Symphonie Fantastique: Opiate-induced Opus to Love’s Delirium

A cartoon of Hector Berlioz conducting a choir published in "Journal pour rire," June 27, 1850.(Photo: Gustave Doré)
A cartoon of Hector Berlioz conducting a choir published in "Journal pour rire," June 27, 1850.(Photo: Gustave Doré)

In 1830, French composer Hector Berlioz wrote one of the most over-the-top musical expressions of love ever penned by a Romantic composer, Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un Artiste…en cinq parties (Fantastic Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts), Op. 14.

The Symphonie Fantastique takes subjectivity in music to new heights, exploring the inner emotions of a sensitive artist. So infatuated is Berlioz with his “beloved” that when he is rejected he goes into an opium-induced delirium, a nightmare that provides the most dramatic parts of the narrative.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who has made a fine recording of this piece with the San Francisco Symphony, talks about it in general terms in this video:

But here, in greater depth, is the story behind the Symphonie fantastique and insight into how it was turned into a work of the artist’s imagination:

One of the real tricks in life seems to be the ability to tell the difference between real love and infatuation. However, to leave you with a more positive impression of the piece as a whole, Simon Rattle conducts a more harmonious section of this work when the protagonist is still happy in his idea of love:

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