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Red-Hair, Passion, Fury, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe and Opium


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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
vgvalent@utmb.edu



In keeping with the form and structure of our December Issues of the Links, we turn our attention to Great Musical Composers and how they relate to the ISHLT (see Romanticism, Nationalism, and Exoticism, Hair, Lead, Deafness: The Heart of the Matter and The Magical, Mystical and Mythical Music of Mozart: The Mere Mortal).

Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803, just shy of 33 years after Beethoven's birth (December 17, 1770), in the Rhône-Alpes region of France situated between Vienne, Grenoble and Lyon in La Côte-Saint-André. His father sent him to Paris to study medicine with every intention of him returning home to the family medical practice. His passport to Paris described him as follows: five foot three or four in height, red hair, red eyebrows, deep-set gray eyes, high forehead and early beard growth. In his Mémoires Berlioz cited music and love, "the two wings of the soul", as the mainspring of his existence, and his distaste for medicine.

"When I entered that fearful human charnel-house, littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood, with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and fled home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear that words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me."

Much to his father's dismay, his passion was music. As opposed to Beethoven or Mozart, the music education of Hector Berlioz was essentially self-taught, insomuch was he sentenced by the proverbial "lousy teacher?" Autodidacts teach themselves what they think they need to know, but what they think they need to know is not necessarily what they need to know, but they can't teach themselves what they need to know, because they don't know that they need to know it. In actuality for Berlioz, ignorance was truly bliss. Having never learned to compose music the right way, he was capable and daring enough to take creative risks which a proper music education would have inhibited.

Not unlike Mozart, Berlioz fed on the emotional extremes and dramatic conflicts of opera. He was revolutionary and lived at the extreme edge of his emotions. As such, he pushed the boundaries and truly took the symphony outside Haydn's box. His individuality, originality and extremes of expression with little regard to the structured four movements of a symphony personalized the expressive content of his famous symphony, the Symphonie fantastique, which instead had five movements and is now considered the "most remarkable first symphony ever written".

It was September 11, 1827 when Berlioz was thunderstruck by Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who Berlioz insisted on calling Henriette, as she performed the role of Ophelia during a Parisian performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Berlioz writes:

"I come now to the supreme drama of my life. I shall not recount all its sad vicissitudes. I will only say this: an English company had come over to Paris to give a season of Shakespeare at the Odeon, with a repertory of plays then quite unknown in France. I was at the first night of Hamlet. In the role of Ophelia I saw Henriette Smithson. The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay, her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted. That is all I can say."

Perhaps it was this suffering that made Berlioz feel alive with an inspirational source, spewing out of his passion for Harriet Smithson. The Symphonie fantastique premiered in Paris on December 5th 1830, just six years after Beethoven's final symphony and only three years after his death. This was Berlioz's avant-garde autobiographical work that explored all emotions associated with love, from ecstasy to despair and his extravagant attempt to attract Harriet's attention. The audience was offered program notes with imaginative correlations with the music. In effect, the Symphonie fantastique was a program symphony, combining music with an extra-musical narrative. Its outline as follows:

First movement: "Rêveries - Passions"
Second movement: "Un bal" (A Ball)
Third movement: "Scène aux champs" (Scene in the Fields)
Fourth movement: "Marche au supplice" (March to the Scaffold)
Fifth movement: "Songe d'une nuit de sabbat" (Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath)

In 1830 France, at a time when Beethoven symphonies were just starting to be performed, it was a bold move to hand out such a program. A symphony was an abstract art form, not something that required a program to describe its movements. But Berlioz handed out this program and allowed the world to know what his Symphonie fantastique was all about: himself!

The first movement carried a sonata-form theme with the Idée Fixe - the fixed idea. This IdĂ©é Fixe represented his beloved image, Harriet Smithson, or rather his passion for her with rising and falling, sighing and drooping, wants and aches of unfulfilled passion with "moments of fury, of jealousy, its return to tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations…" the subject of the first movement, mood swings. The Idée Fixe found in all five movements bound the Symphonie fantastique together expressively and musically with thematic unity and continuity. The second movement had a dance, a waltz representing a party, as an exterior to the inner turmoil of the artist who cannot get the Idée Fixe out of his mind. The third movement was the scene in the country; Berlioz' middle movement of his five-movement scheme. This was where the drama of the first two movements turned hope into despair. He wondered if she ever really love him, "Mon Dieu, sacre bleu!" with a storm of doubt in his passionate heart.

In the fourth movement, the most famous of movements in this symphony and aptly named "March to the Scaffold", Berlioz overdosed on opium and was on a psychedelic trip witnessing his own execution. Historical influences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic-era of military marching were woven into this movement where he's being carted around Paris during the "Reign of Terror" on his way to the guillotine. It was here where Berlioz' genius emerged, creating something never heard before, the Klangfarbenmelodie. A technique that would not be used or described for another 100 years, the Klangfarbenmelodie occurs when different instruments play different notes of the theme which added color, tonality and spatial dimension to the melody.

In the fifth and final movement, "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath", Berlioz remained gripped in an opium-induced hallucination with more morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive and passionate poet being murdered, executed and now tormented in hell. A ruined church with a broken, weed-infested graveyard, stinking sulfurous vapor permeates from the ground with a pine coffin containing a headless body of the artist and the ugly idée fixe approaches, greeted by the ghouls evoked by a parody of the Dies irae by Thomas of Celano. The Dies irae is considered one of the holiest and most important plainchants in the entire Catholic liturgy

The clash of the red-headed, passionate Berlioz, who loved Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe and Opium as much as himself, resulted in the most original and modern symphony, the Symphonie fantastique. This symphony redefined the genre of symphony and it became a vanguard work for the romantic era, which ushered in the future music group of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

It was two years after the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique in 1832 that Harriet Smithson and Hector Berlioz were married. He continued calling her Henriette, which drove her crazy. Shortly after their marriage, Harriet aged past the ingénue roles on which she had built her career on the stage, leaving her career awash. She turned to the bottle, became angry and shrewish, to the point that the small, poetic, delicate and pathetic Berlioz became physically afraid of her; not a storybook ending. His marriage to Smithson did not last, his second wife died in 1862 and his only child, Louis from Harriet, died in 1867. The lonely Berlioz died in Paris in 1868. He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery with his two wives. His last words were reputed to be "Enfin, on va jouer ma musique"; "At last, they're going to play my music".

Recall that Voltaire's Enlightenment was characterized by the rise of the middle class individual with a true expression of individual freedom. The Classical-era composers were servants to their audience. Starting with Beethoven, and now Berlioz, they saw themselves as creative figures unto themselves beholden to nobody but themselves, epitomizing the Romantic era artistes who arose from the Enlightenment. Berlioz was a free spirit, responsible only to his muse, his talent and his genius. Thank God, he never learned to do things the "right" way, for his vision of music became incredibly influential. His critics referred to the Symphonie fantastique as a perfect example of his technical ignorance and his inability to do things correctly. His supporters described his symphony as an example of his unwillingness to adhere to any compositional imperative other than great storytelling. He created something much more compositionally adventurous and expressively uninhibited than he would have composed had he been worried about doing the right thing. He believed that the future of music was tied to making it a composite art form, blending literature and instrumental music with the whole to make it a thousand times greater than the sum of its parts. The whole of our ISHLT Society is a thousand times greater than its individual members. And maybe, just maybe, a few us may check in or check out the Hotel Berlioz or Rue Berlioz while in Nice.

Finally, "abandon all hope ye who enter here," and to honor the 75th anniversary of the most beloved movies of all times, The Wizard of Oz, 1939 "haunted section with witches brew, I'd turn back if I were you" heed this warning before proceeding to examples of, Symphonie fantastique - Dream of a Witches Sabbath, featured in The Shining, 1980 and Sleeping with the Enemy, 1990. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interst to disclose.




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