If you ask the average orchestral player when BerliozSymphonie fantastique was composed, you often get an answer that’s about fifty years too late – 1880 or 1890. Such is its staggering modernity, it's hard for any of us to remember that much of it was actually conceived during Beethoven’s lifetime. Even in comparison with Mahler or Shostakovich, the Fantastique is perhaps the most prodigious first symphony in history. Berlioz constructs an entirely autobiographical programme, and simply sets it to music exactly as he wishes, stopping at nothing to express his meaning. Some of the forms are reasonably traditional (the first movement even has an exposition repeat), but much of the music is different from anything that had been heard before. It must have staggered the audience in 1830, for it still astonishes us today. It is, in fact, the first truly Romantic score in history.

Sir Roger Norrington © Manfred Esser
Sir Roger Norrington
© Manfred Esser

The two great influences on Berlioz in the 1820s were Beethoven and Shakespeare. He heard the first performances of Beethoven’s symphonies in Paris and was instantly converted from a gentle conservative like Étienne Méhul or Jean-François Le Sueur into the glorious trailblazer we know and love. Around the same time, he saw Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear in the theatre, and was equally liberated by the extraordinary freedom with which the playwright expresses the action. Being Berlioz he went somewhat to extremes: he fell hopelessly in love with Harriet Smithson, as Juliet, Ophelia and Cordelia, and before long he married her.

Hector Berlioz by André Gill © Public domain
Hector Berlioz by André Gill
© Public domain

It was Berlioz' wild passion for Harriet which fired the Fantastique. It is she who is the celebrated idée fixe which appears throughout the work. In the first movement he is awakened from adolescent dreams of love to a brilliant realisation that she is his ideal woman, strong yet graceful, and is terrified of losing her. In the second movement she haunts him at a ball. The highly atmospheric third movement takes place away from Paris, in the countryside. He is peacefully contemplating the future, when suddenly he wonders if she has betrayed him. Instant galvanic fury is only gradually calmed, and the future is bleak.

It is then that the work becomes truly fantastic. He dreams he has killed his beloved, and is being marched to the scaffold. This is new and terrifying music; but even wilder is the last movement. He dreams that he is at a Witches’ Sabbath. Fearful monsters celebrate a Black Mass and, at a peak of horror, his beloved appears as a prostitute, joining the dance with wild abandon. All ends in chaos. But whether chaotic or peaceful, the music always does exactly what the composer wants it to do. Berlioz had the detailed programme printed for all the early performances of his symphony. One can only hazard a guess as to what Harriet must have thought as she gradually understood her own roles in all this tremendous music. It made a huge impression in Paris, and remains Berlioz’ most popular work today.

First page of the autograph score of the <i>Symphonie fantastique</i> © Public domain
First page of the autograph score of the Symphonie fantastique
© Public domain

Because it is easy to confuse the Fantastique with late Romantic music, modern performances can sometimes stray from historical context. Berlioz was always an extremely classical composer, calmly writing out his perfect-looking scores with “all passion spent”. In the 1980s, I determined to re-examine the score in the light of historical evidence and our growing understanding of period instruments and style. With the London Classical Players I found a mass of information, and the results were striking. The score, together with his colleague Pierre Baillot’s Violin Method, revealed exactly what Berlioz wanted, including all the note lengths, the special effects and the precise metronome marks. So the opening of the Symphony is not exaggeratedly slow, but a simple song. The scene in the country is just as un-slow as all classical Adagios. The March to the Scaffold is not a mad dash, but an alarmingly steady march. And the last movement, carefully following his metronome marks, must be tightly controlled until the very end. These metronome marks are not advice from The Associated Board; they're a critical part of the score. Berlioz was a brilliant conductor, who knew what he wanted.

With the LCP we had the advantage (and excitement) of using period instruments, so that we were able to hear the sounds Berlioz expected. The little Érard harps were a joy, with two on each part (the minimum required by Berlioz). The old trumpets and trombones, alongside his brand new cornets and ophicleides, brought a kaleidoscopic colouration to the brass section. And all instruments could take advantage of playing with Pure Tone (none of that 20th-century "wobbling"). Nevertheless a great deal of all this research can be readily transposed to modern instruments. Once I had experienced his sound world, it was easier for me to get modern orchestras to play the Fantastique in an appropriate manner. The layout can be just the same, with the first and second violins opposite each other, the harps right at the front, the atmospheric four timpani spread across the back of the stage. And of course modern instruments can just as easily play with Pure Tone when asked. You might be interested to compare my 1989 LCP EMI recording with my modern-instrument 2002 version with the Stuttgart Radio on Hänssler, to see what I mean.

The satisfying thing is that all this historical evidence doesn’t make the Symphony sound old-fashioned. It gives us is a piece of Romantic art as fresh as paint. The score is consistently fascinating, but also incredibly dramatic. Since I work from memory, I often feel as if I am conducting a film as much as the amazing music. For me this is still one of the most beautiful and stirring pieces in the repertoire.