Find out more about the music of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with LSO Live's listening guide, including insights from LSO players.
The music of Beethoven, the drama of Shakespeare and unrequited love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson combined to help Berlioz create his Symphonie fantastique.
‘Fantastic piece – sorry, excuse the pun. We do it quite a lot in the orchestra, and every time we do it it’s a real buzz.’ Antoine Bedewi (LSO Co-Principal Timpani)
Berlioz wrote the five-movement symphony in Harriet Smithson’s honour, having fallen in love with her after seeing her in an 1827 performance of Hamlet. In each movement there would be a theme to represent her (known as the idée fixe) and to make sure she knew this was happening Berlioz wrote a programme containing the story almost bar by bar. The piece was premiered in 1830 and in 1833 Harriet and Berlioz were married.
‘It’s absolutely off the wall for its time.’ Patrick Harrild (LSO Principal Tuba)
The story within Symphonie fantastique is far more outrageous than the story behind it. Written in five movements and scored for large orchestra, Berlioz takes us to a grand party, far into the French countryside, to the guillotine and to a witch’s cavern. The idée fixe theme is in every movement and although it’s transformed to fit its surroundings it’s always instantly recognisable.
‘Harriet’s theme comes throughout the whole piece.’ Belinda McFarlane (LSO Second Violin)
The first movement is entitled ‘Daydreams – Passions’ and features the programme’s protagonist suffering a sickness of spirit having seen his ideal beloved object. The second movement, titled ‘A Ball’, sees all the glamour of a great party with a marvellous waltz at the centre of it. We journey into the countryside for movement three, ‘Scene in the Fields’, where the protagonist escapes the swirl of the waltz and the bustle of the city for the peace of the countryside, but he is still troubled with thoughts of Harriet.
Things take a dark turn in the fourth movement, ‘March to the Scaffold’, with the protagonist dreaming that he is witnessing his own execution. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when the protagonist’s head bounces down the steps of the scaffold.
‘At the end of ‘March to the Scaffold’ we hear the heads rolling and we hear the crowds cheering.’ Tim Hugh (Principal Cello)
Continuing in this surreal vein, movement five is entitled ‘Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath’. Berlioz explains in his programme notes that the protagonist sees himself at a hideous funeral surrounded by witches, ghouls and monsters, and there are an array of witchy sound effects in the orchestra.
‘The beginning of movement five starts with all the strings making a very spooky sound.’ Belinda McFarlane (LSO Second Violin)
The main meat of the movement is the Dies Irae, a theme dating from the Middle Ages which has been used by composers for centuries. This theme is followed by a fugal dance in the strings which combines with the Dies Irae at the end of the movement to bring the Symphonie Fantastique to a blistering conclusion.
‘I love playing Symphonie fantastique, it’s one of those pieces where I’m in my element, especially in the last movement where the E-flat clarinet gets to play this really grotesque solo.’ Chi-Yu Mo (LSO Principal E-flat Clarinet)
To hear more insights from LSO players on Symphonie fantastique, please click here
The London Symphony Orchestra is taking part in a brand new partnership to launch the inaugural phase of Classical Live, the first and only initiative offering up-to-date recordings on Google Play Music.
Through the global reach of Google Play Music, Classical Live aims to broaden the audience for classical recordings by expanding the base of fans who will discover these new recordings through both digital downloads and streaming subscription in all 58 countries where the service is available, at play.google.com.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 was inspired by the composer’s tour of Italy in the autumn of 1830. Having visited Venice, Florence and Rome, Mendelssohn began work on a symphony which would celebrate the sights and sounds of the south. The result was a work which is full of the colour and atmosphere of Italy, described by the composer himself as ‘the jolliest piece I’ve written so far.’
Sir John Eliot Gardiner says of the piece, 'Mendelssohn threw everything, in terms of virtuosity and risk-taking, at the Italian Symphony and it’s remained incredibly popular... Following in his footsteps the violins and the violas stand for this performance. It gives a different type of dynamism and energy... it means that the fiddles are freer in the way that they attack the extremely virtuosic lines and it gives a tremendous sense of occasion to the music making.'
Reviews of the concert performance praised Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO’s exhilarating interpretation of the symphony.
***** ‘The finale a whirling, impossibly fast ride from explosive beginning to punchy finish. The LSO players rose to it all.’ The Guardian
***** ‘The orchestral textures were clarified to startling effect.’ The Times
**** ‘The performance of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No 4 was like a joyous high-speed rail journey around the country, taking in sun-soaked landscapes, an upbeat pilgrims’ march, and a scalding saltarello that truly felt like a dance to the death.’ Financial Times
**** ‘This reading of the Italian exploited the exhilarating athleticism of the first movement and the frenzied Neapolitan dance rhythms of the saltarello finale.’ Evening Standard
Also available on Classical Live, Google Play is Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 5, written in 1830 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsberg confession – a seminal event in the Protestant Reformation. Allusions to the symphony’s title, ‘Reformation’ and inspiration can be heard throughout the music itself; the Dresden Amen is cited by the strings in the first movement whilst the finale is based on Martin Luther’s well-known chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’).
Coupled with this are two of Mendelssohn’s overtures, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Ruy Blas, both of which were inspired by literary works. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, based on two short poems by Goethe, depicts the journey of sailors at sea with a still adagio opening ultimately giving way to a triumphant homecoming. Completing the album, the overture Ruy Blas was commissioned by the Leipzig Theatre as an overture to Victor Hugo’s tragic drama of the same name.
The concerts of Mendelssohn Symphony No 5 were received with great acclaim.
***** ‘The overture to Ruy Blas was ebullient but nuanced… The LSO players rose to it all – this was no imitation period band, but a modern orchestra responding brilliantly and unapologetically to a famously demanding conductor.’ The Guardian
***** ‘Felix Mendelssohn, the cosseted wunderkind celebrated for his elegance and limpidity, was remade as a Gothic hero in John Eliot Gardiner’s exhilarating performance of the Ruy Blas overture… The orchestral textures were clarified to startling effect.’ The Times
**** ‘Gardiner’s Mendelssohn with the LSO packs a surprisingly hefty punch.’ Evening Standard
‘Gardiner reserved vibrato for the faster section [of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage], which erupted with bubbling, vivacious energy...The fearsome power which Gardiner and the LSO wrought in the [Fifth Symphony’s] first movement’s development was carried over into the scherzo, instilling the latter with considerable vigour and weight… There was no mistaking the fervour and grandeur of the fugal development of the Lutheran chorale "Ein feste Burg" in the finale, concluding the performance with impressive gravitas.’ Classical Source
LSO Live is one of the lead partners in the development of the exciting new format Pure Audio Blu-ray, which allows millions of homes to experience HD content, both audio and visual, on any Blu-ray player – from PlayStations to high-end equipment.
On the new Pure Audio format, the LSO’s performance can be heard in high resolution sound, in surround and stereo. Certain releases also include HD video footage of the concerts, allowing the London Symphony Orchestra’s performances to be seen and heard to full effect from the comfort of your own home.
Pure Audio Blu-ray isn’t just for high-end audio enthusiasts however, and works with or without a screen. Tracks can be navigated using the standard controls on your Blu-ray remote control – just as you would on a CD. And for those who prefer navigating on a screen, the Pure Audio Blu-ray also provides menus just as on a video Blu-ray. These pop-up screens give information about the tracks, track lengths, audio streams and video content.
Pure Audio Blu-ray maintains LSO Live’s mission of using the latest high-density recording technology for widespread distribution. Our competitive prices are set to challenge previous Pure Audio releases, encouraging the broadest reach possible and ensuring that Pure Audio Blu-ray is available to all lovers of music!
Don’t worry – if you don’t have a Blu-ray player there is a Super Audio CD (SACD) included in each release. SACDs look like normal CDs but have a much higher audio quality due to being recorded through a new process called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). You’ll need an SACD player to hear the higher quality audio, but it’s not a problem if you don’t have one; LSO Live issue hybrid-SACDs which will play on normal CD players (though you will only hear the CD mix and not the high density SACD mixes).
Available to pre-order now, LSO Live’s latest Pure Audio release is the second instalment of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn symphonies cycle.
The ‘Reformation’ Symphony (as Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony is commonly known) was written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsberg confession – a ground-breaking event in the Protestant Reformation. Completing the album are two of Mendelssohn’s overtures, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, both inspired by literary works.
Recorded live in March and October 2014, the concert performances were critically acclaimed. The Guardian and The Times gave 5-star reviews and the Evening Standard observed that‘Gardiner’s Mendelssohn with the LSO packs a surprisingly hefty punch.’
The recently released Nielsen Symphonies Nos 1–6 box set, conducted by the late Sir Colin Davis, includes a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc which contains downloadable audio files of the pieces.The symphonies were originally released between 2011 and 2013, receiving numerous accolades including BBC Radio 3Disc of the Week (Symphonies Nos 1 & 6), a 2014 ICMA Nomination in the Symphonic Music category (Symphonies Nos 2 & 3) and a place on The Telegraph’s Best Classical Recordings List (Symphonies Nos 4 & 5).
LSO Live launched the start of its Mendelssohn symphonies cycle with the release of Mendelssohn Symphony No 3, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, on SACD and Pure Audio Blu-ray. The album also features Overture: The Hebrides and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, performed by Maria João Pires. HD video footage of the full performance of the concert, recorded in January 2014 at the Barbican Hall, is included on the album, which was awarded Editor’s Choice by Gramophone and received an ICMA 2014 nomination in the Best Collection category.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3 (commonly known as the ‘Scottish’) and his Hebrides overture (‘Fingal’s Cave’) are amongst the composer’s most popular works and were inspired by his travels to the British Isles, in particular the rolling Scottish landscapes. Schumann’s Piano Concerto, meanwhile, is one of the most performed pieces in the piano concerto repertoire and is dazzlingly performed on this release by the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires.
LSO Live’s first Pure Audio Blu-ray release was Berlioz Symphonie fantastique & Overture: Waverley, conducted by Valery Gergiev. The album, which includes HD video content of the full concert performance of Symphonie fantastique, received a CHOC de Classica and **** Performance ***** Recording from BBC Music Magazine.
Berlioz found inspiration for his music in an array of sources, including his own turbulent personal life. His experience of unrequited love is expressed in the emotionally charged Symphonie fantastique which tells the story of an artist’s ‘hopeless love,’ complete with waltzes, witches and a hallucinogenic nightmare.
In order for LSO Live to keep releasing products in Pure Audio Blu-ray, we need your help. To help achieve the LSO’s goal of taking the Orchestra’s music out beyond the concert hall we have launched our most ambitious fundraising campaign to date: Moving Music. Moving Music is raising the money so we can keep filming to release in new formats like Pure Audio Blu-ray.
In 2012 we were challenged to raise £6 million by 31 May 2015 – and if we did so this would release £3 million of matched funding from Arts Council England. The support so far has been great, but to reach our target we are now appealing to you to help us in the final stage of our campaign.
From £10 to £1000: your donation, small or large, would help us to film our performances, present the material in innovative way and distribute them through the latest digital technologies for years to come! All gifts to Moving Music are gratefully received, and raise a 50% match grant from Arts Council England. With Gift Aid, this means that your contribution to the LSO is worth up to 75% more than your original donation, at no additional cost to you. With this in mind, there has never been a better time to give!
Digital Theatre is the world’s biggest on demand platform specialising in delivering arts content. The team at Digital Theatre film, acquire and distribute the very best in captured live entertainment, working in partnership with Britain’s leading arts companies, including the LSO. Digital Theatre aims to make the arts accessible to all, regardless of geographical, social or economic boundaries. The use of multiple camera angles and high-definition technology ensures that the drama and emotion of each production isn’t lost, allowing for a fully immersive and authentic experience. Each production is available to rent online for a limited period or can be downloaded to your desktop and enjoyed as many times as you wish.
The London Symphony Orchestra Collection
There are currently three concerts available to download from Digital Theatre’s London Symphony Orchestra Collection (with more to come later this year), each captured live in HD at the Barbican.
The LSO’s latest release on Digital Theatre is an all-Berlioz programme of Symphonie fantastique, Overture: Waverley & Les nuits d'été, conducted by LSO Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev. The timeless Symphonie fantastique, considered to be one of the most important classical works ever written, was inspired by Berlioz’s own turbulent personal life and tells the story of an artist’s ‘hopeless love’, complete with waltzes, witches and a hallucinogenic nightmare. The grand overture Waverley was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley and for Berlioz’s song cycle, Les nuits d'été (‘Summer Nights’), Gergiev and the LSO are joined by Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill. Made up of six songs, the work is an anatomy of romantic love, shown in different aspects: light-hearted and extrovert in the first and last songs, more intense and passionate in the middle four.
Also available is Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, conducted by Valery Gergiev and recorded live at the Barbican in November 2013. Shakespeare was one of the enduring influences on Berlioz throughout his life and the composer described his first encounter with one of Shakespeare’s works (Hamlet, featuring Berlioz’s future wife Harriet Smithson) as a ‘thunderbolt’ that changed his life – and musical imagination – forever. In Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz gives his own ground-breaking take on Shakespeare’s bittersweet tragedy, combining the playwright’s influence with the all the musical drama of Beethoven’s symphonies, and adding solo voices and chorus into the mix.
Another concert currently available on Digital Theatre is Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3'Scottish', Overture: The Hebrides and Schumann's Piano Concerto with the celebrated pianist Maria João Pires. Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, this concert was filmed in January 2014 as part of a series exploring the works of Felix Mendelssohn. Inspired by his travels to the British Isles and full of the influence of the rolling Scottish landscape, both Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3 'Scottish' and his Overture: The Hebrides are amongst the composer's most popular and admired works. The London Symphony Orchestra give an exhilarating performance of these pieces, and the same can be said of their rendition of the much-loved Schumann Piano Concerto with Maria João Pires, which has received widespread critical acclaim.
How to download and watch the concerts
Each concert can be bought for £10.99 (High Definition) or £8.99 (Standard Definition), as well as being available to rent for just £3.99 (rented productions are made available in your library for 30 days with 48 hours to complete viewing from the first time you begin playback).
Once downloaded, there are a variety of ways in which the concerts can be watched:
Watch online directly through the website.
Download to your desktop and watch offline with the Digital Theatre Desktop Player.
Download the Digital Theatre app from the iTunes App Store and stream to your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.
Watch on a Samsung Smart TV using the Digital Theatre app.