Music Monday - Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Roughly 33% of my nerdiness is music related, the product of a lifetime's exposure to live orchestral concerts, Gregorian chant and polyphony, band and orchestra experience, and private music lessons.  I was close to becoming a professional musician, until I realized that A.) I couldn't pass up Christendom's solid Catholic liberal arts education, and B.) I didn't have the passion for practicing that you need if you want to make it as a pro.  My life choices changed, but my love for the arts has not; the first thing I did moving up here was to join the parish choir.

Recently, I attended the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's semi-staged performance of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, which was such fun.  I'd never actually listened to a full opera before, and this was a comic treat, such that I went back and listened to a few of the arias again on Youtube.  Also recently, I've been sorting through the music on my computer, compiling a long playlist of instrumental music for my tedious data-entry at work.

And so, in the course of musical events, I've decided to do the occasional "Music Monday" over here, to discuss some piece of music I've seen, heard, or sung of late.  It's an excuse to share some more of my nerdiness, and stretch my writing skills.

We'll start with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, a piece I became intimately familiar with in my senior year of high school when we played the full 5-movement piece in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Side-by-Side program.  It was a real challenge - especially having to sit through three movements without playing, then come in at the very top of the trombone's range.  It was a wonderful feeling to know we'd mastered a professional-level piece of music, though!

A few listening notes and my own comments, and I'll send you on your way to listen to an extremely interesting piece of music.

Fun fact, most of this was probably written while Berlioz was on drugs.  Hence the reason that this set of pieces gets a little...weird.  Did you ever watch Disney's Fantasia?  Remember how some pieces tell a story?  Each of the movements in this "Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts" creates a vivid vignette through music.  That's actually one of the reasons I love this piece: whether you're experienced in listening to music or not, you can understand what the composer is communicating.

According to Wikipedia, the piece as a whole "tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless love."

The first movement, "Reveries - Passions" describes the composer's neurotic obsession with a Shakespearean actress.  The second, "A Ball", is exactly that; a dance, at which the artist is trying to get the attention of the girl he loves.  The third movement is my favorite to listen to; it is a pastoral, "Scene in the Fields".  The oboe solo that opens the piece is absolutely beautiful, and it's a lovely bit of musical imagery as the sound of a thunderstorm moves across the fields and fades away into the distance.

The fourth and fifth movements are where the music really starts to sound like a pipe dream.  "March to the Scaffold" is Berlioz's opium dream of walking to his death, condemned for having killed his beloved.  "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath" is fascinating to listen to, purely for the way that an orchestra can sound downright creepy - the dissonant chime tones and the dark entrance of the "Dies Irae" send a cold chill up the spine.

There's lots to find online about this piece, including Berlioz's own program notes at this link.  The bottom line is that despite the psychotic content of the story it tells, the end result is a masterful application of the orchestra's skills to communicate scenes, images, and emotions to the audience.  Berlioz keeps your imagination engaged, and showcases almost every single instrument at some point.  Keep an ear out for the trombones in the last two movements!

P.S. - I love the fact that I can link videos here. My first attempt!  :D


  1. This is definitely my favorite orchestral piece to play -- so entirely thrilling! XD


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