Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique had its premiere at the Paris Conservatory on December 5, 1830, played by an orchestra hired by the composer from members of the Conservatory’s orchestra and the pit orchestra of the Théâtre des Nouveautés (where Berlioz worked as a chorister during his apprentice years), conducted by François Habeneck. Berlioz took his inspiration from two sources: the writer François-René Chateaubriand, whose works the composer read avidly during his youth and whose autobiographical work René describes an artist precisely in the state in which the hero of the Symphonie fantastique finds himself, and the actress Harriet Smithson, for whom Berlioz had developed an obsessive, all-consuming love since seeing her in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon in 1827. Thus, the artist tormented by unrequited love in the symphony can be seen to be Berlioz himself.
Berlioz provided the following note on the program to the audience at the first performance in 1830:
The composer’s intention has been to treat various states in the life of an artist, insofar as they have musical quality. Since this instrumental drama lacks the assistance of words, an advance explanation of its plan is necessary. The following program, therefore, should be thought of as if it were the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements and to explain their character and expression.
Daydreams, Passions: The composer imagines that a young musician, troubled by that spiritual sickness which a famous writer has called le vague des passions (intimations of passion), sees for the first time a woman who possesses all the charms of the ideal being he has dreamed of, and falls desperately in love with her. By some strange trick of fancy, the beloved vision never appears to the artist’s mind except in association with a musical idea, in which he perceives the same character – impassioned, yet refined and diffident that he attributes to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model pursue him unceasingly like a double idée fixe. That is why the tune at the beginning of the first allegro constantly recurs in every movement of the symphony. The transition from a state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by several fits of aimless joy, to one of delirious passion, with its impulses of rage and jealousy, its returning moments of tenderness, its tears, and its religious solace, is the subject of the first movement.
A Ball: The artist is placed in the most varied circumstances: amid the hubbub of a carnival; in peaceful contemplation of the beauty of nature – but everywhere, in town, in the meadows, the beloved vision appears before him, bringing trouble to his soul.
Scene in the Country: One evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds playing a ranz de vaches; this pastoral duet, the effect of his surroundings, the slight rustle of the trees gently stirred by the wind, certain feelings of hope which he has been recently entertaining – all combine to bring an unfamiliar peace to his heart, and a more cheerful color to his thoughts. He thinks of his loneliness; he hopes soon to be alone no longer… But suppose she deceives him!... This mixture of hope and fear, these thoughts of happiness disturbed by dark forebodings, form the subject of the adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz de vaches; the other no longer answers... Sounds of distant thunder... solitude... silence.
March to the Scaffold: The artist, now knowing beyond all doubt that his love is not returned, poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to take his life, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he loved, and that he is condemned to death, brought to the scaffold, and witnesses his own execution. The procession is accompanied by a march that is sometimes fierce and somber, sometimes stately and brilliant: Loud crashes are followed abruptly by the dull thud of heavy footfalls. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe recur like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal stroke.
Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath: He sees himself at the witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a ghastly crowd of spirits, sorcerers, and monsters of every kind, assembled for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, far-off shouts to which other shouts seem to reply. The beloved tune appears once more, but it has lost its character of refinement and diffidence; it has become nothing but a common dance tune, trivial and grotesque; it is she who has come to the sabbath... A roar of joy greets her arrival... She mingles with the devilish orgy... Funeral knell, ludicrous parody of the Dies irae, sabbath dance. The sabbath dance and the Dies irae in combination.