The truth is, you probably don’t need program notes for Berlioz’s ubiquitous Symphonie fantastique…
You’ve likely read about his infatuation with the actress, and maybe even caught Leonard Bernstein dishing on “dope” in this context during one of his Young People’s Concerts. Even if this is your first encounter with this game-changing work, I’d wager that you could come up with a narrative pretty close to the intended one without having read a word about it. It’s that good.
What strikes me over and over about this piece is the sheer vulnerability of it. Granted, it is the grand gesture of all grand gestures — writing and re-writing a piece in the hopes of winning over its literal heroine — but to have written something so deliberately personal, and to be so publicly overwhelmed by desire…this is next-level. I hope you’ll forgive me for being emboldened to do so, but I took this opportunity to tell my own story of delusion and heartbreak.
It’s not easy, exposing oneself like this, but it is rather cathartic. To that end, if the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s performance stirs up a similar memory for you, and you’re inclined to share it, please contribute your story below. Whether you choose to share it or not, this music is likely to stoke some smoldering memories for you…
What one needs to know about the Symphonie Fantastique is that it is autobiographical, and relates a very specific narrative. Berlioz fell hard for a Shakespearian actress by the name of Harriet Smithson, after seeing her in the role of Ophelia in Hamlet in 1827. As a Frenchman, he didn’t even speak her language…
I remember it as if it were last summer, despite the fact that this is some 15 years in the otherwise hazy past. I was seated at the back of a tent at the Coachella festival, back when it still claimed electronic music credibility. My shirt was damp from the oppressive, midday desert sun, and I was scribbling notes on the current act in a leather-bound notebook, oblivious to the revelries engulfing me and with no publication awaiting my submission. The music was rapturous, and as ink flowed onto page, I had my epiphany. With revelers swirling around me, I realized that I had made a mistake. I had let you go, but as my idée fixe — my preoccupation and my fascination — the 5,500 miles that separated us were but a minor hindrance to my love. I tore out my pages and began scribing a desperate letter to you.
The waltz you hear is a literal waltz. This is our hero, hysterically trying to catch the attention of his muse. Harriet could not be persuaded to attend the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, so Berlioz revised the work and scheduled a second, which the now less-famous and less-glamorous Harriet attended — in the composer’s own VIP seats — without any inkling that this magnificent piece was about her.
These bodies, writhing around me and heedless in their ecstasy, stirred latent feelings of longing in me. I was jealous of their proximity to each other, and my emptiness discovered new depths. I scrambled to remember snippets of Portuguese, your native language, with which I could draw you back near me. This was music without pause, and each new track escalated my desire to be with you. We had parted ways for earnest and logical reasons. These reasons escaped my brain in a capricious instant.
Berlioz was mesmerized by the symphonies of Beethoven — the “Pastoral” symphony looms large here — and at the ripe old age of 27, he set out to put his demons to paper with this earth-shattering work. It can’t be understated just how ahead of its time was this piece, or just how dramatic an effect it had on classical music, and the Russians in particular. Listen for the conversation in this music — a conversation with but one conversant.
I had intended the flight to Oporto to offer me the opportunity to daydream about you, but my seat mate insisted on chattering for all seven hours of it. As she spoke, I nodded and mumbled agreements as I imagined dining on arroz de marisco and swilling vinho verde from crude glasses with you. I saw the fisherwomen at the roadside, cajoling us to spend the night in their homes. I smelled the brine of low tide, wishing for a moonlit promenade along the shore. I longed for the long, languid car rides, during which directions would be sought every hour or so along those unmarked, unpaved roads. As the plane skidded onto the runway, my head a blur of jet lag, my body awoke to the terrifying realization that this was our second go of it. Your family would be livid if I broke away from you again.
If Symphonie fantastique had been written in the era of the Billboard Top 100, this would have emphatically been the single. This is the number that upended classical music for decades. Berlioz claims to have penned it in a single evening, but that sounds a bit like Edward Albee’s assertion that all of his plays hit the typewriter fully edited. In any case, it is difficult to think of any piece of lyric-less music that paints a more vivid, or more riveting, scene than that of Berlioz’s opium-induced fever dream — one in which he kills his beloved and is marched to the gallows to meet his grisly fate.
What bliss, what intoxication, to hold you in my arms once again. Each day feels like its own enterprise, its own era even, and as we careen down the coast in your tiny hatchback, my mind reels at the possibility of transposing my life to this wondrous place. We stop to inhale the effluvium of a sticky hash, our minds dripping out our ears as we soak in the failing light of dusk. Erroneously believing our wits about us, we head inside a chapel decorated top to bottom with the bones of the long dead. Vacant eye sockets stare out at us from the walls as we explore this breathtaking memento mori. It would be poetic if this were the moment at which I realized that I was too young to commit to this existence, but it would be on our return north, surrounded by high-rises and the cacophony of car horns that I would leap to that calamitous understanding. Still, I look back to those desiccated bones and think that in that moment, something became clearer.
The first rehearsal of Symphonie fantastique was a disaster. The theater was unprepared for Berlioz’s army of 130 musicians, and carpenters scrambled to build makeshift stands for them. Because of the fracas, only the Ball and the March were played, the latter of which drew enthusiastic applause from the performers. This final chapter of the symphony unfurls like a familiar fantasy for anyone who has ever been in reckless, fateful love. In the moment, everything seems imperative, and the slightest adversity feels cataclysmic. Berlioz, having been dismissed by Harriet in real life, imagines her throwing herself into an orgy with devils. Yep. That bad.
I can’t bear to envision the fury of your parents and friends when you divulge my departure. I imagine your father hurling his after-dinner coffee mug across the room as your mother curses my name with some ancient phrase. Knowing it is right does not preclude my brain from conjuring thoughts of your future beaus, and the exuberance with which you’ll dive into those relationships, after my failure of you. I can only guess that now, some 15 years hence, you’ve either forgotten me, or, when reminded of my existence, you snarl.
I don’t know which is worse.