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Musician perspectives: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

With their Waldbühnenkonzert less than a week away, three musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra share their perspectives on the music of Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz – three composers who comprise the program for the open-air concert on 25 August, the culmination of the 2013 summer tour.

The “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” aspects of Symphonie fantastique are commonplace: how Berlioz was obsessed with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (and in typical Bohemian artist fashion, got a bad case of unrequited love) and how the symphony managed to convince the reluctant Ms. Smithson to give Berlioz a chance. Less well-known is that Berlioz re-enacted the symphony in real life by taking a lethal dose of opium in front of Harriet herself in a somewhat foolhardy attempt to woo her (don’t worry, he promptly took the antidote after she hysterically agreed to marry him).

Reams of literature have also been written about the downright revolutionary ideas in this symphony, whether in its reaction to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, its concept of an “opera without words” or the integration of “musical cycles” into its unconventional structure, to name a few – all of which have been explained far better elsewhere.

But the power of Symphonie fantastique (at least for me) lies far beyond such analyses and returns to the most primal force of them all: love.

“What a blindingly obvious thing to say,” you’re probably thinking to yourself. “How cheesy can you be?!” But wait: Can you think of any other work that so perfectly captures love in its different stages and guises? Berlioz does take us on a trip, but it is not merely the acid-induced one that Leonard Bernstein famously compared it to. Instead, we experience the piqued curiosity of that first glance, the fuzzy feeling in your stomach when things start to heat up, as well as the explosively joyous moment when you realize you’re in love. But Berlioz also does not shy away from the moment when things change, when inevitably, frighteningly, we see our paramour slip away from us and nothing seems to work anymore. Suddenly, our lover is now our tormentor, their memories transformed to daggers to the heart, the mind their prisoner that cannot escape. In a classic case of dramatic irony, this also happened to Harriet and Hector, who eventually separated after several years of unhappiness together.

This is the reason why Symphonie fantastique is important, because it is the symphony for the unlucky in love. Who of us has been lucky enough to not appreciate that?

– Nabih Bulos, violin