Programme Music

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

London Symphony Orchestra | Sir Colin Davis | LSO Live 2002

In this exercise we are asked to listen first to this symphony without reading the programme and think about the images or emotions it evokes.

First impressions

The first movement is one of light and shade – lighthearted dance like sections alongside more serious and ominous suggestions.  The double basses hold a long sustained note while the harmony above it changes between major and minor.  It’s mostly in a major key however and I think has a joyous character.

The second movement opens with tremolo strings and a harp, diminished chords building up suspense before resolving into a waltz in a major key.  I really like the flowing melodies and sense of movement and direction that all convey the impression of an energetic but elegant dance.

The third movement starts with a gentle oboe solo.  For the first few minutes we hear mostly solos or unison melodies, conveying the idea of a solitary scene.  The texture builds up over the course of the movement, but didn’t really put me in mind of any particular images or associations.  The ending is somewhat interesting – the oboe solo returns but now with rumblings of quiet timpani, giving the impression of receding into the distance.

 Movement four is a complete change of mood – opening with threatening timpani and a minor melody in the cellos and double basses.  It’s a fairly slow, deliberate march, and has a sense of occasion about it which reminds me of the military, ending in a flourish of percussion and brass.

The final movement also starts with the cellos and basses and retains an ominous mood. High pitched strings and pitch bend in the wind instruments sound particularly sinister. This is followed by a playful section which sounds out of place after this threatening beginning.  Then an insistent melody with repeated notes (reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ but in a minor key) played out in the lower strings and brass, with the addition of a gong which sounds particularly ghoulish, like a death knell.

Research

The first movement is about a young musician falling in love.  This makes sense to me – I think the music captured well the contrasting joys and heartaches of young passion.  The second movement describes a ball, which of course fits the elegant waltz that Berlioz wrote perfectly.  Part three is a ‘scene in the countryside’, a solitary pastoral scene which the opening definitely reflected.  The development of this movement describes the musician’s hopes and fears, and the timpani at the end is supposed to represent thunder (which in hindsight, I think it does well).  The story then becomes quite surreal and nightmarish, with a vision of murder and his own execution.

I re-listened to movement four after reading the programme.  The slow march perfectly matches the idea of a procession to an execution, resembling heavy footsteps.  The quiet rumblings in the timpani also build up the suspense, as do ascending passages in the strings, climbing both in pitch and dynamic.  A sudden silence followed by a brief melody in the clarinet (a final plea from the poor musician?) and then a dramatic extended drum roll announces his execution really effectively.

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