This Halloween, following a tradition dating back to my childhood, I will listen, at least once, to the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz—not just any recording, but the same one I put on every year, with Ataúlfo Argenta conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. It isn’t the best performance out there, though it’s the one I’m fondest of, having grown up listening to it and gazing at the LP cover: its winged creatures, hideous and deformed, made for perfect Halloween fare. The image, it turns out, is a detail from a 16th-century altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald, and those monsters happen to be demonic entities sent forth by Satan to tempt and torment Saint Anthony. At any rate, when I was a child, the musical visions conjured up by the Symphonie Fantastique seemed no less terrifying or intense. They still do today.
The story behind the symphony’s genesis is as famous as the work itself. On September 11, 1827, Berlioz, then 23 years old, attended a Paris performance of Hamlet and fell in love with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress playing Ophelia. A few days later, he saw her as Juliet, by which time his feelings had hardened into obsession. In response, he started composing a symphony, what would turn out to be one of the most revolutionary pieces in the repertoire, so provocatively did it explore new sounds and harmonies and push the bounds of symphonic form. To accompany the piece, Berlioz wrote a detailed program, which he expected his audience to read. His notes described the fate of a young musician in love with the woman of his dreams. With his passion unrequited, the musician becomes delirious, overdoses on opium, and descends into a world of striking hallucinations. Not for him Keats’s warning to the melancholy soul not to imbibe poisonous drafts: No, no, go not to Lethe …
The hero’s reveries culminate in his witnessing his own death. There’s a march to the scaffold, a witches’ Sabbath (with ghosts and monsters in attendance), and a sounding of the Dies Irae, the Latin hymn for the Day of Judgment. Through all this phantasmagoria, we hear the theme associated with the hero’s beloved twisting and turning through the score, appearing at the unlikeliest of moments. This was Berlioz’s idée fixe, and it would memorialize Harriet Smithson for the ages.
Smithson was aware of Berlioz’s obsession, but she remained aloof, resisted his advances, avoided a meeting. No matter, one of the great emblems of the Romantic age had been born. What many people do not know is that Berlioz wrote a sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique: a work called Lélio, composed in 1831. It, too, was born from feelings of anguish about a woman—this time a pianist named Camille Moke, to whom the composer had become engaged. While he was in Italy, Berlioz learned that his fiancée had left him for another man. At once, he devised a sordid scheme in which he would kill Moke and her paramour; he even went so far as to procure a pair of pistols for the act. While stopping in Genoa on his way back to France, Berlioz had a change of heart. He decided not to commit murder, but suicide instead, and one dreary day, he leapt into the sea. As he recounted:
[A]t Genoa, a moment of dizziness and the most inconceivable weakness broke my will, I succumbed to the despair of a child; but then I got away with drinking salty water and being fished out like a salmon, then lying stretched out in the sun for fifteen minutes and throwing up violently for a whole hour. I don’t know who pulled me out, people believed I had accidentally fallen from the ramparts of the city.
Berlioz decided to remain in Italy, but more important, he decided to live. Lélio was to be his salvation, the “conclusion and complement” of the Symphonie Fantastique, as the composer described it, and a way for him to come to terms with his heartbreak. If the Symphonie Fantastique depicted a young man’s plunge into despair, Lélio would pick up the story after the witches’ Sabbath and describe the artist’s ascent back into the world of the living, via the edifying, regenerative powers of literature (especially Shakespeare) and music. The work is part symphony, part theater piece, and it features an orchestra, a chorus, and vocal soloists, all ensconced behind the stage curtain, along with an actor placed in front of it, whose job is to explain via a series of monologues the story of the artist-hero (Berlioz himself). Because the composer used several pieces of music that he’d already written, Lélio came together in just over a week’s time. Berlioz intended for the Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio to be performed on the same program, under the title Episode in the Life of an Artist; indeed, the idée fixe of the earlier work appears prominently in Lélio, linking the two autobiographical pieces and ensuring that memories of Harriet Smithson—not Camille Moke—informed the whole.
Critical reaction was mixed, yet the crowd witnessing the premiere, on December 9, 1832, especially those concertgoers with avant-garde sensibilities, went wild for this bold and experimental work. Over time, however, as the Symphonie Fantastique became a fixture in the repertoire, Lélio was largely ignored—which seems a shame to me, since so much of the music is exquisite. There’s the lilting setting of Goethe’s poem “The Fisherman,” for tenor and piano, the vocal line moving from the realm of a gentle lied to more intense, operatic terrain, as the singer rises dramatically and dexterously in describing the fate of an angler lured to his death by a mermaid. The following scene, from Hamlet (with music originally from Berlioz’s cantata Cléopâtre), has the chorus intoning its haunting lines above restless figures in the strings, the music gathering momentum until it becomes almost overwhelmingly powerful. The Song of the Brigands, for bass-baritone and male chorus, is a bright and exuberant interlude, leading to two meditative numbers, the first scored for tenor, orchestra, and harp (it’s as if the singer were some ancient bard, and the harp his accompanying lyre), the second more mournful, with the dark sonority of the solo clarinet contrasting with the quivering tremolandi in the strings. The final musical episode is based on The Tempest, and sure enough, the score is magical, suggesting an island flickering with spirits and sprites, the energetic finale reminding me a bit of the final moments of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony.
The problem, I think, is that although I love each of these movements individually, the many spoken texts—with the dramatic actor on stage uttering his emphatic declamations—seem to get in the way. Berlioz felt that these narrative interludes were essential in weaving the disparate musical elements into a coherent whole, but every time I listen to Lélio, I find myself fast-forwarding through the spoken bits. This could well be my own failing; I’ve never really warmed to performance art, or crossover experiments. Many years ago, a graduate student composer expressed an interest in writing a piece for my string quartet; before a single note would be played, he said, I, the first violinist, would have to get up and brew a pot of tea on a stove that would be placed on stage. I never spoke to that composer again.
But getting back to that December day when the Episode in the Life of an Artist made such an impression on the Parisian public. Many a luminary was present for that performance: Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas. And who should be sitting in a box not more than 10 feet away from Berlioz but Harriet Smithson, back in town for some performances of her own. Amazingly, she did not know until glancing at the program that she was attending a performance of Berlioz’s music; halfway through Lélio, she realized that the entirety of the evening’s entertainment was about her, and that Berlioz was still very much in love. The next day, she sent a letter of congratulations to the composer. Her resistance had cracked. Within weeks, she and Berlioz were a couple, and in a year’s time, they would be married. This love story did not, alas, end well. As Smithson’s career fell apart, and Berlioz’s took off, the two grew steadily apart, the relationship soured by resentment and jealousy, especially after Berlioz took up with another woman. The marriage produced a son, Louis, yet it was over in six years. The woman who had inspired the Symphonie Fantastique and who, in the course of Lélio’s composition, had superseded the unfaithful Camille Moke, would suffer a paralyzing stroke and die several years later, in 1854. The beguiling idée fixe, however, lives on.
Listen to this choral number from Lélio, music Berlioz adapted from his cantata Cléopâtre, reworked here to depict the ghost scene from Hamlet:
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