A Lovesick Opium Fiend

Most of French composer Hector Berlioz's early music, the Symphonie Fantastique included, was inspired by unrequited love. Ever the glassy-eyed optimist, at the tender age of twelve Berloiz fell hopelessly, creepily in love with a young woman of eighteen summers. This trend continued throughout the rest of his life, often providing excellent fodder for a "Behind The Classical Music" episode, should one ever be produced. And so it happened that this medical school drop out, this one-time vaudeville chorus singer, this Shakespearan fan, this inventor of the ill-marketed Goat Blender™ came to fall hopelessly in love with a one Harriet Smithson, famous English-Irish actress and gold digger extraordinaire.

Unable to make her acquaintance, Berlioz wrote a stunningly original symphony in the midst of the 1830 French revolution, finishing it while stray bullets imbedded themselves in the wall outside his window, taking up residence and eventually demanding better plumbing and Twix bars in the laundry room vending machine. One of the aforementioned "stunningly original" items was his use of orchestration. While previous composers, even the great Beethoven, wrote for the different sections of the orchestra (strings, brass, percussion, banjo, ocarina, woodwinds, wax-paper comb, ukulele, muppephone, Larry, and more strings, just to name a very few), they were still sections. "Keep 'em out of each other's hair" was the old rule and no one dared break it until a young pup name Hector came on the scene. By combining instruments from various sections in various combinations he was able to create various unusual and exotic orchestral sounds, variously, as the mood struck.

His other great invention was making the music follow a detailed and cohesive story line, an early concept album, beating Pink Floyd to the punch by about 150 years. Sure there had been "program" music before, such as Beethoven's Sixth symphony about a day in the country but so far nothing had been this explicit. The story is of a young musician, deep in despair over an unobtainable woman, attempting to overdose on opium and Captain Crunch (original flavor). Being as he is a musician and not your corner drug dealer, he doesn't take enough to push up the daisies and instead has a series of bad trips, each lovingly detailed as a movement in the symphony. Throughout these movements is another innovation, a recurring theme signifying his beloved that reveals itself periodically throughout the piece.

The first movement identifies the artist's weariness in his unrequited love but soon explodes in a flood of memories concerning his beloved. During the second movement he attends a gala ball full of petticoats, junctions, and tasty little crab cakes, eventually catching sight of the object of his affection. The third movement is a location shoot out in the country where the artist is surrounded by the gentle rustling of trees swayed by the wind, simple rural folk with no teeth, and the sudden shocking thought of his beloved loving someone else.

This leads to the fourth, and best known, movement where he dreams he has murdered his beloved in a fit of jealousy and the media are blaming it on a song by Ozzy Osbourne's great-great-great-great grandfather. The movement graphically depicts his "march to the scaffold" through a boisterous crowd hopped up on fermented cheese curd. After his ascent up the wooden steps, he places his head on the block, thinks again of his beloved, and has his head extracted from his body, falling into the bucket below with a couple of string plucks, followed by cheers from the crowd. This energetic ruckus is portrayed in brilliant orchestration with many unique sounds sure to fire up even the slackiest slacker.

Many believe that Berlioz should have ended his symphony with the fourth movement (and by many I mean two guys in southern Iowa who shall not remain nameless unless I receive the "corn") but Berlioz makes sure the listener gets his/her/its money's worth. For this final movement the musician finds himself at a Witches' Sabbath for his crime, surrounded by spooky nose goblins, monsters, ghosts, and high school drama students. Unearthly sounds, groans and shrieks punctuate the grotesquely joyous funeral dance. Enter the beloved who joins in this celebration of the musician's death, culminating in a chaotic orgy of melody and rhythm.

Harriet Smithson was tricked into attending the premier of this piece and by reading the program notes she deduced that the symphony was about her. The two met and were married five years later. A few years after that they divorced but Berloiz was able to keep his collection of concert T-shirts ("Paganini World Tour 1833").

Should you wish to hear this amazing piece all you need do is attend the final Fort Wayne Philharmonic Masterworks performance on Saturday. Should you wish to know all things Hector and hear a preview of Symphonie Fantastique, all you need do is click over to http://www.hberlioz.com. Should you be looking for a Goat Blender™ in mint condition with box, I suggest you try eBay.

Copyright 2002 Jason Hoffman

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