Symphonie Fantastique Listening Guide June 24 2015

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

This blog was originally published on as part of their Director’s Cut series. 

To explore Berlioz Symphonie fantastique on visit or to watch the video trailer here