Revisiting an old College Friend
As I hope you’re all aware, the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra is performing Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique
on April 28th
is one of those great works of art that leaves an impression – on musicians and listeners alike. But the piece is so large (in scale and importance) that I find my feelings about it change each time I approach it.
My relationship with this piece began in college. I can remember first hearing a recording in Music History class and developing an obsession with all the loud, bombastic, outrageous noise of the fourth and fifth movements. (I was a trumpet major in college – trumpeters tend to like the loud stuff.) At that time in my life, I’d just been bitten with the conducting bug. I was carrying around a conducting baton at all times—trying to prove to myself and the world that the stick and I made a good team.
My girlfriend noticed and encouraged my ambition. (She’s my wife now… and the BSO’s principal flutist.) Kelley bought, as a gift for my 20th
birthday, the very first conducting score I ever owned: Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.
The main library at The Ohio State University has a nearly abandoned 13th
floor, one which required some knowledge of obscure elevators to access. It seems it was always dark up there in the stacks, and the silence was so absolute that I could hear the clicking of my eyelids when I blinked. This is where I went to experience Symphonie Fantastique
in its entirety. I brought along my portable CD player, my best headphones, a recording of Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, a pencil, and that brand-new score. That night is burned into my memory—the room so quiet and my headphones turned up so loud I could hear the musicians shifting in their chairs. I can still see, in my memory the lights of campus at night, smell the dusty old books, read the ancient graffiti on my desk.
I wrote notes to myself all throughout that score. I misidentified the principal theme in half a dozen different places. I couldn’t read a word of the long French paragraphs Berlioz scatters through the score—words of advice for future conductors. In those pre-Google-translate days, I spent hours translating with a French-English dictionary. The piece was so alive, so vibrant, so INSANE, that even though I started my journey with it that spring of 1999, I’m sure I’ll never lack for new discoveries every time we’re brought together.
The first time I conducted the Symphonie Fantastique
was in 2008, when I performed it with a major symphony orchestra and 75 hand-picked high schoolers from around the state. At that time, with about 130 musicians on stage, my favorite, most exhilarating moments were again, the “loud stuff.” I thrilled to the huge brass section, the violent rhythmic dissonances, and the wild special effects. In this respect, the Fantastique
is a perfect piece to perform with (and for
) teenagers. It’s chock-full of over-passionate feelings, unrequited love for strangers, self doubt and self-destructive behavior, vivid dreams, drug experimentation, fantasy monsters, guillotines, etc. etc. etc. Berlioz’s own program notes give listeners and performers a specific, yet flexible storyline to follow.
In the past five years, I’ve been the cover/assistant conductor for at least three different conductors on this piece, with three different orchestras. (Riccardo Muti, Leonard Slatkin, and Giancarlo Guerrero, to be precise.) In every case, the Fantastique
was a new and unique experience. Muti shaped the first two movements so gently and clearly that they might have been composed by Haydn. Slatkin managed to completely remove himself (and seemingly, the orchestra) from the performance in the third movement, so that Berlioz’ nakedly tender music shone through. And Guerrero gave the last two movements so much fire and energy that they rivaled The Rite of Spring
for terror and drama. I’ve taken all these experiences and blended them into my understanding of the piece and how it can and should be performed.
Now, in 2012, I’m drawn to the first half of the symphony, more than the second. I want to dig into every note, every delicious phrase of the first three movements. Berlioz jumps so rapidly in these movements from the deepest despair to unbridled joy—how can I possibly ensure the orchestra and I make those leaps along with him—and by extension, influence the thoughts and emotions of the audience? After all, we’re all individuals, experiencing our own private emotional rollercoasters through an hour-long work such as this.
Berlioz too, had an ever changing relationship with—and by extension, influence the thoughts and emotions of the audience? After all, we’re all individuals, experiencing our own private emotional rollercoasters through an hour-long work such as this.
Berlioz too, had an ever changing relationship with Symphonie Fantastique
. He composed it in 1830, while he was madly in love with Harriet Smithson, a Shakespearean actress whom he’d never actually met. The piece was written as his passionate love letter to her. Eventually, some two years later, a performance was arranged which she could attend. Smithson was moved, and the two were married soon after. The marriage was a disaster. Berlioz, after all, had been in love with the idea of Smithson. (The idee fixe
, as he called it.) The two artists split up soon after, in bitter acrimony. It was after this failed relationship with the former object of his obsession that Berlioz composed the sequel to Fantastique: Lelio, or the Return to Life.
is another quasi-autobiographical programmatic piece with the composer as protagonist. It’s also huge—including a narrator, full chorus, tenor soloist and large orchestra. Early on in the piece, Lelio
speaks this text, a clear commentary on Fantastique
and its aftermath:
“How have I not been broken by the horrible embrace of the iron hand that had seized me? This punishment, these judges, those executioners, the soldiers, the clamor of the mob falling on my heart like the hammers of the Cyclops… and the inexorable melody resounding in my ears…”
And then he discusses how his feelings on the subject have changed since:
“Live! But life for me is to suffer! And death is to rest. The doubts of Hamlet
were powerless against my despair. Will they now be powerless against my weariness and disgust? And yet I keep coming back, I let myself be fascinated by its terrible genius. It is beautiful, true and penetrating… the memory moves me now more than ever.”
Berlioz, as late as 1945, rewrote the accompanying text to Fantastique
several times to reflect his evolving feelings about the work. I should emphasize that he did not change any notes
of the piece—only the text which described those notes. The revisions become an attempt to distance himself from that autobiographical “artist” of the original. The older, less explosive Berlioz now refers to “A young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with a vivid imagination.”
The artist had grown up in those intervening fifteen years. He recognized, perhaps wistfully, that Fantastique
was the work of a younger, very different man. I know that I, too, have grown older and wiser than I was that first night in 1999 which I spent with Berlioz’ score, and I can’t imagine how I’ll feel about the piece another fifteen years from now.
If April 28th
is your first experience with Symphonie Fantastique
or your fiftieth, I hope you’ll discover something new and wonderful in the piece. Berlioz wrote one of my very favorite lines about performance in Lelio,
when the composer turns to his chorus and orchestra just before they are to play his new piece:
“Do not exaggerate the nuances. Do not confuse mezzo forte
As for the melodic style and expression, I have nothing more to say to you. My opinions would be useless to those of you who feel passionately about Music, and even more useless to those of you who do not. Well, everything is in order… Begin!”