Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December 5, 1830: Berlioz premieres his Symphony Fantastique

Last updated August 29, 2018.

Symphonie fantastique for orchestra (“Episode de la vie d’un Artiste…en cinq parties”), H.48 (Op. 14)

Hector Berlioz (composer)

Composed: 1830

First Performed: December 5, 1830

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Genre: classical > symphony


  1. Visions and passions
  2. Un bal: Valse, Allegro non troppo
  3. Scene au champ, Adagio
  4. Marche au supplice, Allegro non troppo
  5. Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat

Average Duration: 51:40


The Symphony Fantastique is “an important piece of the early Romantic period.” WK Leonard Bernstein described it “as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature.” WK History actually suggests Berlioz composed at least part of it under the influence of opium. WK

The symphony was inspired by Berlioz’s infatuation with Harriet Smithson, a pretty British ingénue who came to Paris to play Shakespeare. RD A young musician takes drugs in an attempt at suicide, but ends up hallucinating about his “Beloved” (Smithson) appearing “as a recurring melody with several personalities.” RD

“Despite the lurid scenario, Berlioz’s five-movement structure owes more to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony than anyone seems to have noticed at the time, or, for that matter, since. Where Beethoven whipped up a storm, Berlioz created a mob scene that concludes with the protagonist’s death: his decapitated head bounces into a waiting basket pizzicato. In the finale, Berlioz went far beyond Beethoven’s merrymaking peasants; he created a witches’ sabbath, without precedent in music before 1830. Along with liberating orchestral color, he overthrew the tyranny of bar-lines, downbeat accents, and academic dogma.” RD

Dreams, Passions begins with the hero’s despair…The Beloved’s signature melody is the main theme of a sonata structure with exposition repeat.” RDA Ball (Allegro non troppo, A major) is the waltz without a trio, although a contrasting section in F major has unison flute and oboe playing the Beloved’s theme.” RDScene in the Fields is an Adagio that begins and concludes with an antiphonal shepherds’ duet on oboe and English horn.” RD

“The G minor March to the Scaffold recreates a scene from the Revolution…The protagonist dreams he’s been condemned to die for killing his Beloved, who appears briefly as a clarinet, and he is guillotined as the crowd shouts approval.” RDDream of the Witches’ Sabbath features a four-part structure after an eerie introduction in E flat. The Beloved’s melody is the main theme of Part I, now, however, distorted and vulgarized by clarinets.” RD

It was first performed at December 5, 1830 at the Paris Conservatoire WK with Berlioz conducting. “He revised it in 1832 and added two cornets to the instrumentation in 1845.” RD

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