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?
“His Symphonie fantastique was a veritable musical event, the importance of which may be gauged by the fanatic adherence of some and the violent opposition of others.”
Perhaps most controversial was the last movement. While many applauded its dramatic effects, Berlioz’s critics were deeply offended that he had the audacity to mock the sacred Dies irae.
“The fifth part, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, mingles the trivial, the grotesque, and the barbarous; it is a saturnalia of noise and not of music. The pen falls from my hand.” François-Joseph Fétis
His last picture of Harriet is in stark contrast to his first. What does it mean? And in the end, which one is his real Harriet?
“If one insisted on setting oneself against the mind of the times, against a Zeitgeist that tolerates a burlesque of the Dies irae, one would have to repeat what has been written and said for years against such men as Byron, Heine, Victor Hugo, and Grabbe. At certain moments in eternity Poetry may put on the mask of irony to veil her sorrowful face; perhaps a genius’s friendly hand will one day remove it, and we shall find that her unrestrained tears have been changed into pearls.”
“In the last movement he shows us the Witch’s Sabbath, just as in Goethe’s Faust, and it is as real as can be. His beloved, who has shown herself unworthy, appears also in the Walpurgisnacht, but not like Gretchen in Faust, but bold, witch-like.”
--Ludwig Börne, German satirist and political writer
“How can one deny abundance and diversity of ideas to the composer who, in a single work, could depict equally well the vague des passions, the intoxication of a ball, the mysterious harmonies of nature, the terrors of an execution, and could then transport us into the midst of a Sabbath, where we find the dismal fantasy of Macbeth’s witches conjoined with the satanic orgies of the Brocken?”
“At the same time he hears the distorted cantus firmus of the “Dies Irae,” to which the witches are dancing. How utterly loathsome all this is to me, I don’t have to tell you. To see one’s most cherished ideas debased and expressed in perverted caricatures would enrage anyone.”
“He depicts his passion for an ideal woman, a ball where he meets her, a rural scene in which, to the murmur of distant thunder, the image of the dear one appears to him. Then, without our knowing why, he kills the well-beloved and is condemned to death. Finally we see him in Hell, where the adored woman is met again, dishonored and ludicrous, in the midst of a Sabbath. And from all this arises an admirable work, completely original in style, in sonority, in every constituent factor, and utterly different from anything that had been previously conceived and executed.”