Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, excerpt from Movement V
Symphonie fantastique is a five-movement program symphony, reflecting the unrequited
passion of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) for Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson.
Programmatic works, such as this symphony, attempt to depict ideas or objects through music.
Berlioz supplied the audience with a written program for the symphony with a story of a young
artist who falls hopelessly in love with a young woman who does not return his love. Although
Berlioz immediately regretted making the program public and, hence, centering critical reaction
to the piece around whether or not the music was appropriate to the imagined drama, he revised
the program throughout his life, distributing it at all performances of the work.
A melody representing the beloved appears in all five movements of the piece. In
addition to functioning as a unifying device, the melody acts like a character in the musical
drama, appearing in transformations appropriate to the course of the story. The Symphonie
fantastique, and other programmatic works by Berlioz, inspired many nineteenth-century
composers to write program music on themes as wide ranging as scenic description (Smetana,
Moldeau), dramatic storytelling (Mendelssohn, Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and
philosophical musing (Listz, Les Preludes).
Listening Tips:
This excerpt is from the fifth movement of the Symphonie fantastique and does not
contain the melody representing the beloved. At this point in the drama, the young artist has
attempted to commit suicide by taking opium and has dreamed that he is arriving at a witches
Sabbath after being executed for the murder of his beloved. The melody contained in this
section, accompanied by symphonic chimes imitating the sound of church bells, is that of the
“Dies irae” chant from the Requiem Mass. Berlioz presents each phrase of the chant three times,
doubling the tempo each time, thus creating a mockery of the solemn chant. The excerpt closes
with the first phrase from a melody that the composer labeled “The Witches Round-Dance” in
the score.
Listening Guide:
Dies Irae, Phrase I
Initial presentation of melody with funeral
bells accompanying
Dies Irae, Phrase I
Twice as fast
Dies Irae, Phrase I
Four times as fast
Dies Irae, Phrase II
Dies Irae, Phrase IIII
Witches Round Dance