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?

 

“Today sarcasm and mockery are out; even the terms of the argument are different: now the question is whether the composer of the Fantastic Symphony is merely a talented composer or a real genius.”
—Franz Liszt

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?

François-Joseph Fétis again finds little of value in this Second Movement:

“The second movement (the Ball) is less barbarous: but that’s all one can say for it. The principal subject is a waltz based on a vulgar theme; for, note well, M. Berlioz falls into triviality as soon as he becomes intelligible. His warmest friends dare not defend him with regard to melody and admit that his music contains little. But how could be compose any? He doesn’t know what a musical period is, except, as I have just said, when he writes a vulgar one….In short, the second phrase of a period is hardly ever an answer to the first. How can one achieve true melody like that?”

While Robert Schumann is much more sympathetic to the composer’s temperament and tortures:

“First love can well make a captain out of a coward, but a ‘heroine does great harm to a hero,’ as Jean Paul Richter has put it. Sooner or later, fiery young men whose love is unrequited throw Platonic spirituality overboard and make countless sacrifices at the altars of Epicureanism. But Berlioz is no Don Juan. With glassy eye he sits among dissolute companions; and every pop of a champagne bottle being broken open is answered by the snap of a string broken inside him! The well-known, beloved figure arises before him on every side—out of the very walls, as if to a feverish man—and lies oppressively upon his heart….”


What's Your Impression?

Listening to the "waltzing" version of Harriet, what harm, if any, has she done to our hero?
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