A Piece of Classical Music That Makes You Scream at Your Own Funeral

Besides the musical experience it offers, Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is also a type of soap opera. A new recording adds an intriguing interpretation to the work’s many performances.

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Daniel Harding.
Daniel Harding.Credit: Julian Hargreaves

During the first four months of 1830, a Parisian composer named Hector Berlioz, who was just 26 years old at the time, wrote a daring, innovative five-movement work, the “Symphonie Fantastique” (“Fantastical Symphony”). In it, he took the freedom of form suggested by Beethoven a step further, with wild tones, dark energy and sweeping imagination, the whole psychedelically tinged, particularly the last movements.

Still, it’s not certain that the work’s character would have stirred such tempestuous reactions – both enthusiastic and hostile – and accorded the symphony its distinctive place in the contemporary repertoire without the background story and narrative that Berlioz attached to it. What is said to have driven the composer to write the work was his obsessive love for the actress Harriet Smithson. She brushed him aside (they later married, disastrously) and he sank into an angry state of heartbreak that inspired the turbulent symphony. To tell the story of his unrequited love explicitly, he added a narrative, a “program,” to the work, containing precise story content for each movement.

Since then, every listener knows that the recurrent motif in all the movements, the famous “idée fixe,” is a musical theme that represents the image of the beloved. In the second movement, she appears radiantly among dancers at a ball, but he cannot approach her, and in the fourth movement he hallucinates, under the influence of opium, that he killed her and is about to be executed. “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral,” was Leonard Bernstein’s description of the work’s psychedelic motif.

Berlioz, wanting his listeners to grasp the symphony’s emotional content as he himself had experienced it, added the “program.” In doing so, he also created a marvelous promotional element, because everyone loves stories. No other work of his occupies such a central place in the classical repertoire. Other Berlioz works are held in high regard – the Requiem, the “Summer Nights” song cycle, the drama “The Damnation of Faust,” the oratorio “The Childhood of Christ” – but the “Symphonie Fantastique” occupies a distinctive place and is recorded far more frequently than any of the composer’s other works.

Certainly it contains a singular intertwining of surging melodies, bold orchestral colors and a dark emotional intensity. Nevertheless, I’m quite certain that the symphony’s success is due also to the dramatic narrative that was attached to it, which allows it to be taken simultaneously both as a musical experience and a soap opera.

Dizzied enthusiasm

Success translates into abundant recordings. The release by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Daniel Harding, on the Harmonia Mundi label, joins a very competitive field. Listening to the CD shows once again the degree to which a recording’s quality and character are an integral element in the interpretation. The recording in this case is excellent, fusing a powerful physical presence of the instruments with closeness and intimacy. The feeling one gets is that the recording was not made in a large hall, or that the microphones were placed quite close to the orchestra. The result, most of the time, is exciting. The timbre is vivid, the hum of the strings’ high notes is clearly discernible, the woodwinds glitter, the percussion rattles. But at certain moments, mainly at the end of the fourth and fifth movements, Harding pushes a bit too hard and hurtles the orchestra into dizzied enthusiasm. When that happens, the dense recording becomes oppressive and the listener feels slightly battered.

Harding’s strength lies less in leading the melodic and emotional line, more in underscoring the orchestra’s timbre, down to delicate small details. This approach interests me, as – full disclosure – Berlioz’s narrative in the famous “program,” with its tale of heartbreak, opium, the scaffold and a hallucination about witches leaves me cold. I’m not inclined to connect music to verbal content; I don’t understand how music, being fundamentally ambiguous and abstract, can tell a specific story. I understand that a story, words, possess suggestive power, and that once music is attached to them we tend to hear the specific description in these specific sounds.

The album cover.

But listening of this sort works only a limited number of times. Afterward, the story becomes a coop that limits the imagination and the infinite range of possibilities that is evoked whenever music, even if it’s familiar, is listened to. My brain, then, discarded the foundation of “program music” and ignores it most of the time. What I hear is a symphony whose movements are in mutual conflict in terms of rhythm, atmosphere, timbre and mood. The transitions between them create moments of tension and mystery, and the timbre of the orchestra throughout the work is rich, surprising and enthralling.

Hence my interest in Harding’s version, which explores the tone colors in subtle detail. It lacks a measure of emotional intensity it would need to join the leading performances, but even so, it justifies additional re-listening. On top of that, there is a bonus: a vigorous rendition of the suite from the opera “Hippolyte et Aricie” by the 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Among my favorite renditions of the “Symphonie Fantastique” are several that were recorded with period instruments. The use of instruments that reprise the sound of Berlioz’s time underscores the symphony’s distinctive, peculiar shades. Some of these instruments are no longer in use – such as the ophicleide, a now extinct brass instrument that was part of 19th-century orchestras. John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, which uses “period” instruments, including reconstructions of the ophicleide, abounds with brilliance and intensity. A 1988 recording by Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players intertwines restrained drama with a particularly interesting timbre. Mark Minkowski, in a 2002 recording with Les Musiciens du Louvre, was lauded for a fine “period” sound alongside moderate rhythms and high tension. The most fascinating instrumental timbre is offered by Anima Eterna under the baton of Jos van Immerseel in a rousing recording from 2008 on the Zig Zag label.

That said, exciting musical quality can also be achieved without recourse to a “period” sound. Cases in point: Paavo Järvi’s recording from 2000 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which is impressive in terms of the playing and the sound; a famous 1974 recording by Colin Davis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra; and a CD with excellent sound quality of a dramatic performance from 2011 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra led by Robin Ticciati.