It’s psychedelic … 1830’s style!
According to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the symphony is the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium.
The symphony has five movements, instead of four as was conventional for symphonies of the time:
1. “Rêveries – Passions”
2. “Un bal” (A Ball)
3. “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the Fields)
4. “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold)
5. “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)
The inspiration behind the work has the same woman in and out of focus in each movement, a lover or idée fixe, and in the heart of Berlioz the inspiration was Irish stage actress Harriet Smithson whom he would later marry. The entire work is an extended hallucination while under the influence of opium experienced by a man in love but whose love is unrequited. The woman’s role varies from primary love interest to mere spectator in a crowd to the embodiment of evil at a witch’s sabbath … and everything in between. He apparently had hopes that his work might eventually be performed dramatically as an opera, with words added. Thus programme notes were added to the title of each movement to explain the action. This, however, was not to be the case and the work remains as a musical adventure in the minds of the listening audience.
The listener’s interpretation can vary widely, obviously. As Berlioz recommends: “If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece … 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.”
In my video I adhere to the lover or idée fixe concept to varying degrees in the first three movements, somewhat differently than Berlioz had in mind. Again, the concert listener could dispense with the woman altogether, but I respect the composer’s original vision enough to incorporate a character similar to his. In the third movement, the composer uses brief foreshadowing musical devices in the second half which prefigure events in the fourth movement. You will see very brief scenes which follow these short musical cues. In the fourth movement the woman becomes one of three historical figures caught up by the horrific events indicated by the title, and in the fifth, although it is indeed filled with witches and devils of every stripe, I take my cue from F.W Murnau’s “Faust” (which is a psychedelic trip by itself) and she and the hero become each other’s salvation when things couldn’t get much hotter.
Main source material … which I have meticulously edited
(about or co-starring Anaïs Nin)
Henry & June (1990), director Philip Kaufman
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), director Maya Deren
Bells of Atlantis (1952), director Ian Hugo
The Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1966), director Kenneth Anger
Grass of Parnassus (2011), director Grace Alwyn Ashworth
La Révolution Française, les Années terribles (1989), director Richard T. Heffron
Macbeth (1971), director Roman Polanski
Rosemary’s Baby (1968), director Roman Polanski
Häxan (1922), director Benjamin Christensen
Faust (1926), director F.W Murnau
Shadow’s Peak, Forlorn Island, animated landscapes