26 Mar 2014

Curtain Raiser: Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique

From the collecton Curtain Raiser
Opium poppy seed head

Opium poppy seed head Photo: Hugh Chevalier CC by SA 2.0


Berlioz’ symphony opens with an amazing depiction of an elusive, fragmented world of heightened emotion.

In his later programme notes, Berlioz states that the artist, an unrequited lover, falls into a reverie because of a dose of opium.

It was a time when opium was an unremarkable adjunct to the creative process; the dreamworld of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, is just one example.

Berlioz was one of the great orchestrators - despite, or maybe because, of the fact that he didn’t really play an instrument besides the guitar.  He wrote one of the seminal texts on orchestration, first published in 1843 then revised and reissued in 1855. It is still one of the foundations of a good education in orchestration. In describing the characteristics of the violin section, he writes:

“It is the orchestra’s real feminine voice, at once passionate and chaste, heart-rending and gentle; it can weep, cry and lament, or it can sing, pray and dream, or it can break out in joyful strains, like no other instrument. An imperceptible movement of the arm, an unsuspected emotion on the part of the player, might produce no noticeable effect when played by a single violin. But when multiplied by many instruments playing in unison, it results in magnificent nuances and irresistible surges of emotion that penetrate to the depth of the heart.”

He uses the violins to introduce the most important theme of the symphony - the idée fixe.


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