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Program Notes for Symphonie fantastique

Sept 25 - 27






Overture to Fidelio, Op. 72




Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra
       Adagio. Presto. Adagio
       Allegro Molto






Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14a *
       Reveries, Passions
       A Ball
       Scene in the Country
       March to the Scaffold
       Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath



Overture to Fidelio, Op. 72

Timing: approx. 6 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings


Premiere: December 1920, Eugene Ysaÿe conducting
Most Recent: 
September 2007, Paavo Järvi conducting

Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn and died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna. The Fidelio Overture, the last of the four he composed for the opera, was written in 1814 as part of the work’s final version, which began its run at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater on May 23; the Overture was not finished for the first performance, however, and was premiered two days later, under the composer’s direction.

The decade (1804–1814) that Beethoven devoted to his only opera, Fidelio, was an unprecedented amount of time to spend perfecting such a work during the early 19th century. Given the same time span, Rossini dispensed 31 (!) operas between 1810 and 1820, and Donizetti cranked out 35 (!!) specimens of the genre from 1827 to 1837. Even Mozart launched seven operas during his decade in Vienna. For Beethoven, however, Fidelio was more than just a mere theatrical diversion—it was his philosophy set to music. This story of the triumph of justice over tyranny and love over inhumanity was a document of his faith. To present such grandiose beliefs in a work that would not fully serve them was unthinkable, and so Beethoven hammered and rewrote and changed until he was satisfied. In his book The Interior Beethoven, Irving Kolodin noted:

As tended to be the life-long case with Beethoven, the overriding consideration remained: achievement of the objective. How long it might take or how much effort might be required was not merely incidental—such consideration was all but nonexistent.

The most visible remnants of Beethoven’s extensive revisions are the quartet of overtures he composed for Fidelio, the only instance in the history of music in which a composer generated so many curtain-raisers for a single opera. The first version of the opera, written between January 1804 and early autumn 1805, was initially titled Leonore after the heroine, who courageously rescues her husband from his wrongful incarceration. For this production, Beethoven wrote the Overture in C Major now known as the Leonore No. 1, using themes from the opera. The composer’s friend and early biographer Anton Schindler recorded that Beethoven rejected this first attempt after hearing it privately performed at Prince Lichnowsky’s palace before the premiere. (Another theory, supported by recent detailed examination of the paper on which the sketches for the piece were made, holds that this work was written in 1806–07 for a projected performance of the opera in Prague that never took place, thus making Leonore No. 1 the third of the Fidelio overtures.) He composed a second C major overture, Leonore No. 2, and this piece was used at the first performance, on November 20, 1805. (The management of Vienna’s Theatre an der Wien, site of the premiere, insisted on changing the opera’s name from Leonore to Fidelio to avoid confusion with Ferdinand Paër’s Leonore.) The opera foundered. Not only was the audience unsympathetic—it was largely populated by French officers of Napoleon’s army, which had invaded Vienna exactly one week earlier—but there were also problems in Fidelio’s dramatic structure. Beethoven was encouraged by his aristocratic supporters to rework the opera and present it again. This second version, for which the magnificent Leonore Overture No. 3 was written, was presented in Vienna on March 29, 1806, but met with only slightly more acclaim than its forerunner.

In 1814, some members of the Court Theater approached Beethoven, by then Europe’s most famous composer, about reviving Fidelio. The idealistic subject of the opera had never been far from his thoughts, and he agreed to the project. The libretto was revised yet again, and Beethoven rewrote all the numbers in the opera and changed their order to enhance the work’s dramatic impact. The new Fidelio Overture, the fourth he composed for his opera, was among the revisions. Beethoven realized that the earlier Overtures, especially the Leonore No. 3, simply overwhelmed what followed (“As a curtain raiser, it almost made the raising of the curtain superfluous,” judged Irving Kolodin), and, from a technical viewpoint, were in the wrong tonality to match the revised beginning of the opera. The compact Fidelio Overture, in E major, is now always heard to open the opera. The Leonore No. 3 often appears between the two scenes of Act II, a practice instituted in 1841 by the composer and conductor Otto Nicolai when he first produced Fidelio in the Habsburg imperial city. Both overtures are regular entries on concert programs.

Beethoven just missed completing the Fidelio Overture for the first performance of the 1814 revision. Accounts do not agree on which of his overtures was substituted for the premiere on May 23. According to Schindler, it was one of the earlier Leonore overtures; Treitschke recorded that the Prometheus Overture was played and Seyfried wrote that The Ruins of Athens was performed. The Fidelio Overture was first heard at the second performance of the run, on May 25. The Overture, whose themes do not derive from those of the opera, opens with an introduction comprising two contrasting strains of music: a rousing fanfare for the full orchestra and a darkly colored harmonic passage in slow tempo without a definable theme. The work’s compact sonata form begins with the fast tempo and the announcement by the solo horn of the main theme, based on the fanfare motive from the introduction. The fleet second theme is presented quietly by the strings following an energetic climax. The tiny central section, based on the fanfare motive, is less a true development than a transition to the recapitulation of the themes. A rousing coda, separated from the body of the Overture by a return of the slow harmonies of the introduction, brings this noble Overture to a stirring close.

—Richard E. Rodda


Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Timing: approx. 28 min.
Instrumentation: solo piano, 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals a2, triangle, bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, strings


Premiere: February 1968, Max Rudolf conducting; Geza Anda, pianist
Most Recent: October 2010, Carlos Kalmar conducting; Yuja Wang, pianist

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolaul Mare, Romania), on March 25, 1881 and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed the Second Piano Concerto between October 1930 and October 1931. Bartók played the first performance with conductor Hans Rosbaud in Frankfurt on January 23, 1933.

As the Second Piano Concerto demonstrates, Bartók’s folk art goes deeper than quoting tunes or inventing folklike melodies. He wrote:

The appropriate use of folksong material is not, of course, limited to the sporadic introduction or imitation of these old melodies, or to the arbitrary thematic use of them in works of foreign or international tendencies. It is rather a matter of absorbing the means of musical expression hidden in this treasury of folktunes, just as the most subtle possibilities of any language may be assimilated. It is necessary for the composer to command his musical language so completely that it becomes the natural expression of his own musical ideas.

The Second Piano Concerto is a good example of what Bartók meant by a musical language indebted to a folk language. The concerto has an affinity for Hungarian music. The exact nature of this folk affinity is elusive, however. Although there is no overt quotation in the concerto, it is just as related to the folk tradition as are those Bartók pieces that use real folk tunes or that employ actual folk rhythms.

Bartók steadfastly refused to be a composition teacher, because he felt unable to divorce himself from the works of students. He feared stifling their originality with his own stylistic predilections. He had to earn his living instead as a concert pianist and piano teacher. He composed the Second Concerto for his own use on European concert tours. After its premiere in Frankfurt, he was able to secure engagements performing it at the International Society for Contemporary Music annual festival in Amsterdam, and in London, Stockholm, Strassburg, Vienna, Winterthur and Zürich.

KEYNOTE: Like many other Bartók works from the 1920s and 1930s, the concerto is cast in an arch form. The scherzo section of the second movement is the keystone of the arch, the midpoint of the form. It is flanked on both sides by adagio sections that use the same material. The middle movement is in turn surrounded by two fast movements, which also share material. Bartók was fascinated by symmetry, and the use of arch form is but one example of his interest in balance. Symmetries abound in all his works, from tiny details to entire formal plans.

The piano plays almost continuously throughout the concerto’s first movement. It often functions in opposition to brilliant brass instruments and it is frequently combined with percussion. The movement is scored without strings, in order to create the special sonority appropriate to this driving, forceful, flashy music.

The strings make their appearance in the second movement. Their sound at the opening is atmospheric, even mysterious. They play quiet, sustained chords with mutes and no vibrato. Their music is mostly its own mirror image: whenever the high strings move some interval, the low strings move the same interval in the opposite direction. This “mirror writing,” as the device is called, is a further example of Bartók’s fondness for symmetry.

The finale starts with the only fresh material in the movement. All other themes, transitions and even the coda are new versions of music from the first movement. Except for one subdued interlude, the music moves relentlessly toward its tumultuous conclusion.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14a

Timing: approx. 49 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets (incl. E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas (or 2 ophicleide), 2 timpani, 2 bass drums, chimes, cymbals a2, snare drum, suspended cymbals, 4 harps, strings


Premiere:March 1897, Frank Van der Stucken conducting
Most Recent:March 2012, Pinchas Steinberg conducting

Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803 in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère near Grenoble, France; he died on March 8, 1869 in Paris. He composed the Symphonie fantastique in 1830. François-Antoine Habaneck conducted the first performance on December 5, 1830 in Paris.

Three important influences entered Berlioz’s life during his 24th year. The first was Goethe’s Faust, which the composer read and reread in a translation by Gérard de Nerval. According to biographer Jacques Barzun, Faust represented for the impressionable French romantic “genius in all its greatness.” The second influence was the symphonies of Beethoven, particularly the Eroica, heard for the first time in Paris in 1827. Berlioz was overwhelmed by the power and originality of the Bonn master’s orchestration. And, finally, there was Shakespeare, known in Letourneur’s translation and experienced in performances by an English troupe of actors that toured France in 1827. The young Frenchman understood Goethe, Beethoven and Shakespeare as kindred romantic spirits. No matter that these perceptions were one-sided and colored by what Berlioz was looking for—these three artists seemed to answer a great longing the composer felt for seriousness of purpose, depth of vision, bold originality and all-encompassing humanity. The inspiration he drew from their works coalesced two years later in one of the most original pieces ever composed—the Symphonie fantastique.

Actually, there was a fourth influence that turned out to be more significant for the composer than Goethe, Beethoven or Shakespeare. In the Shakespearean acting company was a young woman named Harriet Smithson who had a strikingly beautiful face, a moving voice and an enchanting stage manner. Her Ophelia held Parisian audiences spellbound. Berlioz was more than spellbound. He fell in love with Smithson immediately. “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equalled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted.”

Berlioz was an unknown student composer and Smithson was a famous actress. Did the composer have any hopes of ever winning her love? He felt the first step was to make himself at least known to her. He began to give concerts with the main purpose of making his name better established, hoping that she might hear of him. After a few months of touring the provinces, Smithson’s company returned to Paris and Berlioz ventured backstage after a performance, but she refused to see him. He wrote her love letters, which she took as fan mail and left unanswered. She returned to England without having even acknowledged the existence of her strange suitor. She still had only a vague idea of who he was.

Somehow Berlioz convinced himself that she had been impressed with his letters and was testing his sincerity by a few months of silence. His feelings for her began to wane, but then they returned with great intensity as he decided to make his love for her the subject of his new symphony.

I have just been plunged again into all the tortures of an endless and unquenchable passion, without cause, without purpose. She is still in London, and yet I seem to feel her around me; I hear my heart pounding, and its beats set me going like the piston strokes of a steam engine. Each muscle of my body trembles with pain. Useless! Frightening! Oh, unhappy woman! If she could for one moment conceive all the poetry, all the infinity of such a love, she would fly to my arms, even if she must die from my embrace. I was on the point of beginning my grand symphony Episode from the Life of an Artist, in which the development of my infernal passion is to be depicted; I have it all in my head, but I can write nothing.

Soon after writing this letter on February 6, 1830, Berlioz heard and believed a rumor that Smithson was having an affair with her manager. The composer was disgusted and he snapped out of his lovesick lethargy. Now he was able to compose the symphony. It was ready for its first performance the afternoon of December 5, 1830.

Smithson, in the meantime, had fallen on hard times, although the rumor of her affair had proven false and her good name had been restored. The acting company had gone bankrupt in London, and the actress was forced to accept walk-on parts at the Opéra-Comique. Since she did not have a singing voice and did not speak French, her roles were minor, and she was barely able to make a living. By coincidence Smithson gave a benefit performance the very night of the Symphonie fantastique’s afternoon premiere. Berlioz, who was moved by her plight and still felt tenderness for her (though he had still never even met the woman), stayed away from her performance; he did not want to fuel the rumors (quite true, of course) that she was the beloved woman mentioned in the published program of the Symphonie fantastique.

A few weeks after the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz left for a year and a half in Rome. There he revised the second and third movements of the piece, and he composed a sequel called The Return to Life. He returned to Paris in November 1832 and rented an apartment across from where Smithson used to live. 

I asked [the housekeeper] what had become of Miss Smithson and whether she had heard any news of her. “But sir…she’s in Paris. She was staying here only a few days ago. She left the day before yesterday and moved to the rue de Rivoli. She was in the apartment that you have now. She is director of an English company that’s opening next week.” I stood aghast at the extraordinary series of coincidences. It was fate. I saw it was no longer possible for me to struggle against it. For two years I had heard nothing of the fair Ophelia; I had had no idea where she was, whether in England, Scotland, or America; and here I was, arriving from Italy at exactly the moment when she reappeared after a tour of northern Europe. We had just missed meeting each other in the same house; I had taken the apartment that she had vacated the previous evening.

Berlioz was arranging for a concert that would include the revised Symphonie fantastique and its new sequel. He had a man named Scutter see to it that Smithson attended the concert. She was distressed at the time because Shakespeare was no longer popular in Paris and attendance at her company’s productions was scanty. She decided to spend an afternoon at a concert as a diversion from her financial troubles. By now she knew who Berlioz was, but she still had never met him and she had no idea of her intimate connection with the music she was about to hear. In the cab to the concert, she studied the concert program and she learned that Berlioz was “the originator of the proceedings.” The title of the symphony and the headings of the various movements somewhat astonished her; but it never so much as occurred to her that the heroine of this strange and doleful drama might be herself.

Every eye was on her as she arrived. Everyone in Parisian music circles knew the truth, but Harriet did not. She took the stares as directed at a famous actress. During the intermission (after the Symphonie fantastique but before The Return to Life), Scutter made “veiled allusions to the cause of this young composer’s well-known troubles of the heart. [She] began to suspect the truth.” The second half began, and the actor playing the part of Lélio (the hero who represents Berlioz in The Return to Life) delivered this line: “Oh, if I could only find her, the Juliet, the Ophelia for whom my heart cries out! If I could drink deep of the mingled joy and sadness that real love offers us, and one autumn evening on some wild heath with the north wind blowing over it, lie in her arms and sleep a last, long, sorrowful sleep!”
“God!” she thought. “Juliet-Ophelia! Am I dreaming? I can no longer doubt. It is of me he speaks. He loves me still.” From that moment…she felt the room reel about her; she heard no more but sat in a dream and at the end returned home like a sleepwalker, with no clear notion of what was happening.

This was Berlioz’ account of how Smithson finally came to understand that the irrational young man who had written her love letters two years earlier had actually made a monumental musical composition based on his hopeless love for her. Finally, the day after the concert, the inevitable happened: the two met. Thus ended a fairy tale and began life’s reality. Several months later they were married, but within a few years they were miserable. They separated after a decade of marriage. Berlioz married his mistress when Harriet died in 1854.

KEYNOTE: Berlioz actually made two different versions of the program for the Symphonie fantastique. The original one is printed here; the revised version was intended for use when The Return to Life is also performed. But that strange second work is rarely heard today.

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, indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work, should thus be considered as the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it motivates:

Reveries, Passions. The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. This is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first allegro. The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its movements of fury, of jealousy, its return to tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations—this is the subject of the first movement.

A Ball. The artist finds himself in the most varied situations—in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature. But everywhere—in town, in the country—the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Scene in the Country. Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches [a simple melody played or sung by herdsmen as they drove their cattle to or from the pasture] in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain—all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. But what if she were deceiving him! This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. Distant sounds of thunder—loneliness—silence.

March to the Scaffold. Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, who have come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. A roar of joy at her arrival. She takes part in the devilish orgy. Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae combined.

The drug-induced fantasy world of this program is only one of many utterly original aspects of the Symphonie fantastique. The degree of detail in the program and the composer’s insistence on its importance for the listener are also unprecedented. The most original aspect of the work, however, is its orchestration. The use of four bassoons, four types of clarinets (A, B-flat, C and E-flat), large bells and cornets as well as trumpets lends this score a unique sound. But it is mainly Berlioz’ uncanny sonic imagination that gives the piece its special quality, that makes it sound as fresh today as it must have in 1830. The finale in particular abounds in incredible sonorities—from the parody of the idée fixe tune in the C and then E-flat clarinets, to the bells that announce the ancient Gregorian chant Dies irae, to the subsequent woodwind distortion of that melody, to the weird sound of the wooden parts of bows hitting the strings just before the end. The work consistently demonstrates Berlioz’s incredible originality as an orchestrator.

The Symphonie fantastique is a work like no other. Its reason for being is odd. Its sound palette is unprecedented. Its forms are fresh. Its program is grotesque. And the result is a composition that creates its own world in sound. The influence of Goethe, Beethoven and Shakespeare, plus the irrational love for Harriet Smithson, all worked on the mind of the 27-year-old composer, and what resulted was completely new, amazingly fresh, wholly personal—and a masterpiece.

—Jonathan D. Kramer