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?


“…What dominated him, beyond reason, was the constant contemplation of himself, of his own passionate feelings, his behavior, everything he did. He was one of those people for whom it is a necessity always to appear interesting to themselves, who need to attribute an exalted significance to the least thing they do, feel, suffer, the good and the bad, whtever happens to them. Yet he didn’t give the impression of being vain, which is quite remarkable…”

—composer and good friend, Ferdinand Hiller

François-Joseph Fétis, editor of the powerful Revue musicale published a damning account:

“…not a single melodic idea is thrown into this pile of confusion, unless one bestows the name melody upon a flat, insipid statement recurring several times during the course of the symphony and called by the composer his idée fixe.”

The composer Robert Schumann, writing in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, was more forgiving:

“It is true that the chief melody of the whole symphony, which I have mentioned several times, is undistinguished; and Berlioz praises it almost too much when he attributes to it in the program a ‘noble and shy character’. But we must remember that his intention here was not to present a great thought, but rather a persistent, tormenting idea of the kind that one often cannot get out of one’s head for days at a time; and he could not have succeeded better in depicting something monotonous and maddening.”

Aaron Copland, writing in 1960, argues in favor of Berlioz’s unconventional approach to melody:

“The reproach concerning his melodic writing has some basis in fact, especially for the present-day listener. Berlioz depends upon the long-breathed line and the unconventional phrase length, to sustain interest, rather than the striking interval or pregnant motive. His loveliest melodies give off a certain daguerreotype charm, redolent of another day. This must have been true even at the time he penned them. Looked at them from this angle, they lend his music a quite special ambiance, as if they came from a country not to be found on any map.”

What's Your Impression?

Does Berlioz’s somewhat irregular idée fixe succeed in portraying someone ‘noble and shy’ as Berlioz himself suggests? Or, was the composer already hinting at something more sinister? What is your impression?
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