Oberlin Orchestra Attempts Symphonie Fantastique
Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is the first — and still one of the greatest — head-trips in music history. The piece is a semi-autobiographical fantasy about an artist who falls in tormented, unrequited love. The first three movements express his turbulent feelings. Somewhere between the third and fourth movements, the artist swallows opium. In the fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold,” he envisions his own execution as his beloved looks on, indifferent. In the finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” he sees himself in hell, surrounded by dancing hordes of cackling witches, one of whom is his beloved.
Great performances of this work make no attempt to tone it down; they embrace its hallucinatory quality and its undisguised passion, maintaining a constant sense of forward motion. (Try Charles Munch’s 1954 recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)
Last Friday, Nov. 9, the performance by the Oberlin Orchestra was overly cautious. It might have appealed to those who dislike the excess in the piece, but to dislike the excess in Berlioz is to dislike Berlioz. In the first three movements there was plenty of musical phrasing and excellent work from individual sections of the orchestra. But the ensemble was ragged at times, and there was no unifying sense of energy — the players sounded a little weary. The third movement sounded particularly stiff. Things came to life in the “March to the Scaffold,” which conductor Bridget-Michaele Reischl took at a brisk, energetic pace to awesome effect. But the fugue that makes up the main portion of the “Witches’ Sabbath” was too slow and deliberate-sounding. It had no hallucinatory quality — it sounded less like an opium trip than a trip to the DMV.
At its conception, Symphonie Fantastique was groundbreaking for several reasons: the depiction of drug-induced visions was completely unprecedented in music, and while writing the symphony, Berlioz took inspiration from Thomas de Quincey’s novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; and, though Berlioz was not the first composer to write music as an explicit expression of his personal feelings, he was the first to assign specific autobiographical programs to his instrumental works.
This is also one of the first musical masterpieces to really exploit the different colors of a large orchestra. It is astonishing how original the piece sounds when one realizes that it was composed only three years after Beethoven’s death. In real life, the “beloved” whose motif appears in every movement of the symphony was Harriet Smithson, an English actress with whom Berlioz fell madly in love after seeing her play Ophelia in Hamlet — despite the fact that he spoke no English, and she no French. When Smithson rejected the neurotically passionate musician’s advances, he fell into the state of despair that led him to compose the symphony. When Smithson returned to Paris two years later, she heard the symphony, learned that she was the “beloved” depicted in the music, and had a change of heart, later marrying Berlioz. However, the marriage ended in mutual unhappiness years later. But the passion and romance of the Symphonie Fantastique lives on — when it is performed well.