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Transcript of Berlioz ONLINE
Estelle's melody is the opening of Symphony Fantastique. In other words, he is beginning this story with a remembrance of a past heartbreak. This might give you some insight into his expectations. It is also a great lesson to think about in this work. How often do we carry past losses and pain into new relationships?
Movement 4: March to the Scaffold
Movement 5: Dream of a Witches Sabbath
And lastly, life imitates art:
Not surprisingly, Berlioz’s obsession won out over good sense, and he begged Harriet to marry him, despite the fact that the two barely knew each other. She was very hesitant. This is the point where Berlioz’s life imitated his art in the most desperate of ways. He confronted Harriet with a lethal dose of opium, and drank it down, proclaiming that he would take the antidote only if she would marry him. Distraught, she agreed. Most likely, her decision was also based on her waning career and increasingly desperate financial situation. She needed a husband, and Berlioz was persistent. Ultimately, the two were married!
Several slides in this presentation have a listening component. Look for this symbol, and be sure you have your speakers or headphones turned up.
Watch this short introduction on Berlioz and his work.
Hector Berlioz was a French composer of the Romantic period. His best known work, Symphony Fantastique, was premiered 22 years after Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and is distinctive on a number of levels. First, it is deeply personal, maybe even more so than Beethoven. In fact, we go so far as to call Berlioz's work psychological, a concept that was even
for its time - it was totally
of its time.
adds both an
to the symphonic form, and an accompanying
. Berlioz wrote a fanciful, macabre story about his own emotions, and then composed the music to match it.
He is the ultimate Romantic artist: Completely engulfed in his own experiences and perspectives, and using those insights to create deeply personal music.
Berlioz was born to a middle class family in rural France. Neither of his parents were musicians, but as was the custom of the time, he did have informal lessons on the flute and guitar. Unlike so many other composers we have studied, Berlioz was not an accomplished or especially talented musician. His father, a doctor, wanted him to pursue medicine. Berlioz, who claimed to be disgusted by the sight of blood, fled to Paris to study music.
Like any good romantic artist, Berlioz lived for his work. The story of Symphony Fantastique is a fanciful work of fiction, but its premise is based on the reality of Berlioz’s own life, and even the more far-fetched elements eventually seemed to come true, at least symbolically....
Berlioz had a history of impulsive behavior where loved was concerned. When he was 12, he met and fell immediately in love with an 18 year old named Estelle. Not someone to hide his feelings, Berlioz proclaimed his love to her. She responded as any 18 year old would do if confronted by a love-sick child.
She laughed at him.
For his part, Berlioz wrote a lyrical and longing melody, and seemed to learn the lesson that love ends in soul-crushing ridicule.
There on stage, he saw her: Harriet Smithson, an English actress playing the role of Ophelia. He was immediately “stricken like a thunderbolt” with love.
Instead of trying to meet her, he entered into a deep and lasting six-year obsession. He wrote her letters, followed her around, and even rented an apartment close to hers so he could watch her coming and going. In modern terms, we would call him a stalker. For her part, she seemed oblivious to the attention and completely ignored him.
In addition to his obssesive thoughts, Berlioz's fixation came to his mind as a melody, which he called, the "idee fixe," or "fixed idea." This would become the basis for Symphony Fantastique, and over the course of the work, represents his wildly erratic feelings. It is a pulsing, soaring melody, accompanied by a rhythm in the low strings that certainly seems to represent a heartbeat, as it races in anticipation and excitment. The phrase builds in pitch and volume, at first sporadically, and then to a fevered peak, as his emotions burst forth.
Obsessive thoughts about Harriet eventually prompted Berlioz to write Symphony Fantastique. After the premier, a number of Harriet's friends began to suspect that she was the subject of the work. It took some prodding, but she ultimately agreed to meet with the composer. We can only imagine the strangeness of this awkward meeting! Berlioz only spoke French, and Harriet, only English, so in addition to the issue of his stalking, they would have struggled to communicate.
Berlioz's years of obsession are immortalzed in Symphony Fantastique. Here, in the second movement, we hear a Ball, and in it, the idee fixe emerges, only to be lost in the rhythms of a waltz. It is easy to imagine the scene: Berlioz hovers just out of view, catching only glimpses of Harriet as she enjoys the party.
The marriage was a terrible disaster, and the two were separated within just a few years. For his part, Berlioz began to have doubts even before the ceremony, and is suspected to have cheated on Harriet before they were married. This is certainly reflective of the central conflict and turning point in Symphony Fantastique, when in movement three, the “artist” is suddenly overwhelmed by doubt and decides that his beloved will betray him.
Movement 3: A Scene in the Country
This moment shows us a central theme of Symphony Fantastique. Sitting alone in the countryside, the “artist” is contemplating love, and listening to two shepherds calling out to each other across the mountainside. As time passes, a thunderstorm rolls in, and one of the shepherds falls silent. The first shepherd calls out to him, but in return, hears only thunder. This triggers Berlioz’s fears, and his emotions take a quick turn into desperate anger. This may seem completely crazy, but consider this: Have you ever made up something in your head that was completely silly, but still acted on that thought and done things that hurt you or those you care about? Of course you have! Everyone does this! It is a very human thing to do. Is Berlioz giving us a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of human emotions?
The instrument that creates the sound of thunder is a timpani drum.
The artist now dreams that fear and jealously have driven him to kill his beloved. He is marched to the scaffold for a public execution, as crowds of gawkers cheer over his demise. There are a lot of themes at play here. Not only has the artist destroyed himself and his beloved because of his emotions, but he is now publicly ridiculed as the world celebrates his symbolic death. Think of the psychological elements: self-hatred, nihilism, narcissism. There is a lot to chew on!
The most iconic moment of Symphony Fantastique happens in the execution, when right before the fall of the executioner’s blade, the artist briefly sees a vision of his beloved, now as a ghostly, ethereal figure, and BAM! The blade falls, we hear his little head bouncing off the platform, and a military band plays a triumphant fanfare, as the artist is wiped out.
The artists wakes up in Hell, where demons and beasts dance around him in a ghastly landscape. Amid the confusion, he is disoriented, but is quickly brought to a grim awareness as his beloved appears before him, and laughs in his face. Worse yet, now only a grotesque shadow of what she once was, she “takes part in the devilish orgy.” Think about what that means! She is having sex with demons and laughing in his face! Although this is outrageous, in a symbolic sense, you can probably relate to the idea that someone you once loved can look detestable to you after the relationship is over. Remember to think of this story as an allegory, and you’ll find a lot of ideas to contemplate.
The symphony finally comes to its mabcre ending as the “Dies Irae,” or the medieval chant for the dead, is played in the low brass, and the artist’s soul descends into hell.
Back in real life, Harriet and Hector did not fare much better than the artist and his beloved. After their separation, Berlioz moved in with a dancer named Marie Recio, and Harriet fell ill, eventually developing a paralysis that caused her muscles to atrophy and distort her body. Nonetheless, Berlioz always considered her to be his “muse,” and supported her until her death.
Ten years after Harriet died, Berlioz received word that her grave would have to be moved due to a relocation of the cemetary where she was buried. Strangely, he chose to attend the exhumation. As a last twist in this crazy and bizarre story, Berlioz described the sight of Harriet’s disintegrating body in harsh detail. (Read it on the next slide.) I can’t help but be amazed that his final sight of the "idee fixe" reflects the grotesque figure at the end of Symphony Fantastique.
Harriet is buried next to Berlioz, and Marie Recio rests next to her.
"The gravedigger bent down and with his two hands picked up the head, already parted from the body – the ungarlanded, withered, hairless head of ‘poor Orphelia’ – and placed it in a new coffin ready for it at the edge of the grave. Then, bending down again, with difficulty he gathered in his arms the headless trunk and limbs, a blackish mass which the shroud still clung to, like a damp sack with a lump of pitch in it. It came away with dull sound, and a smell."
His last vision of Harriet:
Movement 1: First Appearance of the Idee Fixe
Movement 2: A Ball
Art imitates life....life imitates art
Estelle Fornier in her later years
After moving to Paris, Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet