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The Role of Orchestration in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

The Role of Orchestration in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

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Published by: Kyle Vanderburg on Apr 17, 2012
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Kyle Vanderburg March 25, 2012 MUTH5863-Advanced Orchestration Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Discerning the Composer’s Intention Determining

the composer’s intention in writing a piece of music is often difficult due to a lack of program notes, composer’s sketches, a descriptive title, or an external narrative. Luckily, this is not a problem with Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which not only has an external narrative that is unusually careful in its documentation, it is required by the composer. In a note attached to the musical program, Berlioz wrote The composer’s intention has been to develop, insofar as they contain musical possibilities, various situations in the life of an artist. The outline of the instrumental drama, which lacks the help of words, needs to be explained in advance. The following program sould thus be considered as the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it motivates. The distribution of this program to the audience at concerts where this symphony is to be performed, is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.1 This specificity of instruction is a prevalent theme in Berlioz’s writing, especially in the Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz had a clear idea in mind for the symphony, how it was to be played, and how it was to be understood, and this is evident in the programmatic narrative and instrumentation. The external narrative of the Symphonie Fantastique concerns itself with love, or at least with infatuation. It is evident through study of Berlioz’s biography that he was interested in (or perhaps more accurately, obsessed with) actress Harriet Smithson. It is this obsession, and the descent into madness that follows, that make up the program of the symphony. Symphonie Fantastique is divided into five movements, each with programmatic titles and each displaying a further descent into insanity. The work starts with “Rêveries-Passions” which introduces us to an approximation of our composer and the object of his affection. The second movement, “Un Bal,”


Notes, p.21.



portrays a change in our main character’s approach from harmless attraction to stalking. “Scene aux Champs,” the third movement, marks the beginning of a descent into madness seen in the final two movements. During this time in the country, we see our protagonist try to sort out his thoughts with no progress. Distraught, our musician attempts to poison himself with opium (movement four, “Marche au supplice”), and while he fails at suicide he does take enough to cause terrible visions in which he kills the beloved, and is executed for it. The final movement depicts our musician in hell (“Songe d’une nuit du sabbat”), where he finds himself in a witch’s cauldron, invited to be part of dinner. The movement (and by extension, the symphony) ends ambiguously, with Berlioz offering no real closure or resolution to what becomes of our musician or the beloved one. This external narrative can be fully determined through the aforementioned program to be available at any performance. While this completely describes what Symphonie Fantastique is supposed to be about, it does little to explain how Berlioz creates a sonic world that portrays these events. While there are substantial decisions in orchestration that are indicative of the external narrative (which will be explained in some depth), Berlioz also uses structural tactics to accomplish this means. Primarily, the usage of the idée fixe for the beloved one theme immediately creates continuity between the five movements, and this unifying melody is capable of broadcasting a great deal of information through its orchestration and manipulation. Additionally, Berlioz is unafraid to draw upon the audience’s shared experiences and connotations of aural material. For example, the fifth movement, which represents the death of our protagonist, uses the Dies Irae of the Catholic Requiem Mass and a series of bell tolls2 to make this point stand out. These musical references would be immediately discernible and obvious to an audience of 1830, and Berlioz capitalizes on the audience’s understanding of this material. Significant timbral/textural techniques In order to realize the goal of telling this story in a coherent manner, Berlioz uses a variety of timbral and textural techniques. These techniques may be categorized into two general groups, the use of
See movement 5, m. 127 for the Dies Irae, and m 102 for the first iteration of bells.




unusual instruments (or instruments new to the orchestra) and the use of usual instruments in unusual ways. As a guitarist who learned harmony through textbooks rather than structured study, Berlioz did not have a formalized knowledge of instrumentation and therefore did not have many of the preconceived notions about what instruments could and could not (or traditionally did and did not) do. This allowed him a certain amount of freedom in orchestration and innovation, creating new timbres and sounds. Symphonie Fantastique is scored for some instruments which were unusual for the orchestra at the time. The string and wind sections are to be expected, with winds and pairs (save the bassoons, which number four), and a full string section that has seen little significant improvement in terms of instrumental development. However, new instruments appear in the brass and percussion sections. The cornet, a conically-bored cousin of the trumpet, was a fairly new instrument at the time of Symphonie Fantastique’s composition, and with its fully-formed valve system and mellower tone it allowed the brass section to achieve coequal status with the winds and strings. The development and integration of valved horns also worked to meet this goal, and Berlioz writes for fully-chromatic horns. Additionally, while the harp had seen orchestral and especially theatrical use, Berlioz’s inclusion of two harps in a symphonic work was unusual at the time. Also present in this symphony is an expanded percussion section, including an increase in timpani and timpanists, dedicated bass and snare drummers, cymbals, and bells. The timpani are no longer relegated to only playing tonic and dominant (though this is all we see in the first movement). Berlioz’s timpani are capable of being retuned, as can be seen between movements one and three (G2 and C3 to A-flat2, B-flat2, C3, and F3) and again between movements three and four, and four and five. Additionally, the percussion section is greatly expanded to include nontraditional instruments, especially the bells. The addition of cymbals, snare drum, and bass drum, while not traditional orchestral percussion at this point, are on their way to becoming standard, but at the time of writing these instruments still had militaristic and exotic connotations.



What is perhaps more significant than the use of unusual instruments is the way in which Berlioz instructed the standard instruments to be played. Continuing with the percussion, Berlioz is highly specific in how the music is to be played and the process in which it is realized. Perhaps the most obvious starting-place is the request for the timpanist (and other percussionists) to use sponge-headed drumsticks.3 The use of this altered drumstick produces an unusual sound that would not be available if not for Berlioz’s specificity. The instruction for sponge-headed drumsticks occurs frequently in the score, coupled with especially-interesting instructions for the bass drum at the beginning of movement five, which reads “placed upright and played like a kettledrum by the 3rd and 4th drummer with spongeheaded drum-sticks.” This allows for a similar sound with greater control achieved by using more than one drummer to play the instrument. Additional unusual and specific methods instruct the timpanists that “the first quaver of each half-bar [are] to be played with 2 drum-sticks; the other 5 quavers with the right hand drum-sticks.”4 Additionally, the use of four timpani (played by four timpanists) produce a sort of growling, rolled chord that creates a sense of foreshadowing in the third movement as our musician is slowly slipping into madness.5 In addition to these newly-found sounds, Berlioz treats these new sounds (and some of the more standard timbres) in very specific ways to illustrate the external narrative. For example, in movement two, the harps (which are new to the symphonic world) are used as a substitution for the percussion section. This can be seen in their role as punctuator in measures five, nine, and 12. Further, in measure 54 of the same movement the harps begin to carry the rhythm and take over as the primary rhythmic force. Further, at rehearsal 25, the harps operate as section equal to the winds and strings, which combine to form a waltz texture. The use of the harp in this movement is especially important and striking, as both percussion and brasses (save the mellower cornet) would be too abrasive in a movement meant to represent a ball.

This instruction first appears in movement one, measure 331 (rehearsal 15). Movement four, measure one. 5 Specifically, rehearsal 49.
3 4



The third movement, a country scene, is immediately recognizable as a pastoral scene thanks to the two “shepherds,” the English horn and the oboe. These two instruments pass a simple melody back and forth, and the effect of distance is created by having the oboist play offstage. The fourth movement uses several techniques to show our musician’s altered mindset and his marching to the scaffold. The movement begins with timpani and low strings, creating a march-like sonic world. The pairing of triumphant melodies (such as rehearsal 53) coupled with less triumphant portions (such as the klangfarbenmelodie at measure 82) indicates some sort of mental instability or formal schizophrenia. This triumphant movement contrasts with the second movement in its heavy use of brasses and percussion. The fifth movement, meant to represent further hallucinations, starts with divisi strings creating an otherworldly effect. The use of the E-flat clarinet as the bringer of the idée fixe6 creates a distorted and unusual variation on the material that is brought out by the second iteration of the idée fixe in E-flat clarinet and flute. The inclusion of the bells in the percussion section are representative of church bells, and are striking and extramusically informative in conjunction with the Dies Irae7. Additionally, the use of col legno battuta produces another ethereal sound.8 The final bars of the symphony do not offer any real closure or idea as to the fate of our musician. Significant historical performance concerns Symphonie Fantastique has less significant historical performance concerns than earlier works (such as Beethoven’s fifth symphony) due to its place in time. The instruments used by Berlioz in this work are virtually identical to the instrumentation of the modern symphony orchestra. While the mass-production of various instruments and the continued development of pedagogical materials have made the music more performable, there are still a few historical concerns in terms of instrumentation. As Symphonie Fantastique was composed during the period in which trumpets were being fitted with valves, care should

Movement five, measure 21. Movement five, measure 102 is where this material begins. 8 Movement five, rehearsal 83.
6 7



be taken in determining whether to use trumpets or cornets throughout the work. The use of valved horns is appropriate to the score, and while the work met with challenges in 1830, this should be of little concern today. Berlioz’s use of ophicleides is out of fashion with today’s orchestral instrumentation, and so this would likely be replaced by tubas, unless a historical performance was taking place. The string and harp writing would need little to no historical consideration, as there has been no significant development in how these instruments are played. While percussion research and instrumental design has been significant, the technique for playing timpani, cymbals, and the various drums required for Symphonie Fantastique have not been greatly updated. The winds are similar in this regard, with the main historical concerns being in the imperfect tone color of the instruments in certain areas, especially between the oboe and English horn at the beginning of movement three, and the E-flat clarinet in movement five.9 In order to keep the rustic charm achieved by the country scene in the third movement, the material should be played as if it were being played on an 1830’s instrument. Likewise, to achieve the full effect of the transformation of the idée fixe, the E-flat clarinet should be played in a manner that fully exploits the wrongness of what is happening within the narrative.10 As pedagogy has improved over the last two centuries, it is likely that the clarinet material here will be played more elegant than Berlioz intended. Size of string section. Determining the size of the string section is made easier through specifications made by Berlioz in the score to Symphonie Fantastique.11 Berlioz requests at least 15 each of first and second violins, at least 10 violas, at least 11 cellos, and at least nine basses. Unfortunately, Carse only mentions one orchestra’s roster after 1816, and that is the 1840 Berlin Opera orchestra12 which include 28 violins, eight violas, 10 cellos, and eight basses. Due to the similarities of these two specifications, it is likely that the requests
Movement five, measure 21. A similar issue occurs in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with the opening bassoon material. It was initially written to achieve a nasal, natural sound, and bassoonists have been trying to smooth it out ever since, contrary to how it’s intended to sound. 11 Norton edition score, page 49. 12 Adam Carse, The History of Orchestration (New York, Dover, 1964), 338.
9 10



made by Berlioz in the score are in line with what was accepted in the early nineteenth century. As the string family has not changed significantly in the past two centuries, and as Berlioz is especially careful at specifying what he wants, it is likely that the personnel requested by Berlioz will be enough to match the winds, brasses, percussion, and harps in sonic power.



Bibliography Berlioz, Hector. Fantastic Symphony. Edited by Edward T. Cone. New York: W.W.Norton, 1971. Carse, Adam. The History of Orchestration. New York: Dover, 1964.

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