But we're thirteen years away from the 200th anniversary of the Symphonie Fantastique, and I am convinced that Berlioz is still ahead of our time. The best evidence of this is the utter disproportionality of the performances which the Symphonie Fantastique gets compared to every other note Berlioz ever wrote.
Don't get me wrong, the Symphonie Fantastique is every bit as amazing and revolutionary as people say it is. Audiences have never gotten tired of it, and I've never gotten tired of it either. But it's obscured so many other pieces by Berlioz, pieces that might still be greater, because as weird as it seems, it's still his most normal large-scale work. People are, finally, able to hear Romeo et Juliette or the Damnation of Faust or the Requiem regularly if they live in capital cities. A major opera house might put on Les Troyens once a decade now, and if audiences live in the right place, they might occasionally get to hear Benvenuto Cellini or Beatrice et Benedict. But the rest of us in the provinces still only hear the Symphonie Fantastque with any regularity at all. Berlioz is still both too expensive and too weird for a lot of music lovers. The majority of music lovers drop everything when a Wagner opera comes to town, they never tire of Mahler symphonies or Strauss symphonic poems, they still show up in droves for anything by Tchaikovsky, Liszt piano music makes them swoon, and none of that is possible without Berlioz's example. Berlioz IS 19th century music, and moreover, Berlioz IS the orchestra.
The modern orchestra in all its endless combinations and arrays of sound was created by Berlioz, who envisioned something far far grander. What you have below is the array of Berlioz's ideal orchestra, which, if I'm not mistaken comes out to 467 players.
120 Violins divided in two, three, or four parts;40 Violas divided optionally into first and seconds, at least ten of which would at times play the viola d’amore;45 Cellos, divided into first and seconds;18 Double-Basses with 3 strings tuned in fifths (G, D, A);4 Octo-Basses;15 Double-Basses with 4 strings tuned in fourths (E, A, D, G);6 Flutes;4 Flutes in E flat, incorrectly known as Flutes in F;2 Piccolos;2 Piccolos in D flat, incorrectly known as piccolos in E flat;6 Oboes;6 Cors Anglais;5 Saxophones;4 Tenoroons;12 Bassoons;4 Clarinets in E flat;8 Clarinets (in C, B flat or A);3 Bass Clarinets (in B flat);16 Horns (6 of them with valves);8 Trumpets;6 Cornets;4 Alto Trombones;6 Tenor Trombones;2 Bass Trombones;1 Ophicleid in C;2 Ophicleids in B flat;2 Tubas.30 Harps;30 Pianos;1 very deep Organ, with at least sixteen foot stops;8 Pairs of Timpani (10 players);6 Drums;3 Bass Drums;4 Pairs of Cymbals;6 Triangles;6 Sets of Bells;12 Pairs of Antique Cymbals (tuned to different pitches);2 Large and very deep Bells;2 Gongs;4 ‘Jingling Johnnies’;
Some of these instruments don't even exist anymore. More on that later. The point of showing you this list is that Berlioz thought so outside the box of what was considered acceptable musicmaking at the time that in order to describe Berlioz, you need to think in completely different terms from any of the German composers we've talked about thus far.
Berlioz was French, an not even the Germans loved Beethoven as much as they did - Germans were still reeling from Beethoven's late period which felt to many of them like Beethoven had turned into a deaf madman. But Berlioz heard the Eroica for the first time when he was twenty-five, and like seeing Shakespeare for the first time, his world was turned upside down. He realized that music could be so much more than he thought it was.
While Berlioz loved Don Giovanni, his other musical frames of reference were not Mozart or even Bach. It was Christoph Willibard Gluck and Carl Maria von Weber. Both German composers, yes, but not great symphonists, both fundamentally composers for the theater.
Gluck certainly influenced Mozart, Weber was a close younger relative of Mozart's wife, but neither of them were Mozartian. Let's listen to a bit of their more demonic music to understand this parallel world of opera which so inflamed certain romantics.
Let's start in backwards order with Weber, (C. Kleiber/Dresden) in a scene of a German forest in the presence of the devil.
Now, with the demonic jig of those hunting horns in fresh in your head, I want you to hear the demonic jig you've all heard that Berlioz makes out of the most proper music in the world, a C-Major fugue. (Munch/Boston)
Now let's listen to a bit of Gluck. In which Alceste contemplates the Greek underworld. (Callas/Pretre)
Now listen to the exact next passage in Berlioz. (different Munch/Boston)
Gluck and Weber provide a kind of direct line from pre-Haydn composers back into the mainstream of music. From Gluck and Weber, you get Handel much closer to Berlioz's musical DNA than you do in Haydn or Beethoven until their late periods when they were looking to create great choral music. Handel did not really effect them. So now we have the basic musical recipe for Berlioz's sense of drama.
The next step is to take in Berlioz the reader and writer. The most basic difference between the great classical symphonists and the great early romantic symphonists is that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were not educated as intellectuals. All three of them read and were aware of developments around them, Beethoven tried especially hard to correct this flaw in himself later in life, but Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Schumann were all extremely educated and derived much of their inspiration from ideas outside of music. There is literally one work by Berlioz, from very early in his career, that is not inspired by a literary source. Berlioz's greatest literary passions are obvious from the works he set. Shakespeare most of all, but Virgil, Byron, Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, texts from the Catholic liturgy.
The Symphonie Fantastique is fundamentally based on Confessions from an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. But Berlioz had too much imagination to follow any plot slavishly. Whereas programs were certainly implied in many moments of Beethoven, they're never expressed outright. We can only use our imaginations to figure out what Beethoven meant, if he meant anything at all. But Berlioz is much, much more voluble in telling us what he wants us to think of. Here's what he had to say about the first movement of the Symphonie Fantastique.
The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist's mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognizes a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.
So when the main theme is first introduced, we immediately hear things that could be manic sighs of ecstacy and outbursts of fury and jealousy. Complete with accelerated heartbeat in the other strings. (Jansons/Concertgebouw)
So, about those 'upward excursions of aimless joy...' What exactly is Berlioz doing when he's imagining his ideal beloved? (Dudamel/Bolivar/Radio France) ...............
You'll never hear that passage the same way again..., but that's pure speculation on my end. I have no idea... Remember, all these composers had a 19th century view of love and sex, which approaches it with a kind of reverence we don't have, and would not approach it with our kind of immature smirks. Perhaps Berlioz did mean it comically, he was certainly no stranger to humor either in his music or in his prose, but it can't be entirely insincere, and even today, this kind of self-revelation - if that's what this is... seems rather embarrassing and too vulnerable. But without these embarrassingly grand passions, without the love intermingled with lust and both intermingled with dread and fear, there's no great art. There's no Romeo and Juliet, there's no Faust and Marguerite, there's no Dido and Aeneas, there's no Beatrice and Benedict.
Let's just read this Emily Dickinson's Poem and tell me if this could be about anything else:
If you were coming in the Fall, I'd brush the Summer by With half a smile, and half a spurn, As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year, I'd wind the months in balls—And put them each in separate Drawers, For fear the numbers fuse—
If only Centuries, delayed, I'd count them on my Hand, Subtracting, till my fingers dropped Into Van Dieman's Land.
If certain, when this life was out—That your's and mine, should be— I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind, And take Eternity—
But now, uncertain of the length Of this, that is between, It goads me, like the Goblin Bee— That will not state—its sting.