What I Like About...
Thursday, February 24, 2005
  Symphonie fantastique IV. March au supplice
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 1-6

What we have here is a peacock more interested in his feathers than his mate. When Hector saw Hamlet and fell in love with Harriet, playing Ophelia, he, I suspect, was more in rapture with the theater than he was interested in learning about Harriet's needs as woman. Spurned by the woman with whom he would later share an unhappy marriage, Hector applied his talents to this cathartic breakthrough of Western symphonic literature. The orchestra has never been the same since.

In spite of the detailed events produced by Berlioz, I do not feel that the story of our young hero is important to the listener. In fact, the famous idée fixe is, particularly in this movement, not vital to the work's effectiveness. What is vital is the orchestration. Why would Berlioz feel it important to have so many people participating in this event? The ambition Berlioz had, the fire in his belly, was the idea to assemble a mass of people coordinated in refined musical events big and small. And his music, then, becomes a large-scale ritual.

Speaking of recordings, listen for the low B-flat in the trombones at track 3. I have always heard this note as a loud honk while the march gets moving. Listening to a fantastic recording by Boulez, I was impressed with the restraint shown by the trombones of the Cleveland Orchestra. The low B-flat is, in fact, marked mf while the rest of the band is marked f. Apparently Berlioz knew better than to encourage the trombones. 
f or ff are now dynamics reserved for marching band literature unfortunately. Too many of us trombonists, upon seeing a forte in an orchestral piece, have gotten a little over zealous and then ruined all the musicality of the piece for the rest of the group. Kudos to Cleveland for getting it right.
If you want a good recording of this piece, check out John Eliot Gardner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. It absolutely blows away every other recording.
Post a Comment

<< Home
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

Read Also...
Music Reference Links
Links to Composers and Collaborations
Miscellaneous Links
What I Said About...