One of the most important pieces of classical music in early Romanticism is Symphonie fantastique. The boundary-breaking music, through its five movements, tells the story of an artist’s self-destructive passion for an unattainable woman. The symphony describes his obsession and dreams, tantrums and moments of tenderness, and visions of suicide and murder, ecstasy and despair. It tells the real-life story of composer Hector Berlioz – a typical romantic hero himself.
Conductor, writer, critic, traveler, lover, cynic and composer of startling originality today would be definitely described as toxic. Suffering from bouts of uncontrollable mood swings, he was known for austere, grumpy character and C. Debussy had no problem calling him „a monster.“ Critics would second, describing Berlioz as “musically speaking, a lunatic. His music is simple and undisguised nonsense.” Like his tempestuous, asymmetrical, unpredictable creations, Berlioz was hypersensitive, self-indulgent and loud-mouthed, leaving others wondering if he was „that of a wholly sane man.”
But in XIX century Paris he played the stereotype of the Romantic “artiste” flawlessly. Monsieur Berlioz’s passions were famous around Paris and his life dramas, coupled with his fantasies of love and loss, provided Berlioz with the raw materials for life’s work. Being a prolific and creative writer, the composer noted his love stories in letters and extensive memoirs, making both verbal narration and musical phenomenon the core of his artistic expression. Today symphonies, operas and dramas of Berlioz are considered to be the fullest embodiment of the Romantic Spirit.
In 1828, Paris buzzed with two sensations: Beethoven, whose music established the Romantic ideal, and Shakespeare, whose plays were then brought to Paris for the first time. „I have now come to the grand drama of my life” – writes Berlioz in his memoir. According to the passport, he was then „about five foot three or five foot four in height,” with a mop of wavy red hair, gray eyes and a lean build. On the September evening, at the Paris Odéon theatre Berlioz went to see a play of Hamlet and encountered both of his biggest inspirations. “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt.“ – writes he afterward. – „The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners.” There on stage, he was also struck by tragic and pale Ophelia, who later turned into the “idée fixe” of his famous Symphie Fantastique.
When he left the theatre after seeing Hamlet, he was so shaken that determined never again to expose himself to the fire of Shakespeare‘s genius. But the next day Romeo and Juliet was announced and so he rushed off to secure a seat at any cost.
But he was not prepared to see Ophelia as Juliet in the classic love tale from Verona. „After the melancholy, the harrowing sufferings, the tearful love, the bitter irony, the black meditations, the heartrending sorrows, the madness, the tears, mourning, catastrophes, and malign fortune of Hamlet – the dark clouds and icy winds of Denmark – the change was too great to the hot sunshine and balmy nights of Italy – to the love, quick as thought, burning as lava, imperious, irresistible, illimitably pure and beautiful as the smile of an angel; the raging revenge, delirious embraces, and desperate struggles between love and death.“ – describes the strong impression composer. Berlioz is even said to have rushed out of the theatre screaming after seeing Juliette falling into the arms of Romeo. „At the end of the third act, scarcely able to breathe, stifled with a feeling as though an iron handheld my heart in its grip, I cried out, „Ah, I am lost!“ – writes Hector Berlioz dramatically. “From that moment my fate was sealed.”
The leading lady of the English theater troupe – charismatic Irish actress Henrietta Smithson was wary to meet the distraught composer after the play. “Please do not leave me alone with that man should he come back” – she warned. Henrietta Smithson, with her distinctly genuine interpretation of characters, revolutionized the women’s role in theatre and made way for subsequent actresses in tragedies. Even though at the time the reception of her performances were mixed, it became flawless in the memoir of Berlioz: „No actress in France ever touched, stirred, and excited the public as she did; no one ever received such rapturous eulogies from the French press as were published in her honor.“ – claims he. When she refused him, saying “Beware the gentleman whose eyes bode no good,” the trauma of the encounter left the composer bedridden, diagnosed with a nervous breakdown.
The emotionally wounding was too great, and it was a long while before Berlioz recovered from it. The morbid melancholy of the composer‘s soul ignited obsessive stalking. Berlioz bombarded Henrietta Smithson with unanswered letters that remind of suicide threats: „If you would not see me dead, in the name of pity – I dear not say of love – let me know when I can see you. I ask for mercy, pardon, at your hands, on my knees and in tears!! Unhappy being that I am! I await your reply as I would the sentence of my judge.“ Henrietta predictably avoided him like the plague.
In the memoir Berlioz describes this period with gloomy colors: „I became possessed by an intense overpowering sense of sadness. I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favorite studies became distasteful to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris. During that long period of suffering, I can only recall four occasions on which I slept, and then it was the heavy, death-like sleep produced by complete physical exhaustion.“
When considering views on the link of suffering and creativity, popular in the XIX century, it‘s assumed that pain became the birthplace of his most groundbreaking pieces. In February 1829 Berlioz writes: “I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.”
The first musical outcome of his love for Henrietta was a published collection of 9 Melodies, that he worked on with a close personal friend translator Thomas Gounet. „My eyes fell of Moore‘s Irish Melodies, lying open on my table at the song beginning „When he who adores thee.“ I seized my pen and then and there wrote the music to that heartrending farewell, which is published at the end of my collection of songs, Irande, under the title of Elegie.“ – writes Berlioz. – „This is the only occasion on which I have been able to vent any strong feeling in music while still under its influence. And I think that I have rarely reached such poignant truth of melodic expression, combined with such sinister harmony. It may possibly find some few admirers among those who have known what grief is.“
Later on, his devotion to the Shakespeare and obsession with Henrietta inspired other pieces, including Roméo et Juliette, Béatrice et Bénédict, Lelio, the Return to Life, Neuf mélodies irlandaises, La Mort d’Orphélie and, of course, Symphonie Fantastique.
Symphonie fantastique – composer‘s masterwork of 1830 – is known as the outpouring of Berlioz’s unrequited love in an extravagant attempt to attract Henrietta‘s attention. Moving the symphony into a genre of story-telling, the composer explains its program in detail. While listening one could visualize the personal story about a lovelorn artist who is madly in love with a woman who does not know he exists. Berlioz’s symphony evokes the theater, manipulating all aspects of musical rhetoric, giving tone color an aesthetic reason for existing and a significance of its own. In strongly colored instrumentation particular tone colors are invented for individual passages, featuring such demands as flutter tonguing in the flutes and col legno string writing.
The first movement describes a young man who sees and immediately falls in love with the woman of his dreams. The Symphonie fantastique is unified by a musical theme representing Henrietta, which he called his idée fixe. Throughout the Symphonie fantastique, the recurring theme is often adapted to suit the mood and key of the music, together with the events and evoked feelings of the main character: „he remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations“ – writes the composer in program notes.
The second movement invites us to a ball. Two harps lead the waltz as the music alternates between watching the dancers and spying on the Artist trying to gain the attention of his beloved. In the third movement, he finds himself one evening in the country and hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. Here everything changes, music darkens from the pastoral setting.
In the fourth movement, Berlioz begins to reveal the truly sinister side of his imagination. The Artist convinced that his love is unappreciated, poisons himself. The dose of opium plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution, marching to the scaffold as punishment for Henrietta’s murder, a final recollection of her theme cut off by the fall of the guillotine blade.
The fifth movement is a satanic dream. The Artist sees himself in the midst of a ghastly crowd of sorcerers and monsters assembled for his funeral. The air is filled with strange groans, bursts of laughter, shouts and echoes. Suddenly, the Artist’s beloved appears as a witch, her theme distorted into spiteful parody. There would be no happy ending to this unrequited love for the actress. Such music had never been heard before.
Symphonie fantastique was arranged for a performance on 5th December to celebrate Miss Smithson’s return to Paris. The premiered piece immediately caused an uproar and became a landmark in both the composer’s career and the evolution of the modern orchestra. Berlioz used the symphony in a way that has rarely ever been surpassed. With Symphonie fantastique, he stepped into his artistic maturity. The press reviews expressed both the shock and the pleasure. The new generation of artists loved the hallucinogenic cavalcade of wild emotions, the glittering ball, the sound of distant thunder in the countryside, the blood of public execution, tolling church bells and the cackling of dancing witches. Franz Liszt was among them – the Symphonie fantastique became the beginning of a long friendship between composers.
Everyone in the audience also knew about the real-life love story it was all describing. The attraction to Henrietta Smithson, apart from the music, was the fruitless one, since she did not show up at the premiere. Worse – she left Paris the following day. „No words can describe what I suffered, – Berlioz returns to his memoir. – „Even Shakespeare has never painted the horrible gnawing at the heart, the sense of utter desolation, the worthlessness of life, the torture of one‘s throbbing pulses, and the wild confusion of one‘s mind, the disgust of life, and the impossibility of suicide.“
The impossibility came closer to possibility when Berlioz tried to move on with engagement to pianist Marie “Camille” Moke. Their marital bliss was elusive: shortly after their engagement, Berlioz was obliged to take up a two-year residency in Italy after winning the Prix de Rome. Within three weeks of his arrival, he had learned that Marie had broken off their engagement and was to marry a richer suitor, Camille Pleyel, the heir to the Pleyel piano manufacturing company. This was enough to tip the composer over the edge and a betrayal led to actions stranger than anything he could put into his music. In his cross-dressing suicide mission across Europe Berlioz planned to kill them both, plus her mother, known to him as “l’hippopotame.” Revenge enacted, the composer would then turn the gun on himself. Such triple murder-suicide would be truly a tragedy worth of Shakespeare.
Berlioz actually went as far as to purchase an elaborate disguise – a dress, hat and wig – as well as a case of pistols. By the time he reached Nice on his journey, he thought better of the scheme, abandoned the idea of revenge, and successfully returned to Rome. “I am getting on.” – wrote the composer to the letter to his friend H. Ferrand. – “No more rage, no more revenge, no more trembling, gnashing of teeth, no more hell in fact!” He skips these events in his memoir.
By 1832, Berlioz was back in Paris and determined to win public opinion with a new version of Symphonie fantastique and a lesser-known sequel to the work, Lélio or the Return to Life – monodrama for the actor, soloists, chorus, piano and orchestra. “The subject of this musical drama is, as everybody knows, the history of my love for Miss Smithson, my anguish and my distressing dreams (the same inspiration is for Symphonie fantastique)” – writes he in memoir.
By the same time composer had come back from Italy, Henrietta Smithson has returned to Paris from the north of Europe. Housemaid of the hotel informed him of that: “But, monsieur, don’t you know? Miss Smithson is in Paris; she was even lodging in this very house a few days ago. She only left the apartment you are occupying.” Berlioz had described everything in his memoir: “I was struck dumb by this extraordinary, this fatal concurrence of events. I saw at once that henceforth it would be impossible for me to struggle against my fate.”
His acquaintance proposed to take a ticket to Miss Smithson. On the 9th of December, 1832, she sat in the hall of Conservatoire – at a prominent place above the orchestra with a clear view of Berlioz as an object of interest to the whole room. The program distributed to the audience before the concert described a story that suggested Berlioz’s passion for Smithson. “The titles of the symphony and other pieces in the program rather astonished her; nevertheless she was still far from guessing that she was herself the heroine of this strange and painful drama.” – writes Berlioz. Habeneck was conducting and the symphony began and created a tremendous effect. The passionate character of the work — its burning melodies, its cries of love, its ache of fury, and the violent vibrations of an orchestra, were bound to produce an impression as profound as it was unlooked for upon her nervous organization and poetical imagination. “In her heart of hearts, she said, “What if he loved me still!” – writes Berlioz. – “When in the monodrama, the actor who recited the part ofLelio, pronounced these words: “Ah, could I find her, this Juliet, this Ophelia whom my heart is ever seedling.” It seemed to her as if the room reeled. “Good God! Juliet, Ophelia — I can doubt no more!” thought Miss Smithson. “It is of me he speaks; he loves me still!” She heard no more but sat in a dream, and at the end went home like a sleepwalker, hardly aware of what was happening around her. Berlioz had obtained leave from Miss Smithson to be introduced to her. It was the first time they had actually met.
Meanwhile, the English theatre in Paris was compelled to close. The whole fortune of Henrietta Smithson was not sufficient to pay the debts. Berlioz’s family wondered to what extent Smithson’s receptiveness to Berlioz’s wooing was motivated by her financial situation. The fact that Henrietta Smithson was an Irish protestant, didn‘t make things easier. Smithson’s family very naturally opposed to the plans of the lovers to marry because of Berlioz’s unstable and difficult character.
“What I went through in the way of anxieties and agitations of all sorts during this period, maybe imagined but cannot be described.” – writes Berlioz himself. – “Her mother and sister formally opposed our union. My parents would not hear of it.” Despite her quiet reluctance and the opposition of both families and friends, they were married on 3rd October 1833, with F. Liszt as a witness. “On the day of our marriage, she had nothing in the world hut debts. My property consisted of three hundred francs, borrowed from my friend, and a fresh quarrel with my parents.” – writes Berlioz. – “But she was mine, and I defied the world.”
The following year they moved to Montmartre where a couple’s only child, son Louis was born on 14 August 1834. But the couple was far from blissfully happy. Henrietta Smithson continued to yearn for a career and resented Berlioz‘s celebrity over her own eclipse. Her health deteriorated, as she took to drinking heavily. Her suspicions of other women were well-founded as Berlioz took a mistress in 1841– an opera singer named Marie Recio. Two years later—in 1843—Harriet Smithson walked out, never to return. They divorced in 1844.
To take up their story, Berlioz created symphonie dramatique, a large-scale choral symphony Roméo et Juliette. As a literal reference to Shakespeare’s play that he saw back in 1827, it was an expression of Berlioz’s delusions of himself as Romeo and Smithson as his Juliet. It is through this portrayal Berlioz is able to remember the intensity of their early love, and mourn the death of their romantic relationship. “I hit upon the idea of a symphony, with choruses, vocal solos, and choral recitatives, on the sublime and ever-novel theme of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” – writes the composer. Homage to his two great mentors, Shakespeare and Beethoven was filled with mood as well as poetic and formal invention. In the piece, Berlioz emphasizes on instrumental power of a symphony as the orchestra plays the central role of enacting this beautiful, eventful and dramatic story.
“Throw flowers, throw flowers! Juliet is dead.” – was written in an obituary on 3rd March 1854. “Twenty-five years before, the whole of intelligent Paris would have attended her obsequies, in admiration and adoration of her. And now ungrateful and forgetful Paris is groveling in its own smoke.” – describes Berlioz the funeral of an internationally renowned actress. It is he “who, in spite of all his wrongs, might say like Hamlet: “Forty-thousand brothers would not have loved her as I loved her.” Soon afterward he received an affectionate letter from Liszt of the sort that he alone could write: “She inspired you,” he said; “you sang of her; her task was complete.”
“All this is simple madness.” – writes Berlioz. – “No I want to live still; music is a heavenly art, nothing surpasses it except true love. The one will, perhaps, make me as miserable as the other, but at least, I shall have lived – in suffering, it is true, in rage, in lamentation, in tears, but I shall have – nothing.”
Seven months after Mis Smithson‘s death he married his mistress of 10 years – Marie Recio. She was practical and tended him with exceptional vigilance and devotion, even though the female protagonists, who inflamed his passion for Shakespeare and inspired the tales of his youth and old age, remained Harriet Smithson.
After her death composer turned to Shakespeare: “Destruction! Fire and thunder! Blood and tears! My brain shrivels at the thought of such horrors. Shakespeare, Shakespeare! Where art thou? He alone, of all intelligent beings, could have understood me. He alone could have looked with pity on two poor artists, at once loving each other. Shakespeare, if he is still in existence, is our father in heaven – if there be heaven. Shakespeare alone is the god of an artist. Receive us into thy bosom, O father, and hide us there.“
The following death of his only son, Louis Berlioz, who was carried off by fever in the colonies, completed his downfall. Berlioz almost beside himself with grief: “Can you explain to me this power of emotion, this capacity for suffering which is killing me? Tears always, sympathetic tears; I see Ophelia shedding them, I hear the tragic voice, the glances from her sublime eyes consume me.”
He died alone, lost his parents, sister, both of his wives and the only child. Afterward, Berlioz left instructions that Henrietta’s body is exhumed and buried next to his. And there, together with Marie Recio, all three rest to this day. “Trust me, Henrietta Smithson and Hector Berlioz shall be reunited in the oblivion of the tomb, but that will not release other unhappy beings from suffering and death!” – finishes his memoir Berlioz.
His love belongs to history. The French romantic composer Hector Berlioz here is known as one of the boldest innovators of symphonic music; Symphonie fantastique leaves a musical memoir of Berlioz’s infatuation with Henrietta Smithson. “Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love.“ – concludes the composer. – „But why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.”