week50: Hector Berlioz -- Symphonie Fantastique; The Mountain Goats



Deutsche Grammophon Recording. Printed in Germany // Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) // Symphonie fantastique op.14 (1828) 

Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Symphonie fantastique op.14 (1828) 

  • Réveries - Passions (Dream - Passions)

  • Un bal (A Ball)

  • Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields) 

  • Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)

  • Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)

I feel a delicious pleasure in which the reasoning faculty has no share...emotion, increasing proportionately with the energy and loftiness of the composer’s inspiration, soon produces a strange commotion in my circulation...there are spasmodic muscular contractions, a trembling of all the limbs a total numbness of feet and hands...vertigo...a half swoon.” hector berlioz


As it turned out, Berlioz hated Rome and found it creatively stifling. Still, he garnered experiences of a lifetime. He hiked around the countryside with his guitar and gun, shooting game and accompanying brigands at their revels. Life was pleasant until bad news arrived: his finacée had ditched him for a piano maker. In a transport of rage Berlioz decided that what needed to be done was to murder the lot: Camille, her mother, her new boyfriend. He somehow decided that his best bet to get into her house was to disguise himself as a woman. To this end he secured a dress, wig, veiled lady’s hat, and two double-barreled pistols--the fourth bullet intended for himself. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

he of course did not go through with the plot, the long sail from rome to southern france cleared his head and just over a year later he was living in paris with a new wife harriet smithson. (the same harriet smithson he saw three years earlier in a touring production of Romeo and Juliet and was instantaneously infected by her grace, but his advances initially yielded nothing but her yielding; and his passions, unrequited, poured instead into his creative life. the result of this amour fou was one of the most prolific programmatic symphonies, second only to beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. the relatively descriptive program notes penned by the composer tells the indubitably autobiographical account of a chance encounter of the protagonist with his crush at a ‘brilliant festival’ the response of which was a swift rejection before things very quickly escalate (in the fourth and fifth movements) wherein the protagonist, in a fever-dream, has been convicted of killing said lady and is marched to the gallows for a festive beheading. the real fun is after the fact, as the doffed head’s last spasm of visions includes a sabbath of witches that features his beloved making merry amongst some very diabolic company). 

Harriet Smithson finally heard the Symphonie fantastique and really liked it, they got together, they actually got married--and discovered they could not stand living together. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

...lol--five years and a groundbreaking symphony later just to find out she doesn’t like o-face. quite appropriate actually, as such endings (if they ever lasts long enough to end) are the natural trajectory of such sudden pangs of passion that are born of idyllic images. antiquated though that might sound, all our swiping and Tindering, Bumbling, Hinging etc rely exactly on the kind of the idée fixe that brought about this symphony: 

Reveries; Passions. First he recalls that weariness of the soul, those indefinable passions, the objectless joys which he experienced before meeting his beloved--then the volcanic love with which she at once inspired him… “” berlioz’s program notes for the first movement. 

i’ve been covering the Toronto Summer Music Festival for the last week and have been coming home to this symphony, the combination of which results in my absent-mindedly scanning crowds a subject for perhaps my own idée fixe, to be found perhaps standing by the landing of a flight of stairs during intermission, highlighted in the mise-en-scene by some warmer variety of fluorescent light. 

A Ball. He discovers his beloved in the midst of the tumult of a brilliant festival.  “” berlioz’s program notes for the second movement. 

perhaps after forgetting of that passing stairwell moment, i might lookup again to find her onstage as a member of the performing octet, and think to myself ‘of course she’s a violinist. you can tell by their stance: all shoulders’. perhaps i start to look for this face all over, even amongst crowds that have no music in them, and should--against expectation--find it on a bloor street sidewalk, walking away from the festival in a rustic dress (thinking to myself ‘i must remember to call it rustic’. and yet again against expectation, this same face returns to the festival to sit in the middle distance, at a seat exactly opposite from mine (that i registered a single note of that performance is nothing short of miraculous). 

‘Theatre Pause’ by Josef Scharl (1930)

‘Theatre Pause’ by Josef Scharl (1930)

Scene in the Country. One summer evening in the country he hears two herdsmen who call to one another with their shepherd’s melodies. The pastoral duet in such surroundings, the gentle rustle of the trees softly swayed by the wind, some reasons for hope he has lately harbored--all conspire to fill his heart with unwonted tranquility.... But she appears, and a spasm contracts his heart. Black presentiments assail him...should she prove false. ...One of the herdsmen resumes his rustic tune, but the other answers not. The sun sets...distant thunder...solitude...silence.  “” berlioz’s program notes for the third movement. 

it’s a wonderfully effective gimmick, the little tête-à-tête berlioz constructs between the english horn and an off-stage oboe. the duet opens the third movement (at the 21:30 minute mark in the video above) and is the musical representation of the aforementioned dialogue between the shepherds of the composer’s program notes. the movement closes with the same melody on the english horn (35:45), but this time the off-stage oboe doesn’t respond. perhaps the cor anglais had a chance to introduce himself during yet another intermission, and for the sake of which he clumsily interrupts both a conversation and a meal (geez) bumbling on about how well she performed in that octet and ‘how difficult it is to find your concerts online’(geeeeeeez). if after such spectacular mishaps, the oboe remains silent, it would remain blameless. 

it would still have been a worthwhile symphony had it ended with the pastoral setting of shepherds, trees, rustling wind and so on; but by means of some especially potent narcotic, berlioz took a decisive turn towards the grotesque:    

March to the Scaffold. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march… At the end, the idée fixe, like a last thought of love, appears for a moment, to be broken by the fatal ax. “” berlioz’s program notes for the fourth movement.

this fourth movement proceeds without interruption into the fifth which depicts a supernatural procession that makes stravinsky’s Le Sacre (still 85 years away) sound like a family picnic. for the massive scale of the work the composer demanded “pairs of woodwind, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, and two ophicleides...He also requires four timpanists…’at least’ four harps, fifteen players on each violin part, and nine double basses” in order to depict the scenery of his Witches’ Sabbath: 

Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a crowd of ghouls, sorcerers and monsters of every description, united for his burial...The melody of his beloved is heard, but it has lost its character of nobleness and timidity; it is no more than an ignoble dance tune, trivial and grotesque. It is she who comes to the sabbath!...She mingles with the diabolical orgy. The funeral knell...the Dies Irae. Dance of the witches. The dance and Dies Irae combined. “” berlioz’s program notes for the fourth movement.  

all this because he saw a girl in a play. but then again a certain amount of es muss sein always resides in certain creative types, even the most intellectually emancipated ones. the type altogether lacks what czech writer milan kundera called the ‘ unbearable lightness of being’, a true belief in chance and the fleetingness of the moment---instead, a glance, a word is all that is needed for them to ring the bells of destiny. 

i think there shouldn’t be a word for coincidence, for it describes the tremendousness of living and our lack of scope of it.we should use the word the same way ‘yahweh’ is used: in order to avoid pronouncing something sacred.that’s at least one of the truly terrifying realities of online dating, that one just might swipe right into a new ancestry. and the obscenity of fretting when one such potentiality fails to last forever. (though the infinitely more intriguing lottery is the one played constantly by aimless unwitting wandering eyes.)

(elsewhere in music: Blood Bank — The Mountain Goats)

‘Sincerity is Forever in Season’ is the title of the trailer video announcing Bon Iver’s upcoming album (remain calm and find the nearest fire exit). a youtube viewer promptly commented “I don't know what's going on but my heart is ready.” for a Bon Iver video it lacks the usual equival (triquivocal, quinquivocal) juxtapositions of imagery and cyphered lyrics; perhaps after you’ve gone as high as becoming ‘Un-orphaned in your northern lights’ (Bon Iver, Bon Iver) and as low to such inscrutable depths as ‘dedicoding every daemon / taken in the tall grass’ (22, A Million), there’s nowhere left to go but in the direction of the sincere, the simple--the epitome of all sophistication. with that said, the video is a bit tacky, like an advertising campaign for some start-up michigan state college, such however are the unlimited usages of justin vernon’s creative license that, upon second glance, what appears tacky is as well an honest attempt at trying to understand the musical journey that Bon Iver has brought us along for.

i discovered vernon’s work relatively late, in the winter of 2010, and as with everyone else i was instantaneously transfixed by all the melancholic possibilities that are to be discovered in the grooves of such one-line-missives as ‘Sullen load is full, so slow on the split(Skinny Love). but it was actually with his Blood Banks that i became the forever disciple of the prince of melancholy that i still am today. it’s truly a marvelous thing how much Bon Iver has changed its sound and setting, and yet, remains. perhaps this upcoming album is the last? as it’s referred to as the ‘autumn’ of the four albums, ‘It might be autumn, it might be...’ says the oddly monotone voice-over accompanying the trailer. of course and obviously this is a nudge to the first song that opens the previous album, “It might be over soon.” (22, A Million). if it is indeed the end, then this has been a musical journey that will be remembered for a lifetime. despite the yucky teenagehood wherein i first heard Blood Bank, the song is still perfectly listenable 10 years later. that might owe the initial quality that remains unchanged in Bon Iver: sincerity. despite the auto-tune, the distortions by the Messina (an instrument named after one of the band members), those wack lyric videos for 22, A Million, there remains that same sincerity that, a decade ago, left us ‘chewing on a candy bar’...

Then the snow started falling

We were stuck out in your car

You were rubbing both of my hands

Chewing on a candy bar “” Blood Bank

back in december i discovered a rendition of that song by north carolina-based indie-folk group The Mountain Goats. whilestaying true to the song’s phrasing and placements of emphasis in the lyrics, they shifted the instrumentation from strings to wind, elongating the melodies via a duo of clarinet and saxophone with a piano accompaniment. it’s somehow a simpler take than the original, and a befitting tribute to an album that is often left out of the official Bon Iver discography, but is nevertheless at the glaciated heart of vernon’s four-seasons-project.

week47 of 2018: Symphonie Fantastique