Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hector Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique

1999; 5 tracks
Riccardo Muti / The Philadelphia Orchestra

Hector Berlioz was French composer of the early Romantic period, and a conductor most well known for his contributions to the modern orchestra. I've heard his name thrown around for quite a while but never looked deeply into his plethora of musical output... Hearing The Symphonie Fantastique for the first time two nights ago made me so fantastically excited about exploring more of this fiery Frenchman's work.

"The Symphonie Fantastique was initially composed in 1830 and first performed in December of the same year under the direction of Habeneck. Berlioz however revised the work extensively during his trip to Italy in 1831-2 and in subsequent years and did not publish it until 1845. The work as we now know it is thus substantially different from the original of 1830, which can no longer be reconstructed in full detail.

The Symphonie Fantastique has always been the work with which Berlioz’s name is most closely associated. The composition of this revolutionary masterpiece marked a breakthrough in the composer’s career, at once the culmination of his years of apprenticeship, and the starting point of his mature work as a symphonic composer. The impact that Beethoven had on Berlioz is evident in the work, but no less evident is Berlioz’s originality in opening up new paths that Beethoven had not explored, and the sound world of Berlioz is entirely his own."

Understanding The Symphonie Fantastique comes with understanding the story behind it:

"When he was twenty-four years old, Berlioz fell in love with a theater actress named Harriet Smithson. He sent her countless love letters, but she never wrote him back. Feeling that his love for her has been completely misunderstood, his pain and suffering then turned into musical motivation, which led to the creation of Symphonie Fantastique. With a length of roughly sixty minutes (depending on the conductor's pace, of course), this programmatic composition is more of a semi-autobiography. It tells the story of an artist who cannot resist the urge to think of a young woman he has fallen in love with. Slowly, the image of the woman starts to haunt him. Even when he's in the countryside, her appearance still lingers in his head. This leads to fear and paranoia as he becomes convinced that he's deceiving her in some way. With an overdose of opium, the man dreams that he is being executed for murdering her. Smithson was not there when this work premiered, but she eventually had a chance to meet Berlioz himself. They married, but this turned to me anything but a happy ending. The marriage became a disaster, and they divorced eleven years later. Smithson would die several years before the French composer did.

The symphony itself is pure brilliance: it's filled with wild orchestral color and wicked imagery (in the second half). With so much expression in terms of both story and music, this would become a milestone in the history of classical music. It, as well as a few other works by other composers, would take every single orchestra straight into the Romantic era."



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