“Symphonie fantastique”: One Man’s Obsession

Oct 18, 2017

Have you ever had a love song written for you by a significant other? Hector Berlioz wrote his Symphonie fantastique to depict “the life of an artist” after he had fallen instantly and wildly in love with actress Harriet Smithson while seeing her in a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in London. But the piece is far from a crooning ballad.

Berlioz tells the story of "an artist, gifted with a vivid imagination, falling in love with a woman who embodies the ideal of beauty and fascination that he has long been seeking. . . . In a fit of despair, he poisons himself with opium, but the narcotic, instead of killing him, induces a horrible vision" in which he believes that, having killed his beloved, he is condemned to death and witnesses his own execution. After death, he "sees himself surrounded by a foul assembly of sorcerers and devils. . . . [His beloved] is now only a prostitute, fit to take part in such an orgy." Throughout the piece, Berlioz makes use of what he called the “idée fixe;” a melodic theme that appears in various forms from beginning to end. It represents the artist’s obsession with his beloved, and becomes twisted and grotesque by the final of the five movements. The term “idée fixe” is now used in psychology to refer to an irrational obsession that so dominates an individual’s thoughts as to determine his or her actions.

Tune in to hear the Des Moines Symphony’s performance of Berlioz’s unprecedented Symphonie Fantastique on Symphonies of Iowa. Also hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in c minor, Op. 67 from the Des Moines Symphony’s 2003-4 Beethoven One to Nine recording project, under Maestro Giunta. That’s this Monday, October 23rd at 7 p.m.