Hard copy (paper) due at the beginning of class, Thursday 11/30

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an example of program music—instrumental music that is written based on a story, text, place, or person. This is different from opera or art songs (Lieder) because there is no text in the music to tell the story. Instead, the composer provided audiences with a written explanation of the story each movement meant to illustrate. In the case of Berlioz, he takes us on a journey through the tortured process of the Artist, whose soul travels from blindly in love to depraved and delusional through the course of five movements.

Symphonie fantastique tells the story of a young artist (possibly Berlioz himself) who is obsessed with a woman. One innovative idea that Berlioz introduces is to associate a specific melody with his obsession. In French, the word for obsession is “idée fixe,” which translates literally to “fixed idea.” She is an idea that becomes fixed in the artist’s mind and he cannot stop thinking about her. The melody that Berlioz chooses to represent this obsessive thought is also commonly referred to as the “idée fixe.” It is a melody that leaps upward, as though to represent his longing, and then sadly falls back down. It then repeats and keeps going upward, never attaining any kind of harmonic goal or melodic completion, always feeling unresolved in some way (much like his obsessive love). By assigning a specific melody to the idée fixe, Berlioz is able to show how this thought cannot escape the protagonist (it keeps recurring in all five movements, remaining stubbornly present in the music), but he is also able to manipulate the melody depending on the story: he can make it slower, faster, he can fit it into different meters or play it with different timbres, and he can distort it into new melodies related to the original. This is what the idée fixe sounds like the first time it appears in the first movement, as played by the strings. Listen to it multiple times to get accustomed to the sound of this melody, especially the first two phrases:


Read through the program notes, written out by Berlioz, describing how the music represents both his beloved obsession (idée fixe) as well as the imitative sounds of bones, witches cackling, and a guillotine in action (the program notes begin at the word “Note,” but read the introduction in smaller font which provides additional context for the program note). Listen to the fourth and only the fourth movement (not the fifth!) of Symphonie Fantastique a few times, and follow along with the text. Answer these questions concerning only the fourth movement.

  • Do you think that Berlioz follows his program well?
  • Describe some of the musical elements that imitate events in the fourth movement. Use the appropriate terminology, for example: “the percussive effect of col legno strings sounds like the rattling of bones.”
  • Finally, also answer which you think was written first, the music or the text. State why.

Answer all three questions in an “essay” form, that is, do not list bullet point or numbered answers. Write at least one page. To qualify for full credit, you must address all three parts of the question. Again, you should only address the fourth movement. If you’re confused about this, ask.