How awesome would it have been to be at the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique? I mean seriously!? It must’ve been shocking to the audience. It used a bigger orchestra, a wider emotional span, and more insane ending than anything that they would have heard before.
Personally, I think that Berlioz was the first orchestral Romantic, and probably the first true master of the orchestra. The only people that could really rival him as the first romantic were Schumann, and Weber, and anyone who actually knows anything would disagree with me, but hey this is my blog. I think he was the first because he was the first insanely emotional Romantic (I consent that Schumann was, without a doubt the first insane romantic). Why? Because he led directly to some the biggest names in Romanticism: Wagner, Liszt, and all those that followed in their paths. His music sounded like this to people
I think only “Wellington’s Victory” had used cannons before Berlioz, but still.
Symphonie Fantastique broke with so many conventions, just in it’s layout it scared people. Five movements (yeah, I know Beethoven did it in the 6th, but by far that was an exception, not the rule), the first movement wasn’t in a recognizable sonata form, the last movement really had no traditional form, and what was that little melody that kept coming back? It was also the first really example of program music (yeah, Beethoven 6, I get it), in the sense it told a story. Summary: “An artist” (Aka Berlioz) loves this chick (Aka Harriet Smithson), and I mean like obsesses over her. He eventually dreams (and by dream, I mean, he hallucinates) that he has killed her, and is sentenced to death. After he dies, his funeral is held at a witches sabbath, where the beloved comes back as a whore. Happy ending! That’s a bit more programmatic than “Awakening of Joyful feeling upon arrival in the Country”.
It has been noted by many people smarter than I that in general Berlioz’s harmonic language isn’t radical. I agree. But there is so much more to Berlioz than harmony. As I alluded to earlier, he was the first orchestration god. He was also really freakin’ good with melody (dude, that idee fixe is so damn catchy). What he does with those melodies can be really interesting. As I alluded to earlier, the final movement is insane. The charming idee fixe is turned into a vile dance tune, that does basically does the musical version of the troll face (yes, I went there). Berlioz is also a really good closer, so the very end just spins you round until the whole orchestra just stops on this awesome C major chord. So cool. It’s got everything: church bells in the distance, the dies irae, witch’s laughter.
If you want to hear more about the work check out this documentary by MTT. The whole Keeping Score series is awesome, so I strongly suggest that you check out all the episodes at some point. MTT is so smart.
One last point: You haven’t loved and lost until you imagine your beloved is a whore at a witches sabbath which is doubling as your funeral. Berlioz loved and lost, and for that, we thank you. (Yes, Daniel Tosh reference). Actually Berlioz ended up getting the girl. They married, it turned out she was a bit crazy. Basically that’s how it goes in the life of an artist.