The Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) by Berlioz is an archetypal piece of programme music, where the composer has aimed to convey the feelings, thoughts or emotions of a subject or situation in purely musical terms.
The work is in five movements correlating with five distinct periods or situations in the life of an artist:
- Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions)
- Un bal (A Ball)
- Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
- Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
- Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath)
The overarching conceit of the symphony is that of an artist who falls in love with what he perceives to be his perfect partner in the first movement. Her image haunts him in the two following sections, Un Bal and Scène aux champs. In the fourth (Marche au supplice), our hero admits to himself that his love is unrequited and poisons himself with opium. The administered dose not being fatal, the artist experiences visions of him killing his muse, his conviction of murder, and his own execution at the scaffold. The Songe d’une nuit de sabbat depicts the character at his own funeral, surrounded by a gathering of hideous creatures.
Looking at the movements individually, we can see the primary thrust of the scenes depicted in the orchestration and dynamic used but, even at the composer’s request, we need to be prompted into understanding the story. Berlioz requested that programme notes outlining the tale be distributed to the audience at every performance.
As an example, scene two gives us an idea in the title, Un Bal, then goes on to consist of primarily ballroom music. It would be incongruous for the movement to be called “Scene at a football match” then be accompanied by this music. In this respect, programme music as tool of storytelling seems to be a blunt instrument. If we need a first narrative to explain the second, why not be satisfied with the first. If the counter argument were to be that music isn’t a very robust medium for portraying complex tales, a responding counter argument might be “don’t use music to tell stories, use words”.
The third movement, Scène aux champs, underlines this point ever more eloquently in being much longer and thus, more open to interpretation. The scene is of two shepherds playing a duet in the countryside and the music is exquisite in its execution. The composer’s programme notes tell us what’s going on and we picture the vista before us. Unfortunately, that same argument could be made in that the movement could just as well be “Cloud formations in the French Alps” or “Evening journeys on the Zambezi”. The pictures are painted on the imagination by the words and it’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps.
The composer is almost asking the audience to develop synæsthesia in order to appreciate the work and, because of this I believe that programme music fails us. This piece of music, as a piece of music, is magnificent and we should appreciate it as such.