Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was one of my first classical purchases way back in the early 1980s.  I was initially attracted by the album’s sleeve notes, which alluded to febrile opium-induced nightmares.  Also, the instrumentation featured something called an ophicleide, which I hadn’t encountered before and I’m not sure that I have since.

Symphonie Fantastique describes a doomed love affair, one that was rooted in Berlioz’s own experience.  At the age of 23 he attended a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where he became hopelessly smitten with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson.  Berlioz wrote repeatedly to Smithson by received no reply and attempted to achieve some sort of catharsis by pouring his feelings into his music.

The piece is famous for featuring an “idée fixe” – literally an obsession- a musical motif that represents his beloved.  This motif appears in various forms in each of the symphony’s five movements.  The first movement (Reveries, Passions) introduces the motif, weaving it through other melodies as the Artist muses on the object of his desire.  The second movement (A Ball) develops the motif into a waltz as the artist watches his unattainable beloved from afar.  UK readers of a certain age may remember the main melody featuring in an early 70s TV road safety advertisement.  The third movement (Scene In The Fields) begins peacefully but the distant rumble of thunder presages the Artist’s doubts – has his beloved been untrue? Convincing himself of his misfortune he attempts to poison himself with opium.  The fourth and fifth movements (A March To The Scaffold and Dream Of A Witches’ Sabbath depict the Artist’s fevered nightmares.  He has murdered his faithless beloved and is condemned to death.  Her motif is cut short as the guillotine falls and we  hear the Artist’s  head tumble down the steps as he is condemned to hell. The final move to sees the motif transformed into a ghoulish parody as witches and demons mock and pour scorn on the doomed Artist.  Funeral bells toll before the symphony rises to a monstrous climax.

The Parisian premier of the work in 1830 was not well received.  Berlioz retreated to Italy to work on it further.  A second premier of the revised piece was held in 1832.  Berlioz invited Harriet Smithson who attended.  This time, the symphony was a great success.  More importantly, Harriet recognised Berloz’s message to her.  They were married the following year and although they later separated, are buried together.

Taking my seat just before the performance, I thought there was something odd about the stage.  As the orchestra took to the stage I realised what it was – a lack of chairs.  The violins and violas played standing up for the duration of the piece, the first time I have seen this happen.  This has the advantage of spreading the sound of the string section across the whole width of the stage, with the basses practically backed up against the wall on the audience’s right hand side.  Symphonie Fantastique is scored for two harps and yet there are four on stage – two on each side.  In another unconventional move, these are brought to the centre of the stage at the start of the second movement and arranged in a semi-circle facing the conductor.  While it might be argued that this flurry of activity interrupts the flow of the symphony, the harps play an important part in the second movement.  Doubling them and bringing them centre stage really does allow them to shine.  The third movement calls for an off-stage oboe.  John Eliot Gardner leaves his oboe soloist onstage but places him high above the orchestra in the organ gallery, which retains the feeling of distance while keeping us engaged with the music.  The final movements require the most demanding playing from the orchestra as they bring to life the Artist’s march to his decapitation and subsequent descent to hell.  What are those two strange instruments in the brass section?  They are ophicleides, those obsolete instruments mentioned in my LP’s sleeve notes all those years ago.  Another archaic instrument, the serpent, also makes an appearance.  It is no doubt impractical for a touring orchestra to transport a set of large bells and so the bells that toll out dolorously over the final movement are pre-recorded and come to us via a PA system.  They are, however, well balanced with the orchestra and do not sound out of place.  From gentle reverie to demonic cackles the orchestra conveys all that Berlioz intended and following the fifth movement’s furious climax are treated to a roar of approval from the audience.

Opinions are divided as to whether Berlioz was himself an opium user and we may never know for sure.  He was fascinated enough by the drug, however,  to compose a “sequel” to Symphonie Fantastique in 1831, before the revisions to the symphony were undertaken.  Like the symphony itself, Lélio – the second half of tonight’s concert – uses pieces of previously-written music.  “Do you know this one?”asked the lady sat beside me.  I replied that I didn’t know it at all.  “Ah, you’re in for an education.” She replied, mysteriously.  As an elegant piano and a chaise longue, both of which would have been at home in a nineteenth century drawing room, were wheeled on to the stage, I began to suspect she wasn’t wrong.

The orchestra return to the stage, all seated this time, accompanied by the National Youth Choir of Scotland who fill the seats in the organ gallery at the rear of the stage. The Narrator, Peter Ayre, prostrates himself on the chaise longue with his back to us and two pianists take their seat at the piano.  This is looking interesting.

The Narrator awakes from his opium-induced sleep, disheartened to find that he is still alive and haunted by his nightmares.  Over the course of six pieces of music he despairs at the futility of his existence but is gradually pulled back to life by reflecting on  his love of the arts.

Lélio is in a completely different style to Symphonie Fantastique, a mixture of songs for tenor, bass and choir and instrumental pieces, but it shares the symphony’s idée fixe and we hear this in the opening piece where the artist remembers his friend Horatio and his fondness for the poem The Fisherman which we now hear set to music.  To be honest the narrative of Lélio seems fairly spurious but Peter Ayre’s narration is knowingly humorous and the music is lovely.  The highlight comes when the narrator decides that life may be worth living after all and demands that the orchestra play a piece he has written based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The orchestra’s brilliant performance of this is met with a grudging “yes, well that’s enough for today,we’ll try it again tomorrow” from the narrator.  By the end of Lélio the Artist’s appetite for life has been fully restored – signified by the return again of the idée fixe – and he storms off stage in search of new romantic adventures.

An education indeed and a tremendous end to a great evening’s entertainment.

John Scott

 

 

 

 

 

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