Music Fueled By Desire Hector Berlioz Symphony Fantastique


Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was so novel and so shocking—for its program and its music—that it immediately caused an uproar: in the press, from other composers, even from Berlioz’s friends. Many, finding the story distasteful, were aghast that a composer would put into music something so explicitly autobiographical. What can these reactions tell us about what Berlioz was trying to do? Was he a typical Romantic artist wearing his heart on his sleeve? Or was he an obsessed, crazy man using music for some diabolical purpose?


“The great geniuses suffer and must suffer, but they need not complain; they have known intoxication unknown to the rest of men and, if they have wept tears of sadness, they have poured tears of ineffable joy. That in itself is a heaven for which one never pays what it is worth.”
—Charles Gounod

In his 1835 review of the Symphony, Robert Schumann gave his own strikingly imaginative reading of the first movement:

“This man, so highly musical, barely nineteen years old, of French blood, exuberant with energy, battling moreover with the future and perhaps in the throes of other violent passions—this man is seized for the first time by the god of love—not, however, that timid feeling that prefers to confide in the moon, but rather the gloomy fire one sees at night pouring forth from Etna…And here he sees her. I imagine this feminine creature to be like the main theme of the whole symphony, pale, slender as a lily, veiled, quiet, almost cold—but my words make one sleepy, while its tones burn into one’s very entrails. Read in the symphony itself how he rushes toward her, eager to surround her with his soul’s embrace, and then recoils breathlessly from the coldness of the British woman; how he offers, with renewed humility, to lift the hem of her dress to his lips, and then stands proudly erect and demands her love, since his love—for her—is so terrifying: read it again, for it is all written there in the first movement with drops of blood.”

What's Your Impression?

It’s particularly wonderful the way Schuman describes, rather graphically, how his words pale in comparison with the dramatic power of Berlioz’s music. Having examined all of the evidence, written and musical, what do you think about Berlioz’s state of mind as represented by the “frenzied, impassioned” version of the idée fixe?
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