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LITR 022 Music and Literature : Berlioz. Symphonie fantastique

A guide to music primary sources pertaining to course content

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was born in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France. As a child he studied flute and guitar. His father sent him to Paris to study medicine, but Berlioz became enamored of the opera and abandoned his studies. He entered the Conservatoire de Paris, became an important conductor, and earned most of his income from journalism, at which he excelled, although he didn't think highly of it. 

"He stands as the leading musician of his age in a country—France—whose principal artistic endeavour was then literary, and in an art—music—whose principal pioneers were then German. In many senses the Romantic movement found its fullest embodiment in him, yet he had deep Classical roots and stood apart from many manifestations of that movement. His life presents the archetypal tragic struggle of new ideas for acceptance, to which he gave his full exertions as composer, critic and conductor. And though there were many who perceived greatness in his music from the beginning, his genius only came to full recognition in the 20th century." - Hugh Macdonald, "Berlioz." In Oxford Music Online.

About the Symphonie fantastique

"Symphonie fantastique" 

(‘Fantastic Symphony’). Symphony, op. 14, by Berlioz, composed in 1830 and revised 1831–45. Subtitled ‘Épisode de la vie d'un artiste’ (‘Episode in the Life of an Artist’), it is in five movements: ‘Rêveries, passions’ (‘Dreams, Passions’), ‘Un bal’ (‘A Ball’), ‘Scène aux champs’ (‘Scene in the Fields’), ‘Marche au supplice’ (‘March to the Scaffold’), and ‘Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat’ (‘Dream of a Witches' Sabbath’). The work was inspired by Berlioz's love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, and this is symbolized by a recurring theme (an idée fixe) used in a similar way to a Wagnerian leitmotif. The Symphonie fantastique is one of the most important early examples of programme music, the forerunner of the programme symphonies and symphonic poems of Liszt, Mahler, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky among others.  - Alison Latham in The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford Reference Online. [Note: There are also articles in the Oxford Companion to Music on Wagnerian leitmotif and programme music.]

Liszt's Piano Arrangement of the Symphony

Berlioz and Liszt met in 1830, the day before the first performance of the former's Symphonie Fantastique, together with the same composer's cantata Sardanapalus. Berlioz recalls their meeting in his Memoirs: I talked of Goethe's Faust, which he admitted he had not read, but which he soon came to love as much as I. We felt an immediate affinity and from then onwards our friendship has grown always closer and stronger. Liszt applauded enthusiastically at the concert and dragged Berlioz off for dinner at his house, overwhelming him by the energy of his enthusiasm. This was the beginning of a relationship that continued for many years. ...

The score of the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, a remarkable and in many ways seminal work, an early precursor of Liszt's own later symphonic poems, was not published until 1845. Liszt's transcription of the symphony, however, was made in 1833 and published at his own expense. It is a remarkable tribute to the original. Liszt himself wrote in 1837 to his friend Adolphe Pictet on the subject: I have started something quite different with my transcription of the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz: I have worked on this as conscientiously as if I were transcribing the Holy Scriptures, attempting to transfer to the piano not only the general structure of the music, but all its separate parts, as well as its many harmonic and rhythmic combinations. He goes onto write of the similar work he is undertaking with the symphonies of Beethoven." - Keith Anderson, "Work Information" for Liszt's arrangement, Naxos Music Library.

Manuscript of the Symphonie fantastique


Episode de la vie d'un artiste // Simphonie Fantastique en 5 parties // n° 1 // Partition // Par // Hector Berlioz (manuscrit autographe). 1830

The holograph manuscript preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, MS-1188. 

The preliminary pages include the program written by Berlioz.