Program Notes: Symphonie Fantastique

Program Notes

Program Notes: Symphonie Fantastique

Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony

World Premiere July 28, 2016; Salzburg, Austria (20 Minutes)

  • The son of an art historian and a poet, Thomas Adès is a native of London.
  • He studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and King’s College Cambridge.
  • Adès achieved success early, having a retrospective of his music when he was only in his 30s.
  • His operas The Tempest, Powder Her Face and The Exterminating Angel have all entered the repertoire.
  • Adès is active as a pianist and conductor in addition to his composing.

Thomas Adès has held a commanding place in new music since the 1990s. He has written operas, orchestral works and chamber music and maintains a busy schedule performing. Adès has fulfilled his early promise as a composer and pianist and has expanded his activities to include conducting. He served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008 and remains active as both a conductor and pianist on both sides of the Atlantic. He became the Boston Symphony’s first-ever Artistic Partner in 2016.

His Exterminating Angel Symphony draws on music from his third opera, The Exterminating Angel (2016), which he based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film. The plot concerns an upscale dinner party following an opera performance, in which the guests find themselves unable to leave. In 2020, Adès crafted a four-movement symphony drawing on material from the opera. The guests arrive for their post-performance dinner in “Entrances” in which jagged, ominous music foreshadows the bizarre, unsettling scenario that will follow. The second movement “March” is relentless and repetitive. Adès uses military drums and blaring brass to escalate tension. The third is an expressionist “March” followed by “Berceuse” (Cradle Song), the symphony’s most lyrical segment. It is based on love music associated with an engaged couple at the dinner party. Haunting and melancholic, its conclusion hints at the lovers’ imminent demise.

This section moves attacca (without pause) to “Waltzes,” which is both the lengthiest of the four movements and the most original. Adès draws on snippets from throughout the opera, fusing them into a new musical entity rather than recycling a self-contained orchestral excerpt. In an interview at the time of the premiere, Adès said that composing “Waltzes” was like “joining together the bits of a broken porcelain object.” He spoke of the waltzes of Johann Strauss II and the allure of his music. The “Waltzes” that conclude The Exterminating Angel Symphony are also descended from the scenario of Maurice Ravel’s La valse, which Ravel described as a “fatefully inescapable whirlpool.” In Adès’ music, the waltz sequence is risky and uncertain, effectively capturing the emotions of the opera’s characters.

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

World Premiere December 5, 1830; Paris, France (49 Minutes)

  • Hector Berlioz abandoned medical studies in favor of music.
  • When he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, he was able to study in Italy for a year.
  • He wrote several concert overtures inspired by literary works or legend.
  • Like Robert Schumann, Berlioz was more successful as a critic than as a composer.
  • Symphonie fantastique remains his best known and most popular work.

For Hector Berlioz, Ludwig van Beethoven epitomized the power and expressive potential of the symphony. He was thrilled by Beethoven’s expansion of the symphonic concept in the “Pastoral” and “Choral” symphonies. In France, a country where symphonic music took a subservient role to the all-important operatic stage, Berlioz set his unorthodox ambitions on carrying on the Beethovenian spirit. Berlioz’s passion for the literary works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare was to find lifelong expression in his symphonic music. The Symphonie fantastique, while not directly based on either Shakespeare or Goethe, has become irrevocably associated with a Shakespearean actress on tour in Berlioz’s France.

Obsessive love underlies Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Its principal theme, symbolizing the beloved, recurs in each movement. Berlioz called it idée fixe, or “fixed idea.” His expansion of this symphony to five movements is a direct outgrowth of Beethoven’s five-movement Pastorale Symphony, which also embraced extramusical content. Beethoven’s inspiration was the pastoral beauty of the countryside. Berlioz was influenced by Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and by his own unrequited love for the Irish actress.

Berlioz adopted the idea of the five-movement form to allow for greater exploration of the hero’s different emotional states. Berlioz transforms the idée fixe in the course of each movement, as opium induces the hero to hallucinate. Those hallucinations distort the idée fixe in the thrilling “March to the Scaffold.” In the finale, the “Witches’ Sabbath,” Berlioz introduces the medieval chant Dies irae. Rachmaninoff and other later composers would follow his example, using the same chant in other musical works. As a recurrent melodic idea, the idée fixe makes the symphony a cyclic composition. As an auditory reminder of the program, it turns the Symphonie fantastique into a dramatic work, even though it has no singers, actors or staging. With this, his first unquestioned masterpiece, Berlioz turned a sharp corner with the romantic symphony and never looked back.

The Exterminating Angel Symphony

Thomas Adès

Born March 1, 1971, in London

Britain’s Thomas Adès rocketed to fame in the early 1990s with a series of remarkable chamber works, simultaneously cultivating his reputation as a brilliant pianist. He was only 24 when his first opera, Powder Her Face, was commissioned and premiered by the Almeida Opera Festival. Before the millennium turned, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned his Asyla, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition – then the largest purse in classical music – in 2000. He remains the youngest composer to have received that award.

The Exterminating Angel (2016) was Adès’ third opera, following Powder Her Face (1995) and The Tempest (2003). It is an adaptation of the writer and director Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film. Halliwell’s Film Guide describes the plot thus:

High society dinner guests find themselves unable to leave the room, stay there for days and go totally to the bad before the strange spell is broken; when they go to church to give thanks, they find themselves unable to leave.

Both the film and Adès’ opera are unsettling surrealist fantasies. As the trapped characters’ stories unfold, mayhem escalates to nightmarish proportions.

Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, B-flat clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two contrabassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani (doubling roto-toms), percussion [Player I: glockenspiel, vibraphone, bass bell, snare drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, hi-hat, woodblock, tambourine, anvil and whip; Player II: antique cymbal, crotales, snare drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, hi-hat, triangle, whip tambourine, castanets, cowbell, mark tree and tam-tam; Player III: antique cymbal, triangle, whip, suspended cymbal, bass drum with mounted crash cymbals and tam-tam]; harp, piano and strings.


Symphonie fantastique

Hector Berlioz

Born December 11, 1803, in La-Côte-Saint-André, France | Died March 8, 1869, in Paris, France 

An Irish Femme Fatale

Harriet Smithson made her Parisian début in 1827 as Juliet and Ophelia, in English performances of Shakespeare’s plays. She created a sensation, and Berlioz, like all of Paris, flocked to the theatre to see her perform. Though he did not understand English well, Berlioz was sufficiently familiar with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet to project his literary ardor onto the female protagonist of each. He fell headlong in love with the comely Irish actress. Starting in 1828, he wrote to her for almost two years, but she did not respond to even those letters he had taken the trouble to frame in English.

The young composer’s romantic passion was undimmed. By February 1830, Berlioz was in such a keyed-up emotional state that he “could scarcely endure – or distinguish between – moral and physical pain,” as he wrote to his father. In this agitated, precarious frame of mind, Berlioz began composing the Symphonie fantastique. Two months later, it was finished, the creative efflorescence of his unrequited love.

Opium and Hallucination

As one might expect from such impassioned origins, the symphony is an intensely personal expression. Written on the eve of the 1830 July Revolution, the Symphonie fantastique is the quintessential expression of its age. Frankly autobiographical, it bears the subtitle “Episode in the Life of an Artist.” The basic premise is that a sensitive young artist, rejected by the woman he loves, has taken a potentially fatal dose of opium. Rather than dispatching him to his destiny, the opium catalyzes a series of hallucinatory dreams reflecting the artist’s unstable state. These visions culminate in the nightmare-induced belief that he has murdered his beloved and is being led to the scaffold for execution. Such lurid experiences process themselves in his drugged mind as music, which we hear.

We live in a society where such escapist drug use is unacceptable social behavior. But opium was not illegal in Berlioz’s day. It was widely prescribed as a painkiller and far more readily available than it is today. Indeed, the 1822 publication of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater created quite a stir. Berlioz was, one might say, on the cutting edge: unconventional enough to be deemed risqué but stopping shy of the offensive.

Berlioz the Iconoclast: Breaking with Tradition

Musically, this adventurous program required considerable adjustments to the traditional four movement symphonic form. To begin with, Berlioz expanded his symphony to five movements. A precedent had been set with Beethoven’s Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony. Next, anticipating Richard Wagner and to some extent Franz Liszt, he assigned a musical theme to the beloved, calling it an idée fixe. The term is borrowed from psychology. This theme, introduced in the first movement and varied or transformed in each of the subsequent movements, becomes an integrating component that serves both structural and narrative purposes.

Five Movements: A Tour Through Berlioz’s Symphony

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is in both C major and C minor, using that tonal ambiguity to heighten the sense of psychological imbalance. In the first movement, our hero first encounters his ideal woman, the beloved, and capitulates to her charms. He starts out in a state of sadness, somewhat meditative, but his newfound obsessive passion wreaks great changes on him and in the music.

In the next vision (the second movement), we are with our hero at a gala ball, where he glimpses the beloved through the crowd of dancing couples. The key changes to F major for the appearance of the beloved. Her impact on the artist is clear.

Berlioz was proud of the effect that the Adagio (“Scene in the Country”) always had on the public and himself. Two shepherds (English horn and offstage oboe) discuss life in a mournful duet. Thunder on the horizon disturbs the meditative atmosphere in an eloquent portent of impending doom.

The concluding two movements of the symphony are among the best-known excerpts in symphonic literature. We see the dreamer marching to his own execution, having been condemned to death for the murder of his beloved. In the diabolical finale, witches and other ghoulish specters assemble. Berlioz twists the idée fixe, distorting it to a macabre, spectral scherzo idea. Is this his revenge for unrequited love?

The last movement is famous for its incorporation of the medieval Dies Irae chant. Berlioz wrote for a pair of ophicleides, large contrabass keyed brass bugles used in military bands, to reinforce the brass section (modern performances generally use tubas). Berlioz thought the ophicleides were ugly, and his vulgarization of the chant melody was intentional. It is but one example of innovative orchestration in this remarkable orchestral showcase. The Symphonie fantastique was also the first major orchestral work in which harp, English horn and bells were used.

The postscript to the Harriet Smithson story is that Berlioz did marry her in 1833, when her career was in decline. The marriage failed. Berlioz biographer Hugh MacDonald has raised the tantalizing possibility that another woman, Camille Moke, may have also figured in the tempestuous events that resulted in the Symphonie fantastique. She and Berlioz were involved in a liaison in the early months of 1830 and were briefly engaged. She later married Ignaz Pleyel, heir to the piano manufacturing firm. The possibility of an addition to the cast of characters sends us to the concert hall with an entirely fresh perspective on Berlioz’s youthful masterpiece.

Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, two ophicleides (played by bass tubas in most modern performances), timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, bells, two harps and strings.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman © 2024