Guy Gets Dumped, Writes a Fantastic Symphony, and We’re Still Listening 190 Years Later

This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which he wrote about a woman who'd rather drink than date him.EXPAND
This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which he wrote about a woman who'd rather drink than date him.
Tracy Martin
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Hector Berlioz first laid eyes on Harriet Smithson in 1827 at Paris’ Odeon Theater, where she was portraying Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. It was love at first sight for the French composer, although “obsession” might be a more accurate description. He knew that he had to meet her and did everything in his power to try to make it happen, sending her flowers and countless letters professing his undying love. Berlioz even moved to an apartment closer to hers so that he could keep an eye on her. But all of his “romantic” gestures went unnoticed, and he began to go a little crazy.

We all know that bitter sting of rejection, though Berlioz described it as a “delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything.” Seriously creepy.

So what was a composer to do with all of those cringe-y feelings? Naturally, they began to manifest in musical form, into what Berlioz coined his "idée fixe." Literally a fixated idea. This musical motif appears in variations throughout his 50-minute, five-movement epic Symphonie fantastique, (yes, with a lower case 'f').

Subtitled Episode in the Life of an Artist, Berlioz intended his “fantastic symphony”  to be an autobiography of sorts. Each of the five movements depicts an increasingly bizarre tableau and is accompanied by text written by Berlioz himself, meant to narrate the artist’s story.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is gearing up for performances of the piece this week, and DSO husband-and-wife duo Paul Garner (clarinetist) and Mary Reynolds (violinist) are looking forward to it. Both are DSO veterans and have likely performed the piece too many times to count.

“It is such an engaging and unusual piece that it is always exciting to perform,” Garner told us. “I don't think anything better in the history of the world has come out of a guy getting dumped.”

Reynolds agrees, and says it's also one of her all-time favorite pieces to perform.

The “episode” begins innocently enough, with an artist falling hopelessly in love with a woman whom he feels “embodies all the charms of the ideal being.” Then he goes to a party, followed by a trip to the countryside, all the while slowly realizing that the object of his interest doesn’t want him back. This leads the artist to panic and take an excess of opium.

“The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions,” Berlioz writes. He dreams that he murdered Harriet and is subsequently forced to witness his own execution. It gets even trippier, though. Once he dies, the artist envisions himself at a witches’ sabbath where Harriet shows up to participate in the grotesque revelries.

Conveying this vivid imagery requires some serious technique and focus from the musicians. Reynolds told us that the final movement, titled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” is particularly tricky for the violinists.

“Within the first five bars alone, we are asked to do tremolo, spiccato and pizzicato,” she says. “One really must concentrate on all of these changes, and it’s not just the notes. We also begin con sordino (with a mute, a small device that attaches to the bridge of the violin and dampens the sound), then at the end of the first page, we have to remove the mute and continue playing.”

This same movement has a famously challenging E-flat clarinet solo, something Garner says was a “stroke of genius” on Berlioz’s part.

“The instrument hadn't been used in the orchestra before this time, and certainly not in a solo capacity,” he said. “The demanding part is filled with crazy-sounding trills and suggests dancing skeletons and a mounting feeling of desperation.”

What started as Berlioz’s unfortunate affair resulted in many strokes of genius for the composer. Symphonie fantastique is considered one of the first major “programmatic” works, as no other composer had taken musical storytelling to this level. His approach to orchestration was also pretty radical for the time. Besides calling for unique instruments like the E-flat clarinet, Berlioz wrote for a massive, expanded orchestra.

Eventually, Berlioz’s “persistence” in pursuing his love paid off — Symphonie fantastique did eventually capture Harriet Smithson’s attention. She and Berlioz were married for a few years, but it was a tumultuous relationship by all accounts. By the time they actually met, Smithson’s career wasn’t going so well, and she was an alcoholic. Sorry, Berlioz.  

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