Hector Berlioz fell in love with an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, after attending a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with her in the role of Ophelia, in September 1827. He sent her numerous love letters, all of which went unanswered. When she left Paris they had still not met He then wrote the symphony as a way to express his unrequited love. It premiered in Paris on 5 December 1830; Harriet was not present. She eventually heard the work in 1832 and realized that she was the genesis. The two finally met and were married on 3 October 1833. Their marriage was increasingly bitter, and they separated after several years of unhappiness. See detailed notes below;
The key to this work is the recognition and understanding of the melody known as idée fixe which represents Berlioz’ fixation with Harriet Smithson. In the first movement it is first heard in it’s complete melody starting at 5:38.
And in each of the next four movements.
Fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining will enjoy the final movement:) The program notes below by Berlioz himself are very helpful.
The symphony is a piece of program music which tells the story of “an artist gifted with a lively imagination” who has “poisoned himself with opium” in the “depths of despair” because of “hopeless love.” Berlioz provided his own program notes for each movement of the work (see below). He prefaces his notes with the following instructions:
The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.
In Berlioz’s own program notes from 1845, he writes regarding the first movement:
1.Rêveries – Passions (Daydreams – Passions)
The author imagines that a young vibrant musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the wave of passions [la 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 recognises 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.
Again, quoting from Berlioz’s program, regarding the second movement:
2.Un bal (A ball)
The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive orgy, 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.
From Berlioz’s program regarding the third movment:
3.Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)
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 …
From Berlioz’s program regarding the fourth movment:
4.Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
Convinced that his love is unappreciated, 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. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. 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 when his head bounced down the steps.
From Berlioz’s program regarding the fifth movment:
5.Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)
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.
Some texts copied from Wikipedia page on Symphonie Fantastique.