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Hector Berlioz Portrait
Symphonie Fantastique
with Michael Tilson Thomas

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium we experience the panoply of emotions of a young, love-struck musician and composer, Hector Berlioz, through his brilliant, semi-autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. PT host Martin Goldsmith guides us through the entire symphony as we hear movements performed by the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Martin also speaks with Thomas about the intense psychology of Berlioz and his revolutionary music.

With the “Fantastic Symphony,” Berlioz helped to usher in the Romantic era that would characterize much of 19th-century artistic expression, including the writings of Lord Byron and Honoré de Balzac, and the paintings of Eugene Delacroix. As he set a mood of unfettered, individualistic expression, Berlioz also paved the way for other Romantic musicians like Frederic Chopin, Nicolo Paganini and Franz Liszt.

Berlioz's own prose version of the plot describes in vivid detail the feelings and behavior of the young musician and his “unhealthy sensitive nature.” Already experiencing loneliness and despair, Berlioz’s self-modeled protagonist encounters the woman of his dreams. In real life, Berlioz was a Shakespeare fanatic who fell deeply in love with an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson. As Tilson notes, her beauty and “melodious, highly cadenced” performance as Ophelia in Hamlet must have thrown Berlioz into a state of helpless infatuation. In Symphonie Fantastique, his protagonist is as in love with idea of being love as with the woman whose affections he seeks. Berlioz and Smithson did fall in love; their unsuccessful marriage is alluded to later in this work. In reality, Berlioz barely knew a word of English; it couldn’t have helped matters.

Throughout the entire work, Berlioz represents his obsession (idée fixe in French) as a recurring musical theme that continually haunts him. In “A Ball,” his beloved eludes her suitor unintentionally as other dancers get in his way. His yearnings are brilliantly expressed in musical sighs and melodic leaps. Berlioz depicts a myriad of emotions in his opening movement, “Reveries and Passions”: “dreamy melancholy, aimless joy, delirious passion, rage, jealousy, tenderness, tears and religious solace.” The protagonist eventually wins over his true love, but then things go terribly wrong.

Leonard Bernstein once described the “Fantastic Symphony" as the first psychedelic musical trip, primarily because of the last two movements. In a state of twisted despair, the protagonist tries to end his life with an overdose of opium. But his dose isn’t enough to kill him; the hallucinating results are vividly represented in the spooky and vulgar “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of the Witches' Sabbath.” With haunting, often chaotic music Berlioz shows us an opium nightmare in which the protagonist dreams of his lover’s tragic death and falls victim to the hedonistic wishes of a band of witches.

Listen as Martin guides us through Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with conducting and commentary by Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It's another fantastic edition of Milestones of the Millenium. Note: Some music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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