picture of Frideric Handel
lab51 clef icon Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique
(Paris, December 5, 1830)
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Close Analysis

With Complete Streaming Audio

The audio is from the recording of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips 434402-2 [1993]).

Page numbers correspond to those printed on the score at the top of the page in your sourcebook.

Jump to: Movement I, Movement II, Movement III, Movement IV, Movement V

I. Rêveries--Passions. (C minor--C major; quadruple meter)

We might take Berlioz's own double title literally, as a sign of his musical form. "Rêveries" figures as a kind of introduction, beginning in C minor (pp. 3-9). You will learn (in lecture) that this gentle, opening melody has a sentimental history associated with Berlioz's first love. "Passions," in C major, forms the main body of the movement, set in motion by the vision of the (new) beloved. The passage on the bottom half of p. 9, with its sudden agitation (Allegro agitato) and passion (e appassionato assai ) would seem to mark the moment when the hero, jolted out of his vague dreams, first catches sight of her. Are you surprised by the constant fluctuations of tempo? Think back to the program and what Berlioz was trying to convey. The idée fixe, the first important event in "Passions," appears for the first time on the next page (p. 10). As you listen to the remainder of the movement, consider how the changes Berlioz operates on the idée fixe correspond to shifts in emotional significance. Attend to differences in orchestration, dynamics, tempo, and figuration.

The chief recurrences of the idée fixe are illustrated with music in the Playthrough section.

("Passions" is sometimes considered a sonata form, but the markers of that form are by no means obvious, e.g. determining the point of recapitulation raises significant questions.)

Now, listen to the entire movement: Passions: Largo - Allegro agitato e appassionato.

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II. Un bal. (A major; triple meter)

This movement begins with a special effect. Gradually, out of a kind of symphonic mist, a waltz comes into being; we seem to descend on the scene just as one falls into a dream. Perhaps this effect, in less cinematic terms, might be compared to the nebulous start of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Consider, too, how Berlioz gives his introduction visceral excitement by means of both dynamics (a gradual crescendo) and pitch (a rising sequence by semitones). This sequence is simply a rising musical figure repeated at successively higher levels. Because the successive semitones are equidistant, they foster a sense of instability: we don't know where the ascent will end (in the event, we end on E, the dominant degree in the key of this movement). The rustling effect in the strings is called tremolo and is created by bowing or fingering rapidly. The overall form of this piece is ternary, with an introduction and a coda. Thus:

INTRO. | A0 | B | A1 | CODA

This form corresponds to that of an ordinary scherzo, or any number of dance-like movements found in nineteenth-century symphonic works.

The idée fixe, like a vision amid the tumult of the dance, appears, transformed into triple meter, in the middle of the movement (p. 40), then vanishes. Berlioz later whips the waltz into a frenzy, and just when we think we have reached the end, a solo clarinet unexpectedly offers us another glimpse of the beloved (at fig. 35, p. 54). (How does Berlioz treat the orchestral texture here?) But the dance, indifferent to this dreamy parenthesis, races off to a flourish whose uninhibited verve seems to merge the whirling dancers with the radiance of the chandeliers. How does Berlioz achieve this final burst of orchestral light?

Now, listen to the entire movement: Un Bal: Valse. Allegro non troppo.

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III. Scène aux champs. (F major; compound duple meter)

The meter (6/8), the key of F major, and the prominent use of woodwind instruments all contribute to the pastoral atmosphere of this movement. Berlioz pairs an English horn with an off-stage oboe for a duet between two shepherds ( ). Note that the first call and echo are in major mode, the second in minor. Also note that this call reappears at the end of the movement, but there the first shepherd's call is answered only--ominously--by distant thunder. Inside this frame, Berlioz fashions a set of variations on another idea.

Theme ( ). It first appears in the flute and violins at fig. 37 of your score (p. 61). The character of this melody is at first aloof but then expands into the high register with more longing.

Var. I. ( ) Four measures before the end of p. 61. . . . This is followed by a kind of development or extension, which modulates to the dominant (C major).

Var. II. ( ) Introduced by a new figure in the violin, the theme now appears in the bass (bottom system, p. 64). . . . Modulation to B-flat (subdominant); in the midst of growing inner turmoil and doubt, the idée fixe appears in the flute and oboe (p. 66). Listen to the counter-melody that immediately precedes the idée fixe in the bassoons and low strings: not unlike a recitative at first, the counter-melody soon takes on a life of its own, and the idée fixe is ploughed under. Loud climax (p. 68), then a fall back to the tonic key (F). Near silence. A short transition, led by flutes and oboes, to . . .

Var. III. ( ) The theme traced in filigree pizzicati (plucked notes) in the violins and violas and picked up in the clarinet's counterpoint (p. 69, at fig. 43).

Var. IV. C major. ( ) Theme in the second violins against very lively background figuration (p. 70, at fig. 44). . . . In the second bar on p. 72, we reach a point of transition which takes us back to the home key.

[Var. V.] ( ) At fig. 47 (p. 72) the winds pass a fragment of the idée fixe back and forth while the strings present another variation of the main theme. After a few bars, Berlioz abandons the main theme, and the idée fixe prevails. Listen for the first few notes of the idée fixe again in the violins, echoed by the horns.

The music seems to fade away. We reach the shepherd's call again. How does Berlioz "orchestrate" the sound of thunder coming across a valley? Do you think he succeeded in the paradoxical project of representing a sense of loneliness and silence through sound? In what sense is the movement open-ended and in what sense is it rounded off?

Now, listen to the entire movement: Scène aux champs: Adagio.

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IV. Marche du supplice. (G minor; duple meter)

This procession to the scaffold exemplifies Berlioz's orchestration at its most strident. Whether he created a rustle or an explosion, however, Berlioz cared about every detail. Note his explicit instructions, here (p. 76) as in the previous movement (p. 73), about the way the timpani players are to handle their sticks. Listen also to the outrageously low, rasping sound of the pedal tones (B-flat and A) on the third trombone once the march gets underway (p. 81ff) ( ). These notes are impossible to play quietly and are very rarely called for. This is probably their first use in the history of symphonic music.

The idée fixe, a gentle clarinet solo, does not appear until just before fall of the blade of the guillotine (pp. 95-96). This is the last time we will hear the idée fix e in its original guise (though here obviously abbreviated). Berlioz offers us a macabre example of musical mimicry: the thud of the protagonist's head falling into the executioner's basket. The succeeding fanfare of brass and drums evokes a military band in the public square.

Now, listen to the entire movement: Marche au Supplice: Allegretto non troppo.

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V. Songe d'une nuit de sabbat. (E-flat major, C minor, C major; quadruple meter and triple meter)

Berlioz strives to evoke the "strange noises, cackling, [and] distant cries" that set the scene for the witches' sabbath. The opening is extremely unstable, and the key is unclear. When the idée fixe appears (foreshadowed in C major on p. 102, definitively in E-flat major on p. 104), it is utterly transformed. Assigned to a clarinet in E-flat, couched in a dance-like meter, and accompanied tartly by other woodwinds, the idée fixe has lost all its "shyness" and "nobility" to become a wanton parody of itself. The protagonist, in effect, avenges his own failure to win his ideal woman by transforming her into an idolatress in the Black Mass.

This act of imagination, combined with a scene described as the protagonist's own funeral, explains the subsequent appearance of the "Dies Irae" (p. 109) (glossary entry on Dies iræ and webpage on Dies iræ). This chant ("Day of wrath"), which Berlioz quotes from the ancient repertory of Christian plainsong, is here wordless but normally carries the gravest of the texts associated with the mass for the dead; it solemnly reminds all believers of the definitive Judgement that awaits them at the end of the world. The chimes ( ) represent a funeral knell. The disruptive burst of energy ( ) from the woodwinds and high strings presents the "burlesque parody" of the chant which Berlioz indicates in his program.

Now we come to the "Witches' Round-Dance" (p. 118), which Berlioz had already foreshadowed in some interruptions earlier on (pp. 108-9, 116-17). The round-dance is set up as a short fugal exposition. (Technical detail: because the tune, the fugal subject, is immediately set against invertible counterpoint, Schumann called this passage a double fugue). Here, the outstanding textural process to observe is the transfer of the dance-tune from instrument to instrument until the whole orchestra, like the gathering circle of witches, seems to be infected with its frenzy. After a lull, a sinister, chromatic version ( ) of the round-dance emerges in the bass (p. 131) and is treated in imitative polyphony (p. 132). Then comes one of the most characteristic moments in the score: two things that should never go together are forced into synchrony. Berlioz combines the "Dies iræ" and the round-dance in (non-imitative) polyphony. Notice that the round-dance is soon dissolved in a wash of sixteenth notes. Berlioz referred to his technique of heterogeneous polyphony as "la réunion des thèmes" ( ); he used the device in many other works. The effect is above all dramatic and climactic. Can you remember a moment in the finale of the Ninth Symphony where Beethoven employs a similar technique?

Berlioz saves a final grotesquerie for p. 142 (fig. 83), where the violins and violas are instructed to play col legno ( ) -- with the back of the bow (with the wood rather than the hair). This is yet another example of "turning things upside-down" in a movement evoking diabolical rites. Under this eerie, brittle sound, a fantastically trilled version of the round dance appears in the woodwinds and cellos.

Now, listen to the entire movement: Songe d'une nuit de Sabbat: Larghetto.

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