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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hector Berlioz, "Symphonie Fantastique"

Hector Berlioz
"Symphonie Fantastique"
Philips (1993)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

As that one aunt or uncle of yours (you know the one) will tell you, drugs have had a lasting effect on rock 'n' roll for a while. Whether it was marijuana in the '70s, coke during the '80s, or heroin in the '90s, a lot of good music has been based on the subject. Less appreciated is the influence of drugs, in this case opium, on the world of classical music. Hector Berlioz demonstrates the effects of opiates on the music that politicians and teachers have long claimed is good for you, like his "Symphonie Fantastique."

"Fantastique" certainly features some peculiar chord resolutions, but this in itself isn't drug-inspired. Berlioz, one of the foremost and earliest members of the Romantic movement, was perfectly comfortable making unusual decisions without the aid of narcotics. The "narrative" is a better reflection of substances at work. The tale (there are no actual lyrics to the piece, but each movement was originally accompanied by a small essay by Berlioz within the program) is a projection, as with many pieces of music, of the artist's own life. Protagonist falls in love at first sight, fantasizes, takes a bunch of opium (actually noted in program), has doubts and falls into hallucinations, including his own execution and a gathering of witches. Berlioz had just fallen for an Irish actress, and history notes his use of opium during the period.

Perhaps more interesting that the plot is the structure of moods within the five movements. If you've ever overindulged, and I mean on anything, even alcohol, you can relate to what's going on here. The opener, "Daydreams-Passions," is about as optimistic as you can get. This is a piece dominated by strings throughout, but they are especially lively here and the movement closes out with a resounding bass drum. Follow up "Ball" is an equally cheery waltz, "Scene in The Fields" is slower but still in majorly major key, and even "March to The Scaffold" is unusually optimistic for someone watching their own death. Tom Moon credits the use of old-fashioned catgut strings for the positive vibes from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire, and I'm not one to disagree. But still. I think Berlioz put a little too much emphasis on the high, and not the terrible hangover low in the morning.

That being said, the closing movement, "Dreams of A Witches Sabbath," has a drastically different attitude, and a pretty damn cool one at that. Again, the strings are key here, but Berlioz features an ominous ringing of a bell to heighten the mood and set the tone. If you want an idea of what's going on, imagine the slower, scarier portions of the soundtrack in "Pirates of The Caribbean" (I couldn't find exact title, sorry) because Hans Zimmer essentially lifted a theme from "Sabbath" (fast forward to 3:30 to hear it).

I admit that I put a little too much emphasis on the drugs during this listen. "Symphonie Fantastique" is a fun listen for cynics like myself, as it remains so optimistic throughout. But more importantly, I find that the happier the music, the easier it is to hook new listeners. For that reason, "Fantastique" is a great introduction to the Romantic scene.

INTERESTING FACT: Berlioz ended up marrying Harriet Smith, whom he based "Fantastique" on, six years after first laying eyes on her. The marriage, like most on which classical music is based, ended in bitterness after only a few years.

Symphonie fantastique op.14 - Part I - Reveries-Passions by Berlioz, Hector on Grooveshark (not the version Moon intended, but you'll get the idea)

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