January/February, 1930 (possibly earlier) to April 16, 1930

December 5, 1830 at the Paris Conservatoire, conducted by François Antoine Habeneck

Like so many great works of art throughout the course of human history, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was inspired by—and created to impress—a woman. Berlioz, however, took things a step further by obsessively and compulsively trying to win the affection of a woman whom he had never even met. This woman, Harriet Smithson, was an Irish actress that Berlioz first saw performing in Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Juliet at the Parisian Odéon Theatre in 1827. The twenty-three-year-old Berlioz claimed to have immediately fallen in love with Harriet based on both her beautiful looks and moving performance (despite the fact that Berlioz didn’t understand a word of English at the time), and soon afterward began inundating the actress with emotional letters describing his intense, unrelenting feelings for her.

Unsurprisingly, this tactic did not work well for the young composer, and Harriet—likely scared to death by the very personal letters from a man she had never met—certainly did not reciprocate Berlioz’s love. Undaunted, Berlioz continued to obsess over the Irish actress. On February 6, 1830 Berlioz wrote to his friend, Humbert Ferrand, with a disturbing account of the anguish this complete stranger was inflicting on him:

I am again plunged in the anguish of an interminable and inextinguishable passion, without motive, without cause. She is always in London, and yet I think I feel her near me: all my remembrances awake and unite to wound me; I hear my heart beating, and its pulsations shake me as the piston strokes of a steam engine. Each muscle of my body shudders with pain. In vain! ‘Tis terrible! O unhappy one! If she could for one moment conceive all the poetry, all the infinity of a like love, she would fly to my arms, were she to die through my embrace.1

While Symphonie fantastique was composed during the time of this letter, the idea for such a work had been around since at least June of the previous year. To Berlioz, this symphony would be the artistic embodiment of his love for Harriet Smithson, and his ultimate success that would win her over. In June 1829 he writes:

I am still unknown. But when I have written an immense instrumental composition which I am now meditating, I intend to go to London to have it performed. Let me win a success before her very eyes!2

Both the title and concept for Symphonie fantastique were likely inspired by ideas presented in Jean-François Le Sueur’s opera Ossian, ou Les Bardes (1804), a work that Berlioz—who studied composition with Le Sueur at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1820s—would have been very familiar with. The five-act opera3 features both an “Air fantastique” and “Simphonie [sic] fantastique,” and the story also includes such plot devices as dream sequences and ghostly imagery.4 In fact, Berlioz didn’t just borrow ideas from Le Sueur, he also borrowed ideas from himself—the music for “March to the Scaffold” began life as “March of the Guards” in his abandoned 1826 opera Les francs-juges, and the recurring idée fixe melody stems from his 1828 cantata Herminie.5

Berlioz first mentions this “immense instrumental composition” that he is undertaking in several letters from January of 1830, but it is not until that same February 6th letter that he first mentions the symphony by name:

I was just about to begin my grand symphony (Episode in the Life of an Artist), where I am going to portray my infernal passion. It’s all in my head, but I can’t write anything. We’ll wait.6

Berlioz’s letters from January and February inform us that he had yet to write down any of the music he heard in his head at this point. After overcoming these initial difficulties, however, the 26 year-old appears to have made quick work of the monumental symphony. On April 16, Berlioz wrote again to Ferrand with news that he had composed the last note of Symphonie fantastique, and even included a rough draft of the program in the letter.7

The premiere of the original version of Symphonie fantastique took place on December 5, 1830 in Paris. Berlioz considered the concert a great success, but his muse for the work, Harriet Smithson, was not present. The composer went on to make extensive revisions over the following two years, and also composed a monodrama sequel titled Lélio, ou le Retour à la Ville (Lélio, or the Return to Life). The two pieces were performed together on December 9, 1832, with Harriet Smithson finally in attendance. Berlioz met Harriet at the performance, and in his Memoirs recounted her less-than-enthusiastic response:

… Miss Smithson, who until then had supposed she might have mistaken the name at the head of the programme, recognized me. “Yes, it is he,” she murmured; “poor young man, I expect he has forgotten me; at least… I hope he has.”8

The two were married within a year. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only seven years, and unsurprisingly was not a happy one.

Programmatic Elements
Berlioz provided a program for Symphonie fantastique that describes each movement in great detail. Originally, he considered it essential that the audience read through the entire program before the performance, and likened its importance to that of the spoken text in an opera. He even went on to write a second version of the program that was specifically to be used when Symphonie fantastique was performed alongside its sequel Lélio. Paradoxically, though, Berlioz also notes in this second program that if Symphonie fantastique is performed without Lélio, then the program really isn’t necessary for the audience—simply giving the titles of the individual movements would suffice.

Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, the symphony follows the story of a young musician who falls immediately and desperately in love with a woman whom he describes as “the ideal being.” The woman (represented by the idée fixe that appears throughout the symphony) is an obvious allusion to Harriet Smithson, while the “young musician” is an unmistakable reference to Berlioz himself. In the first movement, “Reveries—Passions,” the artist experiences a wide range of emotions that Berlioz describes in the original program:

The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its movements of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations—this is the subject of the first movement.9

The second movement, a waltz of sorts, finds the artist catching glimpses of the woman at a crowded dance. The third movement takes place in the calm countryside, as two shepherds call to each other on their pipes while the artist reflects on his isolation amidst further visions of his beloved. In the following movement, “March to the Scaffold,” the symphony turns towards its grotesque, psychedelic climax. The artist, convinced his love will go on unrequited, tries to kill himself with opium.10 Instead of bringing death, however, the drug throws the young musician into a hallucinogenic vision, one where he kills his beloved and is led to the scaffold to witness his own execution. Here, at the gallows, he once again envisions the woman of his dreams before receiving the executioner’s blow. In the final movement, “The Witch’s Sabbath,” the musician sees himself beyond death, witnessing a horrific gathering of witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and various other monsters, all culminating with the arrival of his “ideal being” to the demonic party.

1 Burk, 61.

2 Field, 80.

3 Symphonie fantastique, in an unusual move for symphonies of the period, also consisted of five parts.

4 A. Peter Brown, The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Great Britain, Russia, and France (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 703.

5 Field, 81.

6 D. Kern Holoman, The Creative Process in the Autograph Musical Documents of Hector Berlioz, c. 1818-1840 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1980), 114.

7 Ibid.

8 David Cairns, ed., The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1969), 216.

9 Brown, 704.

10 An important note: the post-Lélio version of the program—the version included in most modern scores—describes the entire symphony as taking place during the musician’s opium dream. This seems to be an odd trend by music publishers since Lélio is very rarely performed today alongside Symphonie fantastique, making the original program much more appropriate.