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Masterpiece week Berlioz

Masterpiece week Berlioz


Hector Berlioz was without doubt one of the most original and innovative musicians of his day. With his Symphonie fantastique he became a pioneer of programme music: music that evokes images to tell a story. He redefined the concept of orchestration, and he coined the term idée fixe to denote a musical idea used obsessively. Thanks in part to this recurring musical motif – which represents his beloved – Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique became one of the most dramatic and exciting symphonies of the 19th century.

The full name of the work was originally Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, symphonie fantastique en cinq parties. Taking his own unrequited love for a beautiful actress as his painful source of inspiration, Berlioz created an intensely personal orchestral work about a sensitive young artist who is spurned by his dream woman. He takes a fatal dose of opium to put an end to his heartbreak, but instead the drug takes him on a hallucinatory journey, which ultimately leads him to believe that he has murdered his beloved. With his masterly music making any words superfluous, Berlioz recounts the story down to the tiniest detail.


  • Berlioz was barely 27 when he wrote his ingenious Symphonie fantastique, but by then he was already a radical innovator.
  • The story is based on Berlioz's relationship with Irish actress Harriet Smithson.
  • Because he believed that listeners had to know the story to understand the music, Berlioz outlined it for the audience before the premiere.
  • To create a spooky, fatalistic effect a church bell rings during the Witches' Sabbath and strings are stuck with the stick of the bow (col legno) instead of having the bow hairs drawn across them.
  • Commenting on its first performance, Eugène Sauzay wrote: The audience was irritated by the length of the strange pieces and stood up with a lot of commotion. Some members of the orchestra shouted ‘Enough!’ and walked off with their instruments.