This Omaha Symphony performance was recorded live at the Holland Performing Arts Center on October 21, 2016.
A Symphony Named Desire
During his time as a student at the Paris Conservatory, a young Hector Berlioz was told by his instructors that he would never progress the art form—it had all been done before by the "Great Masters." Little did they know that a 26-year-old Berlioz would produce a truly innovative work in his Symphonie Fantastique.
Known today as a Romantic giant of a piece, it takes the programmatic form Beethoven championed in his sixth symphony to the next level. The work is a dark journey that ultimately serves as an exploration in the human experience of wanting what we can't have—more on that in our program notes.
Hear your Omaha Symphony's performance recorded live from the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Nearly two hundred years ago, a man went to see a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and left suddenly, madly, obsessively in love with an actress… and the world of classical music has never been the same. Hector Berlioz fell hard for Harriet Smithson, the production’s Ophelia, and refused to acquiesce to both reason and the total silence that his letters and messages to her produced. Berlioz was, in the understatement of the last two centuries, a passionate and stubborn man. His increasing longing – possibly aided by opium – manifested into an idée fixe, a recurring theme representing his yearning for his beloved.
It would mutate massively, astoundingly, into his Symphonie Fantastique, the greatest symphonic tale of obsessive love ever written.
Berlioz couldn’t have Smithson. (Not yet, anyway – we’ll get to that.) So, his alter ego, the Symphonie Fantastique protagonist, tries to win over his beloved instead. The five movements of the symphony revolve around an artist, desperately reaching for a woman who is forever unattainable. It goes… well, you’ll see how it goes:
1. Reveries – Passions: the artist is dreaming of his beloved; his heart races, he envisions myriad ways in which she falls in love with him and they’re finally together. Note the shimmering, gossamer-like start of the piece: Berlioz uses the string section as a sort of curtain-opener, a mysterious start to what could be a dubious fairy tale. Disney or Brothers Grimm? Keep listening.
2. A Ball: the artist attends but his beloved is forever separated from him.
3. A Country Scene: two shepherds call out to each other amidst the growing tension of an approaching storm. The artist’s loneliness and despair manifests further; the movement ends and only one shepherd is left, calling out in vain.
4. March to the Scaffold: there may have been an overreaction. The artist, convinced that his beloved has completely rejected him, tries to poison himself with opium. Instead of dying, however, he begins hallucinating, dreaming that he’s murdered his beloved and is now being led to his own execution. Bernstein put this movement best: “Berlioz tells it like it is. Now there was an honest man. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” You won’t have to listen too carefully to hear if, ah, the guillotine works properly at the end.
5. The Witches Sabbath: Well, you know where murdering people takes you – straight to hell! Yes, the artist has been dragged to the depths… and he’s not alone. Circling him like sharks in any classic deep-sea thriller is a coven of witches, his beloved dancing right among them. The Dies Irae begins to grow menacingly in the low strings, winds, and brass, and the world explodes into complete, breathtakingly huge chaos as the witches lead a ferocious dance forever on the brink of losing control. It is a *lot* of fun to play.
Sometimes, when you compose one of the greatest pieces of Romantic music ever written, you do get what you what, and Berlioz finally met and convinced Harriet Smithson to marry him. (They divorced later, but that’s beside the point.) The true winner of all of this, however, is us. Enjoy.
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