Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, March to the Scaffold
Written by Berlioz in 1830, Symphonie Fantastique differs dramatically from precursor symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Unlike almost all great Classical and early-Romantic symphonies, it includes five movements rather than four, and, more audaciously, is constructed around a detailed program (or story) written by the composer to correspond closely with the music. (Beethoven’s Pastoral bears some slight resemblance on these counts, if few others, as it consists of five movements, each with a brief descriptive annotation at the beginning.)
Berlioz’s program for his symphony was inspired by his one-sided, love-at-first-sight encounter with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson in 1827. He saw her play Ophelia in a touring production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and was immediately infatuated. His passion inspired him to write the story of Symphonie Fantastique, which tells the story of a gifted artist’s descent into dissolution and despair as a result of unrequited love. Tonight’s performance features the fourth movement of the work, which tells the following portion of the story:
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes somber and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe [the melody associated with the artist’s beloved] reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.
[Hector Berlioz, trans. Michel Austin]
Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite No. 1
The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen published his epic five-act verse play Peer Gynt in 1867. A dramatic departure from theatrical conventions of realism and stylistic continuity, the play received both exuberantly positive and blisteringly critical reviews, and was not performed until 1876. Grieg wrote extensive incidental music for the career—twenty-six movements in all—and later extracted eight of the movements for the two Suites, Op. 46 and Op. 55.
All four movements of Suite No. 1 have been heard extensively in pop culture contexts, from
The fourth movement, In the Hall of the Mountain King, is particularly suitable for tonight’s Halloween concert, as it tells the spooky story of Peer Gynt entering the hall of the Mountain King, surrounded by the king’s goblins, gnomes, and troll attendants. The scene begins with the following exchange:
The troll-attendants: Slay him! The Christian's son has bewitched the Mountain King's fairest daughter! Slay him! Slay him!
A troll-imp: May I hack him on the fingers?
Another troll-imp: May I tug him by the hair?
A troll-maiden: Hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
A troll-witch with a ladle: Shall he be boiled into broth?
Another troll-witch, with a butcher knife: Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
The Mountain King: Ice to your blood, friends!
[Henrik Ibsen, trans. Peter Watts]
Antonín Dvořák, The Noon Witch
Polednice, or The Noon Witch, is one of several symphonic poems written by Dvořák in the second half of the 1890s, after his return from the United States. Like the others, it is based on Bohemian themes and stories, in this case, Karel Jaromír Erben’s poem about a fearsome supernatural creature with origins in Slavic legend and lore. Rather than print the story here, we will let Christopher Marsh provide narration to our performance of the piece. Be aware that while the story has been made slightly less grim in deference to our young audience members, it is still pretty scary!
Charles Gounod, Funeral March for a Marionnette
Gounod wrote his March funèbre d’une marionette in 1872, while living in London. It was to be part of a larger suite, but the composer stopped work after completing the movement, and published the piece immediately. He orchestrated it 1879, and it is now perhaps his best know work after Faust and his setting of “Ave Maria.”—probably because it served as the theme song for the 1950s-60s television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Marche funèbre tells the story of the aftermath of a deadly duel between two marionettes, and includes the following annotations for each of the short sections:
La Marionnette est cassée!!! (The Marionette is broken!!!)
Murmure de regrets de la troupe (Murmurs of regret from the troupe)
Le Cortège (The Procession)
Ici plusieurs des principaux personnages de la troupe s'arrêtent pour sa rafrâichir (Here several of the troupe’s principal personages stop for refreshments)
Retour a la maison (Return to the house)