Hector Berlioz ‘Symphonie Fantastique’: Programme Music like No Other!

Happy Sunday, dearest readers. Today’s blog is in celebration of the birth of the French Romantic composer – Hector Berlioz. I thought I would pick his most well-known and played work: Symphonie Fantastique for this blog today, which I’m certain you’ll all enjoy! Berlioz is still a very well-known Romantic composer, and his offerings to the classical music world have had a large effect on other composers. So, for his 213th birthday – here is Berlioz’s wonderful Symphonie Fantastique.

Hector Berlioz was born near the French town of Grenoble on December 11th, 1803. Unlike a lot of composers who were born around this time, Berlioz started music at the much later age of 12, meaning he was never a ‘child prodigy’. After learning enough theory, he began writing small arrangements and compositions, which largely comprised of chamber works. Due to his father’s discouragement, Berlioz never learnt how to play the piano formally, which he later described as both detrimental and beneficial. Instead, Berlioz became proficient at playing the guitar and flute. To go along with his family’s wishes, Berlioz was sent to Paris at age 18 to study medicine. This was a field that he had no interest in and began steering away from this by frequently visiting the Paris Opéra and other musical concert halls. Berlioz heard an opera by composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (a composer he later began rating as highly as Beethoven), and he started to seek out scores of Gluck’s other works from the Paris Conservatoire library.

By 1824, Berlioz had abandoned his medicine studies to pursue a career in music. Two years later he was formally enrolled at Paris Conservatoire, studying composition under Reicha and Le Sueur. By 1830, Berlioz had completed his perhaps most famous work, Symphonie Fantastique. This work brough him much notoriety and fame, which carried with him throughout the rest of his life. After his fourth attempt at winning the Prix de Rome he won the competition with his cantata Sardanapale. Whilst finishing this off a duo of misfortunate incidents occurred. The first was the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1830 (where King Charles X was overthrown), which brought much disruption to the city of Paris. Secondly, there was a sudden storm on the day which Berlioz’s pieces were premiering at Paris Opéra, which meant that it was nearly deserted as it was the worst storm on record in Paris. However, someone who still made it to this concert was Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. He and Berlioz became very well acquainted and became friends for many years to come.

Due to a clause within the Prix de Rome contract for winners, Berlioz had to go and study in Rome for a minimum of two years. So in 1831, Berlioz left for Rome, which proved to be a very successful learning experience for the young composer. None of Berlioz’s major works were composed in Italy, however a lot of creative influences from this brief period carried over into many of his compositions, most notably Harold en Italie (1834). Berlioz was not fond of Rome, and found excuses to leave often to visit the surrounding country side. Whilst in Rome, however, he resided at the French Academy in the Villa Medici.

Whilst in Italy, Berlioz received a letter from his soon-to-be mother in law about his fiancée, Marie Moke. The letter informed him that Marie had called off their engagement, and instead was intending to marry rich piano manufacturer,  Joseph Pleyel. As the story goes, Berlioz took this news incredibly badly as he was desperately in love with Marie. Due to this reaction he decided he wanted to return to Paris to seek revenge on Marie, Joseph and Marie’s mother by murdering them all. Supposedly, Berlioz created this elaborate plan and even purchased a dress, wig and hat with a veil (which would disguise him as a woman to gain entry to the home), as well as stealing a pair of double-barrelled pistols from the Academy. He saved a single shot for himself after he had committed the crime. Berlioz even went as far as creating a ‘Plan B’ where he purchased some strychnine and laudanum, which he would use as poison if the guns jammed or failed to work. So, Berlioz ended up not carrying this plan out for a number of reasons, the first was that when he was travelling back to Paris, he had accidentally left his disguise in the side pocket of a carriage and because of this he had a bit of a rethink and decided his idea was foolish and dramatic (really?!). He requested to go back to the Academy in Rome and he was accepted back, so he literally turned around and headed back to Italy.

After around 1839, Berlioz started finding it increasingly more difficult for his music to become popular in France alone, so he started to do a lot more travelling to countries like England, Austria and Russia. Throughout the rest of his life, Berlioz was a very active composer, being commissioned for many different events around Europe. Still to date his most successful compositions have been: Symphonie Fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), Grande messe des morts (1837) and Roméo et Juliette (1839). After a fairly steady career, spanning over five decades. Berlioz died on 8th March in Paris, where he was surrounded by his many friends. It has been recorded that his last words “Enfin, on va jouer ma musique!” (At last, they are going to play my music!”).

Although neglected through a lot of his lifetime, Berlioz has become an incredibly influential composer, especially in the development of symphonic form. He has been put into the ‘Great Trinity of Progress’ with composers Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Over the last 100 years, Berlioz’s music has become less about novelty and eccentricism, but more serious and influential.

With its full title Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts), the work bears itself to being perhaps autobiographical. The first performance was at the Paris Conservatoire in 1830. This symphony is the perfect example of a piece of program music (music that tells a story). Each movement has its own programme note from the composer outlining the general story of the music. The main story itself tells the tale of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has posioned himself with opium in the depths of despair and love. There are also records of Berlioz himself being on opium as he composed this symphony, which makes a lot of sense when you hear some of the movements. This work was also largely influenced by literature such as Thomas De Qiuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Goethe’s Faust. This work was unlike anything Berlioz had composed before due to its extra-musical narrative devised by him, which is essentially playing out his reactions to overdosing on opium and the hallucinations he experiences.

Berlioz is now known as one of the masters of instrumentation within Romanticism, and Symphonie Fantastique is certainly no different. His love for colour and harmony are certainly heard within this work as he expanded the size of his orchestra to achieve wider levels of dynamics and depth (he had around 130 players in the orchestra at the premiere, but he wanted about 220 whilst composing the work). Berlioz favoured expression over form, so abandoned a lot of Classical and Romantic forms and let the programme of the music govern how the movements played out. There are five movements of the work and each of them are linked by a theme called the idée fixe (fixed idea), which is a melodic reference to the Beloved (a Shakespearean actress names Harriet Smithson), and the way it changes, whether it in dynamic, rhythm, harmony or tempo, reflects the changes of the Artist’s concept of her. Outlined below are the five movements of the work:

  • Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions)
  • Un bal (A Ball)
  • Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
  • Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
  • Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

Each movement is its own story that feeds into the main story. It’s an incredibly intelligent piece of programme music, which uses a wealth of different compositional techniques to stitch every part of the story together by the end. As this piece is quite long (around 48-42 minutes), I’m going to outline certain parts of each movement and also show the programme note that Berlioz wrote for each movement to aid interpretation of the work.

Rêveries – Passions

Programme Notes

“The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognizes a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.”

The first movement is fairly slow in tempo and is known to be a radical example of harmonic progressions. There is an arch-like progressions, which spans over much of this movement, until the home key is heard once more. Within this opening framework, the idée fixe can be heard (see if you can hear it through the other movements!). There is a sense of imbalance throughout this movement, with the main theme being deliberately unequal in length and all phrases being completely littered with very detailed expression marks. Although this movement sounds simple in places, especially that of the main melody, it is actually a very intense movement which aims to ‘defy normal harmonization’. The main theme is also taken from a previous composition by Berlioz: Scéne Lyrique (1828). Whilst this movement is perhaps similar to that of the classical sonata form, it strays a lot from this form throughout the movement, which is why it has been so disputed within academia.

Un bal

Programme Notes

“The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.”

There is a feeling of impending excitement at the beginning of this movement due to the clever instrumentation (i.e the harp and strings). This atmospheric introduction is then penetrated by the main waltz theme (which is derived from the idée fixe), which is then transformed into an extended variation of this theme. The use of two harps and lots of luscious strings provides the grounding of the richness of the ball, which has also been said to symbolise the Artists affection. The music is set to display a glittering ball which is exactly what it does with its grandeur and presence.

Scène aux champs

Programme Notes

“One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ranz des vaches; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ranz des vaches; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence.”

The two shepherds that are mentioned within the programme notes are depicted by a cor anglais and an offstage oboe. The principal theme of this movement can be heard by the violins and flute, just after the cor anglais and oboe conversation has ended. This movement is very reserved until the striking passage for four timpani nearer the end of the movement. This timpani motif aims to depict the sound of distant thunder as the landscape movement draws to a very quiet close.

Marche au supplice

Programme Notes

“Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.”

The fourth movement is reconstructed music from Berlioz’s unfinished project Les francs-juges. It is perhaps the most famous of all the movements as it has an incredibly memorable trumpet motif in the middle of the movement. There are lots of fast-moving parts within this movement, especially from the upper winds and strings. The march-feel makes this a much more structured movement within the work. As the piece nears towards the end, just before the depiction of his execution, there is a very brief recollection of the idée fixe from a solo clarinet, which is said to be representing the last conscious thoughts of the soon-to-be-executed man. This solo is savagely interrupted by a very loud and tempestuos chord which represents the fall of the guillotine’s blade. The ending is a very climactic one with full percussion, brass and strings playing fff.

Songe d’une nuit du sabbat

Programme Notes

“He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.”

The fifth and final movement of Symphonie Fantastique depicts the ‘Dream of the Night of the Sabbath’ and it is a very turbulent ending to this fantastic (see what I did there?), symphony. The many and varied tempo changes are the best way to chunk up this movement. The introduction is very slow and ominous and the use of various compositional techniques can be heard in instruments such as the strings (tremolos and pizzicato phrases). This section leads into a much faster tempo in 6/8 compound time. The Eb clarinet is a very prominent instrument within this movement as its shrill and bitter tone adds to the effect of the story. The next section features the mighty tubular bells, which acts as the funeral bells of the piece. The Dies Irae follows this section, which is initiated by the tuba and bassoons. Around 100 bars later the witches dance theme enters, which is developed over many bars, creating a fully developed rondo by the end. Berlioz uses extended techniques and timbres within this movement to create certain effects. Perhaps my favourite is the use of col legno on the string parts (playing with the wooden side of the bow), which creates the bubbling of the witches’ cauldron. Essentially, this last movement musically depics the descent of the executed Artist into hell, where his murdered Beloved (alongside a load of witches) are there to greet him. The use of rhythmic distortion on the idée fixe shows the transformation of the Beloved from start to end. The movement ends with loud brass fanfares and fast-moving passages from the strings and winds. The ending is triumphant, trivial and totally brilliant!

Throughout the five movements, the presence of the idée fixe creates a melodic thread between all of the musical material, creating this musical blanket. Harriet Smithson (the Beloved depicted within the work), married Berlioz in 1833, though their marriage did not last long as the two were not happy enough together. Symphonie Fantastique is an absolutely thrilling work which lends itself to perhaps being one of the finest examples of programme music from the 19th Century. Long gone are the thoughts that Berlioz only inputted trivial and ‘unimportant’ works within classical music, instead his music is filled with wonderful musical writing, orchestration and harmony. So today would have been Berlioz’s 213th birthday – so this is a celebration blog for him!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

There is also a great recording on my Spotify playlist here: https://play.spotify.com/user/11101571136/playlist/2Yar9AQYE8RCe14RWHmXqo


John Williams ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars: Did Somebody Say…Star Wars?

Greetings dearest readers! Today’s blog is going to be a very exciting one on John Williams’ incredibly famous work from ‘Star Wars’: The Imperial March. The inspiration for this blog has come from the fact that I have recently played in a concert with Sheffield University Wind Orchestra, and we played an interpretation of a suite of music from ‘Star Wars’. John Williams is perhaps one of the most famous film music composers of our time and his contribution to this sector of the arts has been incredible. The Imperial March is an incredibly exciting work which I’m very happy to be writing about today on this cloudy Thursday!

Before we get on to what this blog is going to be about I’d like to just say that I will not be delving into other works in any way by John Williams within this blog. I will write other blogs on these pieces, I’m just conscious that it’ll be very long if I begin listing everything he’s ever done, so this is a succinct way of looking at a work from a film – enjoy the rest of the blog!

John Williams was born in 1932 and his career has since spanned over six decades. He was raised in New York by musical parents, who were active jazz musicians. By 1948 the Williams family had moved to LA where Williams later attended the University of California, reading for a degree in composition. As a skilled pianist, Williams has always been an active musician, but his scoring for screen started whilst he was at university in the 1950s. His style has been heavily influenced by large-scale 19th Century Romantic orchestral music from composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Today, Williams’ style is known as ‘neo-romantic’ as it encapsulates the expressive tendencies of Romantic music, within a more modern framework.

Williams was recommended by Stephen Spielberg to compose for a new ambitious space epic film in 1977; the now incredibly famous Star Wars. He submitted a grand orchestral score for what is now known as Luke’s Theme, and was asked to compose the whole film score for the franchise. The score won an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score’, and it also remains the highest grossing ‘non-popular’ music recording of all time. Williams returned to do the score for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and again, these scores all earned him Academy Awards. There are so many recognisable pieces within the Star Wars scores, such as “Yoda’s Theme”, “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “The Imperial March”. For the purpose of this blog I shall be focusing on one of my favourite pieces from Star Wars, “The Imperial March”.

The Imperial March was premiered three weeks before the opening of the film (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). It was performed by the fantastic Boston Pops Orchestra, where Williams was an official conductor-in-residence. The piece has received some of the most positive feedback on any film score produced thus far. It is a fantastic example of Williams’ compositional use of Leitmotif (a recurring theme associated with a certain character or event happening within the motion picture). Also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme”, this piece is usually played upon the entrance of Darth Vader. Parts of this piece have been taken and varied in other pieces and films within the Star Wars franchise.

The piece begins, not with the main theme, but with the tempestuous accompaniment that is incredibly engaging to the ear. Just this alone sets up what traits this character may have when they seem. I find just the rhythm at the start is enough information for the listener for what may happen next due to its foreboding demeanour. Interestingly, the march is in 4/4, however the motif is written so that it sounds like the bar speeds up throughout. This will be due to the placement of triplets within the bar. So a triplet is essentially three notes that fit into one beat – thus they are played faster to fit the structure of the 4/4 time signature. On beat one there is just one note, the second beat we hear a note and a fast-moving triplet, the third beat we hear one note and a triplet, however on the fourth beat the triplet continues, which is where the impending speed arises from. There is a feeling of aggressive force throughout this motif as it has to reach the end of the bar before repeating again. Also, with all the pitched instruments playing here (i.e: strings, timpani, horns), it brings a lot of darkness into the lower registers, which gives the feeling of an evil presence.

In terms of harmony, it is unsure what key the work starts in as it’s just a repeated note. However, on the fourth beat the triplet turns into a chord of Eb-F#-Bb, which point towards the tonality of G minor. With it being in the minor mode it brings even more emphasis on the darkness of this work. This then clashes with Williams’ use of dissonance within the triplets. Here Williams uses dissonance to create a certain atmosphere before the main theme begins. There is a very militaristic sound in just these accompanying bars, which sets up the main motif in a very strong manner.

The incredibly famous melody that pervades the rest of the work is laid firmly within the 4/4 time signature. The march emphasises the strong beats, whilst also utilising dotted rhythms. This motif is predominately played by the trumpets and trombones (with them both playing in their mid-low registers), with this creating and sustaining the menacing feel within the music. The choice of these instruments also compliments the military implications within the piece. Again, Williams emphasises the dark atmosphere of the work by using a nearly complete set of minor chord progressions throughout. Distortion has been used within some of the chords used here and that can be heard through the dissonance within the chords. Usual chords have been adjusted up a semitone to create a distorted version (namely iv and v chords).

The shape of this melodic frame can be explained into 5 shorter ideas:

  • The first is the first motif heard, it leaps in a downward direction, with the aid of dotted rhythms
  • The second idea starts a fifth higher than the first. It falls from a greater height, and then repeats the last dotted rhythm of the first idea
  • The third uses octave leaps and chromaticism to ‘fall back’ into the dark first motif
  • The fourth idea is completely chromatic and slowly descends into the fifth motif
  • The fifth and final idea here is the only motif that rises and then quickly descends back to a very similar phrasing as that of the first idea

The work takes many twists and turns, however the impending foundation always remains. There are some very climactic moments which quickly fizzle into quiet woodwind sections. These parts are always interjected by the brass with the main motif, which shows the impending doom and confident nature of this particular character. An interesting hint to another key by use of chromaticism, which then falls back into the home key of G minor creates a very intense explosion of sound. The main motif is repeated throughout the work, with the percussion and lower-pitched instruments always playing some sort of triplet-driven foundation accompaniment. The ending is very interesting as the trumpets play the main motif, but an octave higher, whilst the trombones play a descending chromatic sequence, which often clashes very abruptly with the trumpets. The work ends with the ensemble playing very fast triplet-semiquaver motifs, whilst the strings play a whirling figure up to the final triplet sequence. The march ends with all parts playing this motif and the crash cymbal marking the end of the piece.

The Imperial March is such an iconic piece of music that is known by so many people, and is perhaps one of the most famous pieces within the Star Wars franchise. I absolutely love this piece as its strong foundations are so incredibly characteristic, even though they are so simple. The work is atmospheric, strong and so much fun to listen to! I hope you have enjoyed this blog on John Williams’ work from Star Wars – “The Imperial March”. What will the next blog be?

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Fantastic live recording with John Williams conducting the work.

Here is where and how the music is used in the film: Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back


Don’t forget to check out my ‘classicalexburns’ playlist on Spotify! Most of the pieces I have covered are on there – https://play.spotify.com/user/11101571136/playlist/2Yar9AQYE8RCe14RWHmXqo