Dec 112017

Today is the birthday (1803) of Louis-Hector Berlioz, a French composer best known for Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz was a key transitional figure in the move to Romanticism and also made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. His influence was critical for the composers such as Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler. Perhaps perversely, I’d like to focus on his writing about his music, rather than the music itself. Berlioz was an exacting writer (as well as composer), and frequently provided extensive notes to audiences to accompany performances of his pieces. To some extent program music (music that is about a particular topic – biography, narrative, nature, etc.) requires this kind of treatment, and composers from Berlioz to Strauss provided extensive program notes (hence the name).  This practice contrasts with absolute music, which is simply music that has no reference points to external factors (e.g. So-and-so’s opus 96 in G major). Here I’ll talk about Berlioz’ program notes for Symphonie fantastique, and then talk about his writing in general, given that he was a prolific writer.

Symphonie fantastique tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless, unrequited love. Berlioz provided his own preface and program notes for each movement of the work. They exist in two principal versions – one from 1845 in the first score of the work and the second from 1855. From the revised preface and notes, it can be seen how Berlioz, later in his life, downplayed the programmatic aspect of the work.

In the first score from 1845, he writes as a preface:

The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.

In the 1855 preface, he changes his outlook because of the addition of Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, a work incorporating music and spoken text intended as a sequel to Symphonie fantastique, and has also softened the requirement of distributing program notes if Symphonie fantastique is performed alone (believing that the music can be appreciated on its own merits):

The following programme should be distributed to the audience every time the Symphonie fantastique is performed dramatically and thus followed by the monodrama of Lélio which concludes and completes the episode in the life of an artist. In this case the invisible orchestra is placed on the stage of a theatre behind the lowered curtain. If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece this arrangement is no longer necessary: one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.

Symphonie fantastique has five movements instead of four that were conventional for symphonies at the time. The work takes over 1 hour to perform, so I am reluctant to embed the entire piece here. You can go here for a decent rendition: 

What Berlioz does not mention in his notes is the fact that after attending a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on 11 September 1827, Berlioz fell in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson who had played the role of Ophelia. He sent her numerous love letters, all of which went unanswered. When she left Paris they had still not met. He then wrote Symphonie fantastique as a way to express his unrequited love. It premiered in Paris on 5th December 1830. Smithson was not present. She eventually heard the work in 1832 and realized his genius. The two finally met, and they were married on 3 October 1833. Their marriage became increasingly bitter, and eventually they separated after several years of unhappiness. His program notes come from 1845 and 1855 performances and publications. Here I give only his 1845 notes.

First movement: “Rêveries – Passions” (Reveries – Passions)

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des 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.

Second movement: “Un bal” (A Ball)

The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Third movement: “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the Fields)

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance in dialogue with their ranz des vaches [a herder’s melody, sung or played to call their animals]; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some hopes that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier coloring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ranz des vaches; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence.

Fourth movement: “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold)

Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Fifth movement: “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

Romantic enough for you?

While Berlioz is best known as a composer, he was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years by writing musical criticism, always bold, and, at times imperious and sarcastic. He wrote for many journals, including the Rénovateur, Journal des débats and Gazette musicale. As a small example of his immense output, he produced over 100 articles for the Gazette between 1833 and 1837.  In 1835 alone, due to one of his many times of financial difficulty, he wrote 4 articles for the Monde dramatique, 12 for the Gazette, 19 for the Débats and 37 for the Rénovateur. These are all in-depth articles and reviews with little duplication.

The books which Berlioz has become acclaimed for were compiled from his journal articles. Les soirées de l’orchestre (Evenings with the Orchestra) (1852), a scathing satire of provincial musical life in 19th century France, and the Treatise on Instrumentation, a pedagogic work, were both serialized originally in the Gazette musicale. Many parts of his Mémoires (1870), a personal portrait of the Romantic era, were originally published in the Journal des débats, as well as Le monde illustré. Evenings with the Orchestra is more overtly fictional than his other two major books, but its basis in reality is evident, making the stories it recounts all the funnier due to the ring of truth. W. H. Auden praises it, saying “To succeed in [writing these tales], as Berlioz most brilliantly does, requires a combination of qualities which is very rare, the many-faceted curiosity of the dramatist with the aggressively personal vision of the lyric poet.” The Treatise established his reputation as a master of orchestration. The work was closely studied by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss and served as the foundation for a subsequent textbook by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as a music student, attended the concerts Berlioz conducted in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Berlioz had a dish created in his honor, oeufs mollets Berlioz (soft boiled eggs Berlioz), which he apparently enjoyed. The dish can be made in a number of ways but the classic version calls for soft-boiled duck eggs, croustades of Duchesse potatoes, and a mushroom/truffle and Madeira sauce. I’m going to go with the original, but you can skimp if you want. Many cooks use poached rather than soft-boiled eggs, and use chicken eggs instead of duck eggs. Truffles might also be a bit pricey for the average home cook. Use strong mushrooms such as Portobello, crimini, or shiitake.

Oeufs Mollets Berlioz


8 duck eggs

For the mushroom sauce

350g mushrooms, chopped
1 shallot, peeled and minced
100ml beef stock
50ml Madeira
1 sprig fresh thyme

For duchesse potatoes

8 medium-sized floury potatoes, peeled and diced
75ml milk or cream
French mustard


Preheat the oven to 400˚F/200˚C.

For the duchesse potatoes: Cook the potatoes in a large pot of boiling water for at least 30 minutes until they are very soft. They should mash easily with a fork. Drain them thoroughly. While still hot, mash the potatoes, with a knob of butter, French mustard to taste, and a splash of cream.  Don’t make them too wet. Use a fork or potato masher to start the mashing, and finish with an electric beater or food processor. It’s important to remove all lumps. Shape into oval croquettes, and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake until the croquettes begin to turn golden. Keep warm.

For the mushroom sauce: Heat a knob of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the shallots until they are soft. Add the mushrooms and thyme sprig. Let them sauté until they are slightly browned, then pour in the Madeira. Reduce to a tablespoonful, then add the beef stock. Simmer until it is reduced by half. Blend to a puree in a blender or food processor and keep warm.

Assembly: Boil the duck eggs in their shells until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny. 6 minutes is normally about correct for soft boiled.  Place 2 potato croquettes on each plate, top with mushroom sauce. Slice open the duck eggs and place 2 on each plate.

Serves 4