Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique' Is About Running Into Your Ex In Hell

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Detail, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch

Last week I posed the question of the spookiest piece of music, decidedly landing on Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. I wouldn’t go back on the claim — I 100% stand by the rattling xylophone bones! — but I also argued Danse Macabre is campy. It’s the ’80s horror movie of classical music. You jump a little, maybe, the first time you experience it, but you’re also laughing. And if Danse Macabre is Nightmare On Elm Street? Then Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is The VVitch.

I’ve been reading a book by Thomas Forrest Kelly called First Nights, which details five historic premieres of classical music. In 1830 — so more than forty years before Saint-Saëns (1874), and sixty years before Dvořák (1893), Hector Berlioz — a young, red-headed French composer — debuted his five-part symphony with a program. Symphony programs up until that point just listed the pieces you were about to hear and who they were by, rather than what any of the pieces were about. At its premiere in December 1830, Berlioz laid out the entire story of Symphonie Fantastique for his audience, detailing a story about a Parisian artist [thinking emoji] scorned by a woman [three thinking emojis].

The first three movements of the piece detail the two young lovers, meeting and dancing, only for his insecurities to interfere with their relationship. Convinced their love is doomed, the young artist attempts to poison himself, except he mostly just overdoses on opium and has a wild trip. In the fourth movement, he imagines he kills his lover, and is marched to his own death. In the fifth movement, the artist finds himself in Hell, witnessing an orgy of witches—and who’s right in the middle of this? Well, you better believe it’s his lover! Then the whole thing ends there, in Hell. Quite a turn! Prior symphonies had been ruminations on themes and keys and melodies; this was the first sort of literary symphony — one with a story, long outdating tone poems and other programmatic pieces of music.

There is so much to discuss with Symphonie Fantastique, but because it’s coming on Halloween, and because of WITCHES, I’m just going to focus on that fifth movement for the time being, known as Songe d’une nuit de sabbat, or, Dream of the Night of the Sabbath. It’s an eccentrically creepy piece, mixing fairly upbeat violin and woodwind melodies (the witches!) with loud, deafening brass (the Devil!). There’s a version of the Dies irae, a Latin hymn depicting Judgment Day, used throughout. It’s altogether dissonant and infernal. I mean, the guy is writing about running into his ex whom he murdered while they’re both in Hell. Talk about a bad Halloween!!

I think a lot about the chimes in this piece, which ring in hauntingly around the middle of the movement. Chimes — or tubular bells — are a giant set of upright bells played with big, felt-tipped mallets, and often sound the same as church bells. They echo throughout any performance space in a powerful, nearly obnoxious way, and they were scarcely used in most orchestral music at this point unless it was religious in nature. In the 1830s, the use of a holy instrument to represent a twisted version of Hell is… pretty fucked up!

The story behind Symphonie Fantastique is the kind of thing that would feel abstract and wild, even in present day. We’d look at it and say, “man, this guy wrote a symphony about a version of himself,” and roll our eyes the way we do when Young Literary Men do it now. It was certainly not the first time an artist of any capacity had written a “version” of themselves in their own art (this was common enough by the 1830s), but I can’t let go of the idea of writing yourself having a crazy opium trip where you commit and murder and then see your own death and then go to Hell. Extremely metal and/or just stupid, I can’t really decide.

It helped, I suppose, that Berlioz had a wild love life. Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique about his main crush, an actress named Harriet Smithson, to whom he wrote letters all the time and who never wrote him back. This is the “scorning” the symphony is about: a more famous woman just did not acknowledge a less famous man which is FINE and she had EVERY RIGHT TO DO SO. In the meantime, Berlioz got engaged to Camille Moke, a woman who was essentially his co-worker, in part because she told him that Harriet Smithson was NOT REALLY ALL THAT GREAT and had for sure HAD SEX FOR MONEY before (whether this was true remains to be seen, and in my personal opinion…? It was a lie). Said engagement came after the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique, which was sort of the official social welcoming of Berlioz into high society. This has little to do with anything, but there is a transcript of a letter Berlioz wrote to his friend in which he writes: “Ever since [Camille] heard my Sabbath, [she] calls me only ‘her dear Lucifer, her dear Satan.’”

[screams for 10,000 years]

Regardless, while Berlioz was engaged to Camille Moke, she went on vacation and then wrote him a letter saying she cheated on him and was now engaged to someone else. So then Berlioz crafted an actual plan — not a here’s what the symphony is about plan — to murder Camille and her mother and her new fiancé, but he never did it. It’s at that point that I’m like, “Hm, maybe Berlioz is not a good guy,” even though I definitely should have thought that sooner. What does wind up happening, of course, is that at the second big performance of Symphonie Fantastique, who should show up other than HARRIET SMITHSON. And her reaction is like, “Wow, this is the guy I’ve ignored the whole time? He seems… hot and cool.” They wind up getting married — a classic twist — and making each other very miserable for several years before separating. To my knowledge, she never referred to him as “my dear Lucifer” or “my dear Satan,” but you gotta hope.

Okay, anyway, the point of this is: Everyone who has scorned you will show up in Hell right alongside you! Happy Halloween!

Fran Hoepfner is a writer who used to be a musician, but not in an acoustic guitar sense, more in the the movie Whiplash sense. As kids her age discovered the popular music of the early ’00s , Fran spent 10–15 hours a week in private lessons for piano or playing timpani in several Chicagoland youth symphonies. Because of that, she didn’t discover pop music until 2008, and now her music library is almost exclusively classical. You should listen to more classical music, not for any self-important reason, but just because it’s more accessible than you think it is. Also it’s very good.