Berlioz – compare the harps in Part II of Romeo and Juliet, the last movement of the Te Deum, the Trojan March, and Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. The idée fixe is heard twice, in bars 120-162 in its complete form, then more briefly in bars 302-319 before being swept away by the whirlwind which brings the waltz to a brilliant close.

    The autograph score of the symphony contains a part for solo cornet added by Berlioz at a later date, but not reproduced by him in the full score of the work published in his lifetime. Performances and recordings of the symphony sometimes include this part for cornet. The movement is presented here in two versions, the first without and the second with the cornet part.

    The long third movement is the musical heart of the symphony, as well as the pivotal point in the drama: from the world of imagined reality in the first three movements the music moves to the world of imagined nightmare in the last two. The origins of the movement are complex, though Berlioz fuses the different elements together to form a seamless whole. The main subject (bar 20 and following), briefly hinted at in the first movement (bars 4-5), is now known to have been used previously in the Gratias of his early Messe Solennelle of 1824-5 (rediscovered in 1991), though as well as a change of key from E major to F major, the treatment of the theme in the symphony is much more elaborate and varied; the movement is in effect a set of variations on the main theme. The shepherd’s piping heard in the introduction (bars 1-20), then again at the close of the movement (bars 175-96), recalls through its similarity of key, instrumental colour (the use of the cor anglais) and mood the romance of Marguerite in the Huit Scènes de Faust composed not much earlier, in 1828-9 (H33), as though these were two versions of the same idea. Beyond this the movement is also an obvious homage to Beethoven whose discovery in 1828 put Berlioz firmly on the path of symphonic music. The movement recalls the Pastoral Symphony, written in the same luminous key of F major, and there are intentional echoes, notably the discreet allusions to the bird song of the end of the second movement of the Pastoral Symphony in bar 67 and following. The mood of isolation which pervades the movement is, however, very different from Beethoven’s celebration of nature in dance and song. The idée fixe, briefly alluded to early in the movement (bars 38-41), reappears in the stormy middle episode in the wind and in a modified form in the basses (bars 87-102), then again more quietly in the concluding pages (bars 150-4).

    Two technical points on this movement:
(1) In several places in this movement the viola section is divided in two. In this version, in order to preserve the evenness of tonal balance, the viola parts have been notated throughout as divided, even when they play in unison (except for the final bars 197-9).
(2) In order to obtain a semblance of crescendo and decrescendo on the timpani rolls at the close of the movement, it has been necessary to notate some bars using shorter note values than what Berlioz wrote (bars 177, 182-3, 188-9; the same applies to a few passages earlier, bars 14, 16, 159). A transcription of bars 175-196 as notated in the original score is available on this site; in this notation the crescendi and decrescendi of the timpani do not reproduce as they are meant to.

    The fourth movement originated as a march of the guards in Berlioz’s early opera Les Francs Juges (H 23), composed mainly in 1826 and revised in 1829. In adapting the piece for the Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz added a strikingly unexpected reference to the beginning of the idée fixe at the climax of the march: the artist, led to execution for murdering his beloved, remembers her on the scaffold, but the melody is abruptly cut off by the fall of the guillotine and the concluding uproar (bar 164 to the end of the movement).

    The fifth movement is the most obviously provocative of the whole symphony and goes well beyond anything that had been attempted in this kind of music before. The nearest model available at the time, the Wolf’s Glen scene at the end of Act II of Weber’s Der Freischütz, is only partly comparable: it uses a mixture of speech, song, melodrama and orchestral music, whereas Berlioz relies solely on the orchestra. The movement is also the freest in form of the symphony’s five movements, though is actually very carefully constructed. After a brief introduction which sets the atmosphere (bars 1-20), the idée fixe makes its last appearance, only to be subjected to musical vilification and quickly dismissed (bars 21-78). The real business of the night can then begin: first the Dies irae (bars 127-221), then the Witches’ Sabbath (bars 241-347), with in the end the inevitable coming together of the two as the music hurtles to its headlong conclusion (bars 348-524).

    More than most other orchestral pieces in Berlioz this movement exposes all too clearly the limits of the Midi system, which can only give a very imperfect idea of its extraordinary range of sonorities. In particular, there is no adequate equivalent for the deep bells that Berlioz had in mind (bars 102-223) and instead a piano sound has been used for this passage – a practice followed by Berlioz himself in his concert tours when suitable bells were not available. Nor is there a proper col legno sound for the violins and violas in bars 444-60: a xylophone has been substituted here as an admittedly unsatisfactory replacement.

    To improve the realism of playback a few passages have been notated in full and not in abbreviated form, notably the string sextuplets in bars 4 and 15, and the rolls for timpani and bass drum in bars 306, 311 and 316.

    Symphonie Fantastique I: Rêveries, passions (duration 13'32")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 8.08.2000; revised 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique II: Un Bal , (1) version without solo cornet (duration 5'57")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 24.03.2000; revised 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique II: Un Bal, (2) version with solo cornet (duration 5'57")
    — Score in large format
    (filed created on 20.11.2001)

    Symphonie Fantastique III: Scène aux champs (duration 14'33")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 7.11.2000)

    Symphonie Fantastique IV: Marche au supplice (duration 7'06")
    — Score in large format
   (file created on 18.12.2000)

    Symphonie Fantastique V: Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat (duration 10'51")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 9.2.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

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