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FEVERISH: BERLIOZ, Symphonie fantastique

The MHS Review 406, VOL. 12, NO.10• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Some years ago I came to realize that I had probably never entertained an original idea; mine had all been squirreled away, mostly from my reading, to surface years later in what seemed brilliant inspirations. Now I begin to see that the way in which I see and sense the phenomenological world is also owing to the tinted glasses and the distorting lenses provided by others. Yesterday, thumbing through a pic­ture book, I was stunned to recognize how many of my aesthetic reactions stem from illustrations by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle encountered in children's books 60 years ago.

It was not much more recently that Hec­tor Berlioz provided some foundation stones for that tenuous structure that I call "me." Given the concluding fact of the previous paragraph, this is not surprising, considering that no composer ever epitomized the romantic impulse better than he. Berlioz's music has a unique visceral impact on me: it hits me where I live.

Driving westward from Grenoble a few years ago, we were distracted from our goal by a sign pointing to La Cote Saint-­Andre, his native village, where the pater­nal home is now a Berlioz museum. It was just opening when we arrived, and as we entered it was suddenly flooded with the opening of La damnation de Faust. 1 had to grab the nearest stable meuble to keep my knees from buckling.

What is it that gets me? Danged if I know! There is the dazzling use of an im­agination that converts experience into music. There is the brilliant orchestration--it is probably right to say that Berlioz invented the modern or­chestra. Perhaps most of all for me it is the long-breathed melodies--for which many have attacked him. Listening the other night to his Romeo et Juliette, I found myself thinking, "Where did this music come from? It is utterly individual; there was nothing like it before!" The next day I heard a similar impulse in Rossini's William Tell. I'm sure Berlioz did too. (Rossini didn't think much of the Fantasti­que. On looking over the score he is quoted as having said, "What a good thing it isn't music!")

The work was written in the revolu­tionary year of 1830, when the French overthrew Charles X, and Victor Hugo caused a riot with his rule-flouting play Hernani. It was recognized then as being sui generis. In five movements it pur­portedly depicts the chaotic dreams of a young artist who, hopelessly love-­obsessed, has OD'd in a suicide attempt. In the program supplied by the composer, he moons over his lady-love, encounters her at a dance, apparently loses her in the country during a thunderstorm, kills her and is hanged for it, and encounters her among witches in an afterlife. The obsessive lady is represented by such a melody as I noted, which recurs throughout the symphony. (Berlioz bor­rowed it from one of his cantatas, as he did the "March to the Scaffold" from his aborted opera Les francs-juges.)

Despite the rather misleading liner notes, this was not, however, the first program music. And despite hoary legend, the sym­phony is not about Berlioz's all-consuming passion for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson (whom he had never met in person), though he later used it in an at­tempt to convince her that it was. (To his ultimate regret, she eventually succumbed and married him, to grow querulous, fat, and alcoholic.)

I have followed James Conlon's career from his first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera a dozen years ago, and am sorry to see that, as a recording artist, he has become a favorite tackling dummy for the reviewers, who sense a potential kill when they smell it. This may not be the ultimate reading of the symphony, but it is clean and well-recorded, and Conlon is particularly successful in catching its feverish note.

Review on page 27

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