Berlioz and the music of the future

by Nils Hansson, Gy2

Who would have thought that one of the most famous symphonies ever written would be based on the story of a man drugging himself to death for love?

When Hector Berlioz wrote his symphony Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, he was way beyond his time. Grandiose music in this style was to become known more during the late 1800s. This symphony is also categorized as “program music”, because the music follows a story.

On September 16th, 2015, The Swedish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed Symphonie Fantastique at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. My father Henrik Hansson, who plays 1st violin in the orchestra, took the time to answer some questions about the symphony.

Henrik Hansson plays first violin with the The Swedish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


Nils: Do you experience the piece differently when you play it compared to when you listen to it?

Henrik: When you’re sitting in an orchestra you experience everything differently. A couple of weeks ago I listened to the piece Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, which I’ve played many times, and I experienced things differently. When you’re playing in an orchestra you’re so focused on what you are doing, so you forget how the whole sounds. Just like when you look at a painting, you first look at it very closely but then you go further away and suddenly you see the painting in a whole different way.

Nils: What do you think it is that makes Symphonie Fantastique so special and interesting?

Henrik: In the Romantic era things were very subjective, compared to the Classical period where things were more objective. Of course you could show emotions through Classical music too, but not as personally as during the Romantic period. In this piece Berlioz probably wants you to feel the same things as the main character feels. I think this piece is very special because it was one the first pieces written with so many emotions. When I listen to it today I think that it sounds very modern, even thought it was written 200 years ago –– that’s what makes this piece so unique.

Information on Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique is based on the story of an artist who poisons himself with opium in the depths of despair because his love to a woman is unanswered. The opium gives him hallucinations –– he is captured by devils, goblins and who knows what else, then led to his own execution. Afterwards, he starts to hallucinate that the woman he loves turns into a witch. I think Berlioz has composed this very clearly according to the story. Every movement has a different theme.

1. Reveries – Passion

2. A Ball

3. Scene in the Fields

4. March to the Scaffold

5. Dream of the night of the Sabbath

In the fifth movement I think you can clearly hear the goblins and devil laugh. You are also told it’s time for the execution. Berlioz uses a theme in his symphony called “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) which is originally an old church melody that signals death. I find it very interesting that you can make some things very clear in music, even though it is usually hard to explain things without words.

I would recommend this piece to anybody even if you haven’t listened to classical music before. People who haven’t might find it very exciting because there is a story to follow.

Who knows, maybe music written today will be found amazing and popular in 100 years?