Berlioz, Binchois

Rehearsing Berlioz has been pretty fun this week, actually. I was kind of dreading it (Berlioz usually isn’t my thing), but it’s gotten me to reconsider one of Berlioz’s greater works that I had previously dismissed as relatively frivolous. The stereotype of the work as being overcooked, melodramatic and almost too illustrative is one that I confess to having bought into for a long time. But in hearing the piece over and over this week, the recurrence of the work’s main theme drew me in. The theme isn’t simply a tune, but the representation of a woman with whom Berlioz had become infatuated. In the years spent composing and compiling the Symphonie Fantastique, he suffered a depressive spell reportedly brought on by a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet he saw in 1827. The actress portraying Ophelia was apparently so moving and immediately striking that

I can only compare the effect of produced by her wonderful talent, or rather her dramatic genius, on my imagination and heart, with the convulsion produced on my mind by the work of the great poet she interpreted. It is impossible to say more.

(…and yet he does)

I became possessed by an intense, overpowering sense of sadness that in my then sickly nervous state produced a nervous condition, one which would require a great physiologist to adequately describe. I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favorite studies became tasteless to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs. 

Obsession. Berlioz has gone down a rabbit hole trying to garner her attention. He puts on a concert of his music in one of the most exclusive venues in Paris to prove to her “that I too am an artist.” He claims to have met eyes with her at her own performance of Romeo and Juliet only for her to reject his advances. For five years he waited, composing the Symphonie Fantastique in that time, finally getting noticed in 1832. They were married within the year.


The dark irony about the Symphonie Fantastique is that it truly is but a fantasy, not on Harriet Smithson, but on Berlioz’s ideal of her. Their marriage was doomed from the get go, buckling under issues of his flawed expectations and her own struggles with alcoholism and depression. The soaring line in Symphonie Fantastique, the rising sixth followed by a semitone – it’s the unmistakable sonic signifier of something physically distant. Berlioz’s symphony is composed on totally fictional encounters of his own design – all from a distance, he sees her waltzing at a ball, in a pasture, he thinks of her just before he’s executed, he even sees her in hell. No matter how negative the circumstances in which he sees her, the ability to cope, to imagine, derives itself from the distance Berlioz constantly creates in winding the theme round and round. The distance was not romantic in retrospect, but ominous. By the early 1840s they were practically estranged, bitter, resentful. The theme of Berlioz’s Symhphonie Fantastique would also be the basis for his famous La mort d’Ophélie (The Death of Ophelia). Harriet was not dead at all, but Ophelia, Berlioz’s image of her, had clearly passed.

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Lost illusions, broken promises, betrayal of trust – Berlioz’s plight would be comically ironic if it wasn’t all too common in our daily lives. How often do we get addicted to that particular sensation which doesn’t really have a name: the anticipation of being nostalgic, of pressing fast forward to the point where a journey is complete; to have lived happily ever after, rather than living so now and in our lives to come. Infatuation has that effect on us, getting us to rush into things while holding onto the anticipatory sensation. I’ve been guilty of this in relationships, of wanting to somehow occupy multiple time spaces at once, feeling the excitement of anticipation, the joy of the present and the relief of retrospection – why? I wish I knew.

The total build up of frenzy in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique contains all those elements of the roller coaster we think we want from the wild fragility of human emotion. Our conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach to the piece this week has been thoroughly enthralling in getting us from the ideal into the hellish, each movement getting more and more excitable. There’s no emotional distance in her interpretation – she kind of gets to the bottom of the sensation of humans’ inability to get outside their own minds.

If there’s anything I think that Berlioz’s work lacks, it’s that it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the story itself and not focus on the sensation it renders, what it does to us, what it does to others. Maybe that’s the idea? But the manic obsession in the piece doesn’t leave much space to meditate on the feeling of obsession itself – more specifically, why we fall into it so easily and so quickly. They’re essentially emotions brought on by loneliness, and yet we want to hold onto them when the solution comes, as if to prove somehow that the new salary, the new lover, the new piece of technology really is the answer.

I know I’m probably a heretic in classical music circles, but I think there’s a downfall in “programmatic music” (that is, music that specifically tells a story without words). The notion that something without words can recount a narrative still overloads our aural senses; it’s impossible to think about the real feelings that such music evokes. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I don’t generally listen to huge amounts of Romantic era or programmatic music in my spare time, I don’t like getting caught up unnecessarily. Hearing the music live is amazing, but I have to say that I keep my iTunes stacked sounds of stasis rather than emotional frenzy.

(Nerd alert): I return again and again to the medieval chansons of Machaut, Binchois, Lescurel, etc. when I want to switch off and focus on how I’m processing something. Something about music and words to not tell a story but to simply reflect on a sensation can have a powerful effect. Plenty of classical art songs do this of course, and it’s the bread and butter of pop music, but songs like Gilles Binchois’ Triste Plaisir use so few words to describe the mental state that can lead us to do crazy things, write symphonies, abandon sleep, obsessively text, overwork, implode. The total lack of frenetic energy in Binchois reminds me of the seemingly calm and alluring quality of human obsession that tricks us into thinking we need it.

Triste plaisir et douloureuse joye,
Aspre doulceur, desconfort ennuieux,

Ris en plorant, souvenir oublieux
M’acompaignent, combien que seul je soye.

Embuchié sont, affin qu’on ne les voye
Dedans mon cueur, en l’ombre de mes yeux.

Triste plaisir et amoureuse joye!

C’est mon trésor, ma part et ma monoyé;
De quoy Dangier est sur moy envieux
Bien le sera s’il me voit avoir mieulx
Quant il a deuil de ce qu’Amour m’envoye.
Triste plaisir et douloureuse joye.

(Sad pleasure and grievous joy,
Bitter sweetness, painful discomfort,
Laughter in tears, forgetful memory
These are my companions so long as I am alone.

I’ve been ambushed by them, so that anyone can see them
Within my heart, in the shadows of my eyes.
Sad pleasure and lover’s joy!

This is my treasure, my portion, my money,
Because of it Love’s Threat is envious of me.
Well may he be, if he sees me gaining better,
Since he is grieved by what Love sends me now,
Sad pleasure and grievous joy.)

So often our expectations are let down, we get hurt, that we retreat into ourselves. Berlioz is unquestioning in his obsession with Harriet as he has her in his head, but not who she is in real life. For me Symphonie Fantastique is a potent reminder of the difference between true affection and puerile infatuation – it’s definitely an example of the latter. It makes me wonder whether humans are happier with their hopes than the repercussions of their expectations. We’ve still yet to solve the puzzle of whether we truly care about others because of who they are, or for who we’d like them to be.

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