I confess that I am a philistine when it comes to classical music. It’s not that I don’t like it – I went through a teenage period in Southend when I drove with Classic FM blaring from the speakers of my battered Fiat Uno. But even that, to tell the truth, was mostly in performative contrast to the music blasting out of the local fat boys’ muscle cars. Sometimes, when I particularly liked a piece, I listened to the name of the composer. It was usually Vaughan Williams. That’s as far as my self-education has gone.
It’s rather shameful to realize that I never bothered to do more than scratch the surface. During those teenage years, my musical preference was mostly for romantic and pained singer-songwriters like Jeff Buckley. I would listen The last farewell deeply touching as he sang “This is our last embrace / Must I dream and still see your face?”, despite never having a relationship that lasted longer than three months. I guess I’ve had my fill of orchestral music in the arrangements of artists like Björk and Nick Drake, or film composers like John Williamswhose work has been seared into my brain like any other 80s kid.
So when the Aurora Orchestra Nick Colon and Jane Mitchell contacted me to ask if I would like to participate in Aurora’s 2019 Prom performance of Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz, I had a decision to make in a fraction of a second. Should I pretend to know who the hell Berlioz is and pretend to be a big fan of the play, or should I confess my complete ignorance? Luckily, Collon started explaining to me even before I made my decision. I suspect he knew. His eyes lit up when he told me it was his favorite symphony and explained the story behind its composition.
Berlioz was a young composer living in Paris in 1827 when he went to see an English theater troupe play Hamlet at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. He was immediately seduced by Harriet Smithson, the actor playing Ophelia. He became obsessed watching her come and go from her apartment, which was across the street from his. He wrote her passionate letters to which she did not reply. He found himself tortured by this unrequited love, depressed, unable to sleep. After two years he decided he would write a symphony so brilliant it would “amaze the world” and Harriet would be so impressed she would surely love him back.
The symphony he wrote was one of the first attempts to tell a story through music. As Collon told me, film music before there were films to score. Berlioz did not stray from the inspiration for the narrative, telling the story of an artist who sees a woman and falls hopelessly in love with her. The thrill of this love turns into torturous isolation and, believing that his love is unrequited, the artist poisons himself with opium. He slips into a terrible dream in which he kills his love and is then executed for his murder, after which he is surrounded by witches and demons who dance and celebrate his death.
His Symphony Fantastic indeed stunned the world: Smithson finally heard it and, remarkably, they were married. Unsurprisingly, the relationship wasn’t built to last. Within a few years, Berlioz began an affair with a new enthusiasm.
Ghosts was not yet aired when we first worked on this concert, but I laughed at the more than passing resemblance to the late melodramatic poet Thomas Thorne, who i play in this show, a character driven by an obsessive infatuation with someone he barely knows, and whose mood constantly swings between states of ecstatic mania and anguished melancholy. While the poetry it inspires in Thomas is terrible, in Berlioz it inspired a masterpiece. His Symphonie Fantastique is truly a work of revolutionary genius. The obsession is Berlioz’s major innovation – a short melody that we associate with the object of the artist’s affection. It appears when he first sees her and recurs every time he encounters her (or the thought of her) again, recognizable but changed each time depending on the context of the story, just like us could recognize it in the character themes of a film score like Star Wars, recorded about 150 years later.
Berlioz wanted his description of the symphony’s narrative to be included in the program of any concert where it was performed. Aurora’s plan was to go a step further and do something theatrical with a staging of the play. We didn’t want to mime the story through every movement and thus diminish the power of the music, but rather open it up in a way and introduce a bit of Berlioz’s character. We have used the composer’s own words to explain his motivation for writing the symphony and to inspire every movement of the piece.
I like the way Berlioz described the depth of his feelings and the heights of his ambition. It’s easy to find him a little ridiculous, and it’s clear that his feelings for Harriet are obsessive and superficial and don’t seem to go as far as wanting to know her fully as a human being. But anyone who’s ever been young and in love will know how horribly consuming it is when you go through it. And I’m sure many people, like the younger me, will have found that the greatest balm can be the work of an artist who has found a way to vividly portray that feeling to you and, in doing so, to you make you feel less alone.