On 7th September, Bachtrack At Home will see Gothenburg Symphony live stream a concert with pianist Hélène Grimaud, with a programme that includes Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. In this week’s At Home Guide, we look at the tortured, obsessional tendencies that went into the composer's work.

Berlioz in 1832 by Émile Signol
© Wikimedia Commons

Hector Berlioz was 12 when he had his first love affair. Well, perhaps “affair” would be too grand a term for the budding composer’s infatuation with his 18-year-old neighbour Estelle Fornier, but we know that his fascination was strong enough for his family to notice and tease him for it. It was both an embarrassing and a deeply affecting experience for the young boy, presaging a pattern of obsessional romantic experiences throughout his life, the most notorious of which surrounds the composition of arguably his most famous piece: the dramatic, voluptuous Symphonie Fantastique.

Berlioz’ letters from around the time of the piece’s composition reveal a soul prone to morbidity and receptive to melancholy, revelling in a sense of its own suffering – rather like the “Sick Soul” described by William James. However, with Berlioz there is also the sense that suffering and the experience of unpleasant but profound passions is necessary for the development of the artist. In January 1829 he writes: “Oh if only I did not suffer so much… So many musical ideas are seething within me.” In the same letter, he goes on: “Oh, must my entire destiny be engulfed by this overpowering passion? If on the other hand it turned out well, everything I’ve suffered would enhance my musical ideas. I would work non-stop… my powers would be tripled, a whole new world of music would spring fully armed from my brain or rather from my heart.” Then, in February: “I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.” 

Much of what was behind Berlioz’ exalted melancholy can be traced back to two years before those letters. In 1827 he had attended a performance of Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre. The role of Ophelia was being played by an Irish actress called Harriet Smithson, and her melodramatic acting style made her the toast of Paris. Berlioz was a student during this time, malnourished due to his impecunious situation and entranced by Romantic literature: a fertile host, then, for a full-on amorous obsession. He fell hard for Smithson and certainly wasn’t afraid to show it, bombarding her with letters and even renting rooms close to hers. His messages went unanswered, however, and Smithson left him pining in Paris.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia
© The Reboul-Berlioz Collection | Wikimedia Commons

When she returned two years later, Berlioz’ obsession hadn’t dimmed. He reignited his letter campaign, and arranged to have one of his overtures performed at an event in which she was also acting out sections of Romeo and Juliet. When he arrived at the venue, Harriet was being borne offstage as the dead Juliet, and the composer was so unable to contain his agitation that Smithson asked her fellow actors to make sure he was kept away from her, saying, “Beware the gentleman whose eyes bode no good.” The trauma of the encounter left the composer bedridden, diagnosed with a nervous breakdown. But though the experience was certainly emotionally wounding for Berlioz, when one considers his views on suffering and creativity, we can assume it was only fuel to the fire in the creation of his new work, a programmatic symphony relating the story of an artist who becomes obsessed with an unattainable woman. 

Berlioz worked on the piece furiously for a period of three months, completing it in time for the scheduled première in May 1830. Though she was invited, Smithson did not attend. With characteristic understatement, Berlioz had emblazoned the title page of Symphonie Fantastique with Gloucester’s words from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” Though the lurid titles and Gothic resonances of the programme fired the imagination of the concertgoers, the orchestra was not equipped to realise Berlioz’ ambitious score, and the performance fell flat. Beset by rumours that Smithson was having affairs with her fellow actors, Berlioz fell into the arms of a co-worker: the piano teacher at the girls’ school where he also taught guitar. Her name was Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke – also known as Camille – and after a sojourn in the countryside the two became engaged. His letters from this period reveal her rather diabolical – and rather telling – pet names for him: “She calls me only ‘her dear Lucifer, her dear Satan.’”

Camille in 1839, after she married
© Wikimedia Commons

But marital bliss was elusive: shortly after their engagement, Berlioz was obliged to take up a two-year residency in Rome after winning a contest for composition. He was loath to leave his new fiancée, but reneging on his prize also meant forfeiting the grant that he sorely needed. In Rome, he was downcast and isolated, and his letters to Camille went unanswered. When he finally received a response, it wasn’t from the Moke he had expected. Camille’s mother sent him a letter that told him her daughter had married a wealthy piano manufacturer in his absence. As one can imagine, this was enough to tip the composer over the edge. His first course of action was to purchase a dress, hat and wig. Then, he liberated a case of pistols from the Villa Medici where he was staying. His plan? Travel back to France and infiltrate the Moke residence while disguised as a maid. Once inside, it was curtains for the family – mother, daughter and her new husband, too. Revenge enacted, the composer would then turn the gun on himself. Luckily for Berlioz, his plan disintegrated when his disguise and weapons were lost during a changeover in Genoa.

Somewhat mellowed by the experience, the composer travelled back to Rome to put the finishing touches to a revised Symphonie Fantastique. And when he finally returned to Paris in 1832, it looked like his life might settle down for a while. That was until he learned who had vacated the room he was staying in on Rue Neuve-Saint-Marc before he arrived. Yes, Harriet Smithson was in town again. Berlioz hastily arranged a performance of the new Symphonie Fantastique for December that year, which was attended by luminaries such as Victor Hugo and Franz Liszt. Smithson was also there, and she and Berlioz were finally able to converse with one another. It was the first time they had actually met, but within days they were, of course, engaged. Their betrothal was an unhappy one. Neither spoke the other’s language and the pair argued frequently. Berlioz also attempted suicide during this period. They finally married in October 1833, but the marriage was ultimately doomed, the pair separating a decade later.

Symphonie Fantastique makes use of an “idée fixe”, a recurring theme which laces through the work, representing the object of the artist’s desires: the beloved. Like the piece, Berlioz too has this obsessional quality – a focus on interiority and the ocean of feeling within himself. This must be why Symphonie Fantastique, with its vivid melodrama and deep passions, still fascinates us today.

Click to watch Bergen Philharmonic's 2016 performance of Symphonie Fantastique

Click to watch the Netherlands Radio Orchestra perform Symphonie Fantastique in 2015