Music Fueled By Desire Hector Berlioz Symphony Fantastique

Impressions

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?

“When you see the composer himself, that friendly, quiet, meditative person, calmly and assuredly going his way, never for a moment in doubt of his vocation…yet in complete darkness about himself—it is unspeakably dreadful, and I cannot express how deeply the sight of him depresses me. I have not been able to work for two days.”
—Felix Mendelssohn

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was so novel and so shocking—for it’s program and it’s 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?

In his scathing critique of the Third Movement, François Joseph Fétis goes as far as to question the premise of the entire symphony:

“I know that music cannot express what Berlioz has demanded of it … The Scene in the Country is characterized by such obscurity of thought, such unpleasing aimlessness, that it would perhaps be impossible to listen to it all the way through if one’s boredom were not mitigated by some happy orchestral effects.”

Never at a loss for words, Berlioz fired back:

“He (the composer) knows very well that music can take the place of neither word nor picture. He has never had the absurd intention of expressing abstractions or moral qualities, but rather passions and feelings…and when, for example, in the Scene in the Country, he tries to render the rumbling of distant thunder in the midst of a peaceful atmosphere, it is by no means for the puerile pleasure of imitating this majestic sound, but rather to make silence more perceptible, and thus to increase the impression of uneasy sadness and painful isolation that he wants to produce on his audience by the conclusion of this movement.”

Robert Schumann, as usual, took Berlioz’s side:

“What music is this third movement! This intimacy, this remorse, this ardor! The image of Nature’s sigh of relief after a storm is one that has often been adduced, but I can think of none lovelier or more fitting here.

“I know that music cannot express what Berlioz has demanded of it…The Scene in the Country is characterized by such obscurity of thought, such unpleasing aimlessness, that it would perhaps be impossible to listen to it all the way through if one’s boredom were not mitigated by some happy orchestral effects.”


What's Your Impression?

What do you think? Does this movement tell you something new or different about Berlioz’s “passions and feelings” for his heroine?
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