Move Over Inception, It’s Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz

Christopher Nolan aint got nothin’ on Hector Berlioz. Symphonie Fantastique is semi-autobiographical symphony that features a young artist who has fallen in love with a woman who does not love him in return. In a fit of depression, he overdoses on opium, probably hoping to kill himself. The opium does not, in fact, kill him, but sends him on wild trip in which he thinks he has killed his lover and is sent to the scaffold for it. Oh, but it gets better. You see, a bad trip doesn’t end when you die. The poor, young artist then suffers through his own funeral, which has become a sick romp of a witches’ sabbath. For the purpose of brevity, we will only really discuss the movements that cover the main plot. Those are movements 1, 4, and 5. The others are lovely as well, and certainly give them a listen if you like what we cover on this post.

Ah, that first movement is glorious, isn’t it? Just lovely music. Sweet, lilting melodies accompanied by complex but effortless sounding harmonies- yes, this is what music is about. This movement is sort of an introduction. We get a glimpse inside the hapless mind of the young, tormented artist. In a dreamlike state, he muses at his own beautiful imaginings. And then, he sees her, a glorious creature who is the epitome of all he has been searching for. He knows instantly that she is the love of his life, and at 6:05, we hear the introduction of what Berlioz referred to as the idee fixe. Translated from French, this means “fixed idea”. The thought of this woman calls to mind a little melody, one which he believes to emulate her sweetness, her shyness, her beauty. While the idee fixe does refer to the music, as in a fixed idea of the way the woman sounds in music, it might also refer to the fact that she has become fixed in his mind, an obsession.

Then returns the orchestra in full force, and the artist’s thoughts seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Is it just passion that we hear? Are there hints of anger, of jealousy? These feelings culminate in a driving rhythm and ascending (going up) melody starting at 8:15. And there’s that idee fixe again, but it is not so sweet this time, not nearly as happy. Perhaps the thought of the lady is not quite so simple as it once was. But there is still love as the storm clouds give way once again to a dreamy sweetness (undercut by the bass, which seems intent on warning us of the unhappiness to come). And now we get into some good meat. Parts of the following section are reminiscent of Beethoven, full of passionate angsty goodness. And at 11:00 minutes, there is that darn bass again, a portent rumbling beneath the surface as a little melody bubbles up into a joyous frenzy. The movement closes with a slow, thoughtful, possibly mournful rendition of the first few seconds of the idee fixe at about 15:15.

Enough with the sweetness! Let’s fast forward to the fourth movement. At about 38:30, we can find the fourth movement. And already, things aren’t looking good for our poor hero. He has fallen into a deep sleep from the opium, and now he dreams of his own execution. Not only is he being executed, but he watches on as it happens, existing in both places simultaneously as is only possible in dreams. Unfortunately, neither of those are places anyone wants to be, but the poor, poor writer simply cannot wake up. We can hear a solemn, steady march rhythm with dark overtones as he makes his way to the scaffold, a guillotine awaiting him. The bassoons (low, squeaky instruments) might portray the whispers of the townsfolk. The joyful blatting of the trumpets might be the rejoicing of the townsfolk. They cheer as the murderer marches to his death. That this movement is filled with such happy, joyful music is purposeful irony, and putting yourself in the hero’s shoes, it is a stark and painful contrast to his own emotions. As the listeners, it is our job to be horrified as he certainly is to hear the crowds cheering and even jeering. It might be funny if it wasn’t so awful.

We hear a quick rumbling of the drums at around 40:45. I think this is meant to be the hero ascending the steps to the scaffold. Notice how the orchestra joyously interrupts the drums, their excitement bordering on sheer frenzy. At 41:30, we hear a quick descending line. Did you catch it? Perhaps this is the sound of the poor hero laying his head down on the rough wood of the guillotine. The sound of horror follows, terror, panic. And then, out of the cacophony comes a sweet, innocent melody: the idee fixe. As he waits for cold, sharp death, the thought of his love flits through his mind, but the blade cuts it short. As his head rolls from his body into the basket below, the crowd cheers, ending the movement.

Whew! This is getting heavy. Here’s a picture of a kitten:


Of course, everyone knows that if you die in a dream (and are extremely sedated), then you go to the frightening land of the subconscious. And as Joseph Gordon Levitt will tell you, “There’s nothing down there!”

Pictured Above: Nothing

Well, not according to Berlioz. If you die in Berlioz’s dream, you go somewhere far worse than the dream world. You are transported to a horror fantasy starring witches, demons, and devils. And they are all here to celebrate you, singing and dancing with joy at your funeral.

At 43:20, we begin the 5th movement. The strings play ominously, slowly. There is a stillness, but not the good kind. I am reminded of an empty cemetery. Creepiness lurks around the dark edges of the music. Then  at 45:00, we hear it. The clarinet picks up a dancing jig, a horribly familiar dancing jig. It is interrupted by a roar from the orchestra. Could it be the arrival of the witches, demons, et al? And there it is again, that comic, taunting melody in the clarinet. It is the idee fixe, but it is a perversion, hopping about like a drunken satyr. This return of the idee fixe marks the arrival of the most important guest; it is his love. She has come to dance at his grave as well, and she has warped the sound of his love for her into something grotesque, a cruel joke.

Now the celebration can begin! The party guests begin to celebrate as the death toll rings for the hero. Now begins the Dies Irae (a Gregorian chant for the dead), a somber and hateful Dies Irae, punctuated with the sound of twirling witches in the strings. Then the dance begins in earnest, a jaunty tune, filled with flippant ornamentation (fluttering sounds).  At 51:35, the Dies Irae returns, but it is low and quiet, almost below the audible, and in trounce the witches in a mad celebration, the dance in full swing, joining with the somber Dies Irae to create a joke of that as well. The death toll is not sacred for our hero; no, the witches have twisted that as well. His funeral is a romp for the monsters. The hero’s life was a joke, and his death was the punchline.

Dies Irae translation:

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

This Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Ralph (pronounced Rafe, like Ralph Fiennes) Vaughan Williams is an astounding achievement. Especially in Britain, this piece has become one of the most popular of this generation, often topping classical music charts (yes, there are classical music charts). Interestingly, The Lark Ascending is not a new piece. It’s been around since the 1920’s. These last ten years or so, it seems Vaughan Williams’ music is experiencing its own little Renaissance, and thank goodness for that because The Lark Ascending may very well be my favorite instrumental piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is a quintessential Contemporary composer. His music borrows from myriad avenues such as previous classical works, folk tunes, world music, literature, anything he can get his hands on. This smorgasbord approach to music composition is indicative of the Contemporary period of music. The Contemporary period is certainly marked by, and possibly caused by, the development of recording technology. With music of all shapes and sizes at their fingertips, composers were given a playground of sounds to explore. This particular piece covers pretty much every aspect that makes Contemporary music great.

So what makes this piece special? Is it beautiful? What makes it beautiful? What emotions are being portrayed? Does this piece paint a picture for you? What of?

Upon first listening to this music, you may think to yourself, this sounds kind of… Asian? To that I say, good catch. You’ve got a musical ear! That’s because a large portion of this piece is composed using a pentatonic scale. (There she goes using big music words again.) Pentatonic scales are made up of five notes. Have you ever noticed that if you plink out a tune on a piano using nothing but the black keys, it sounds like Asian music? (Just to be clear, when I say “Asian music”, I am only referring to those Asian countries that use pentatonic scales, like China and Japan. Countries like the Philippines and India have their own scales.) That is because there are five black keys for every seven white keys. The white keys make up our diatonic scale. The black keys make up the pentatonic scale. (For musician readers, I am, of course, referring to the C major scale.) Like the Debussy piece we covered, this different scale is very effectively used to make us forget about the tonic (home base).

As the violin, representing the lark, plays notes from the pentatonic scale, the orchestra accompanies, often using our own diatonic scale. This gives us the sense that the violin is flying above them. By never letting the violin touch home base, the lark never has to touch the ground. The orchestra, I think, begins as the wind, the breeze which the lark caches with ease. It effortlessly rides the calm current, relishing in the freedom of living above gravity, all the while singing joyfully.

The title The Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra refers to the love the skylark holds for his home. In this case, the home is England. After the otherworldly, freeing melody of the skylark’s song, the orchestra changes the song at around 6:00, offering up a simple English folk tune. Now we have a setting. The lark is no longer just soaring on the wind but exploring the gorgeous English countryside. You see the sprawling valleys, and the lark soars effortlessly above them. The orchestra and violin begin to mimic each other, at one with another. The exhilaration of opening motif is now abandoned for a calmer, sweeter love song, which the countryside and the bird sing back and forth. This ends with the lark itself singing the English folk tune and the orchestra accompanying, and they join together in a solemn and meditative harmony. The flight begins again, this time calm and composed. At 13:00, the lark’s song begins again, sweet and supple, without the orchestra accompaniment. The lark’s song fills the void of empty quiet and slowly fades to silence.

Ralph Vaughan Williams included a portion of a poem by George Meredith with this piece.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

So, did Vaughan Williams capture these words? Can we hear the sound of the lark’s delicate song, the chirrups and whistles? Do we see the valley, quietly enfolding the lark like a golden cup? I think so.

P.S.- While this version of the music is gorgeous in its own right, it’s not actually my favorite recording. David Nolan certainly plays a lovely melody, but I feel the tempo is a rushed and the dynamics too simple. I was, unfortunately, unable to find a Nigel Kennedy version of The Lark Ascending that was not poor quality or split into separate sections. For this, I apologize. If this piece moved you, I urge you to find Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Lark Ascending. The subtlety and beauty is beyond compare.