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Berlioz: “Symphonie fantastique”

The Symphonie fantastique, probably the most sensational First Symphony ever to be composed, is made cyclic by the use of a recurring motive, called by Berlioz an idée fixe and associated with the character of the protagonist’s beloved.(The work was conceived in passion for the English actress Harriet Smithson, whom he later married.) The idée appears in each movement: as the main theme of the first, across a crowded ballroom in the second, in the distant meadows in the third, as a last vision during the execution scene, and as a mockery during the Witches’ Sabbath. The Fantastique is packed with pictorial images: heartbeats underpin the first statement of the idée fixe, shepherds’ pipes and thunder are heard in the scene of the country, and at the end of the march to the scaffold there is the chop of the guillotine, the head-falling-into-basket, and the hurrahs of the crowd. Listen, too, for the juxtaposition of the Gregorian chant for the dead (Dies irae) and the witches’ round dance in the last movement, an example of one of Berlioz’s favorite textural devices, the grande reunion des themes.  This is evocative music of decided originality, suggesting to the next generations of the century’s best composers a plethora of novel tactics.

The story is explained by Berlioz in an accompanying narrative, the text of which should appear in your printed program. The cornet solo sometimes heard in the second movement was added by Berlioz for the virtuoso J.  J.  B Arban, known to countless brass players as the author of Arban’s Famous Trumpet Method.

Berlioz calls for churchbells, and not chimes, in the last movement of the Fantastique. Tubular chimes or large metal plates are usually made to suffice.

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