It's all about Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress with whom Berlioz was obsessed. Inspired by the programmatic nature of Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony (no. 6), the actual title of Berlioz's work is An Episode in the Life of an Artist (Symphonie Fantastique was a subtitle). Of course, the artist was Berlioz, and the episode portrayed his self-destructive love for Harriet.
Apparently Berlioz was highly emotional, to the point some might consider unstable. He used opium in the attempt to calm his nerves, which was a fairly common approach at the time. I'll never forget the reaction of my music history class at Eastman when we found out that Berlioz had composed this work while on opium.....it wasn't just a story about someone who turned to opium due to romantic frustrations....Berlioz actually wrote the piece (or at least parts of the piece) while on opium! It left such an impression that every time I think of Symphonie Fantastique I immediately think of opium.
Berlioz described his love for Harriet as "that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything". He fell in love with her while watching her act onstage, and subsequently he wrote impassioned letters which she summarily ignored. Symphonie Fantastique was the perfect outlet for his wild emotions. And it was successful....once she realized the piece was about her, she agreed to receive him, whereupon he threatened to overdose on opium if she wouldn't marry him. He proceeded to ingest the opium in front of her, at which point she became hysterical and agreed to the marriage. He then pulled an antidote out of his pocket and ingested that, ensuring his survival from the overdose. They married once he recovered. (Why has no one in Hollywood made a movie out of this story? The film score has already been written!)
Bassoon players generally think of Symphonie Fantastique as a huge bassoon piece. It stands out in the bassoon orchestral repertoire in that it features all four bassoonists in unison soli passages. Why did Berlioz score this piece for 4 bassoons, while only 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling on English horn) and 2 clarinets (second doubling on Eb clarinet) made it into the score? The explanation may be found in the typical structure of a Parisian orchestra during the 1800s. Due to the nature of the French basson, 4 bassoons were used in Parisian orchestras while there were only 2 of each of the other woodwind instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets). The French basson had a narrower bore than the German bassoon and its sound was decidedly lighter, drier and sweeter than the German bassoon. Its delicate sound was probably easily overpowered by other instruments. One can only imagine what Berlioz would think of today's more muscular bassoons. Might he be tempted to re-orchestrate for only 2 bassoons?
There are only a couple of exposed passages for the first bassoon alone, one at the very opening:
The first bassoonist will know exactly where to place the triplet notes after observing the score (below). Also it should be noted that the second measure (ppp) is softer than the first measure (p). And Berlioz, the inveterate extremist, asks for a diminuendo once the ppp dynamic is attained!
A little further into the movement, all four bassoons are called upon to slur a succession of G octave triplets:
|from mvt. 1 of Symphonie Fantastique|
There is another "solo" later in the first movement in which the 1st bassoon plays the recurring idée fixe theme (which represents Harriet) with the flute and clarinet:
It's important to add to the drama by honoring Berlioz's markings assiduously. Of course, it's also the bassoonist's responsibility to provide a solid pitch foundation in the lower octave to support the flute and clarinet throughout the passage. The idée fixe ends at bar 12 above. At that point, the first and third bassoon in unison join the low strings in a somewhat exposed passage. Intonation may be an issue here, especially for the lower notes. Accurate intonation may require dramatic manipulation of the embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth - we bassoonists learn to do whatever it takes to keep the pitch down.
This is the only passage in the entire piece which might be considered a true bassoon solo, albeit a brief one:
It occurs near the end of the first movement. Again, the crescendos must be brought out as requested by Berlioz, although the solo is generally calm in character.
The first movement ends with a serene chorale:
This is a prime example of why we practice long tones. The bassoons are in octaves here, with the two lower parts being clearly more difficult considering the challenges of control and intonation on low Fs and low Cs.
For the second movement Berlioz trades the 4 bassoons for 2 harps.....the 4 bassoons are tacet while the 2 harps come to life for this movement only. That means that the bassoon section gets to kick back and enjoy listening to the exciting whirlwind of a waltz while conserving energy for the heaving lifting of the remaining 3 movements.
Berlioz calls upon all 4 bassoons for many of the semi-exposed tutti passages of the 3rd movement.
The 4 bassoons are in unison with the low strings. As always, attention must be paid to Berlioz's details of dynamics and articulation. Only some of the notes are to be played staccato, and the rest should be noticeably more legato. Be alert for tempo changes such as the poco animato beginning 3 before 42. Playing softly enough to be able to hear the cellos is advised, if acoustics allow.
The truly heavy-duty bassoon soli passages begin in movement 4, the March to the Scaffold. In this movement Berlioz, convinced that his love will be forever unrequited, poisons himself with opium. The desperation of the situation is expressed by the 4 bassoons in unison:
The review of the Columbus Symphony's recent performance of Symphonie Fantastique mentioned the "shrieking bassoons". I believe the reviewer was referring to the above passage, which benefits from being played with the strength which was surely lacking in the French basson of Berlioz's day. After the first mf phrase, there is a crescendo to the high A and the next phrase. Of course it's important for the 4 bassoons to play these notes with matching intonation. The pickups at the beginning of each phrase (the sixteenth followed by dotted eighth followed by sixteenth) should be very incisive, almost forceful. I suggest adding a crescendo in the first phrase up to the high G, and using vibrato on the quarter notes to add emphasis and intensity. The final quarter note of each phrase (except the third phrase, which dies down at the end) should be held for full value or even longer for extended resonance. This is a very exciting passage, especially when the conductor gives the bassoons free rein to shriek.
Soon after that, the 4 bassoons engage in a progression (a march, as it were) of eighth notes. This is one of the two most famous bassoon excerpts in the piece, and is sometimes featured on auditions.
A little later in the fifth movement lies the second of the two major bassoon audition excerpts:
I recommend practicing this excerpt with a metronome. It's particularly challenging to keep the tempo steady from one before 64 to the end of the excerpt. There is sometimes a tendency to slow down at 64 when the rhythm changes.
Soon after the above sixteenths is a long-winded exposed passage for all 4 bassoons:
The Dies Irae theme comes next, played by all 4 bassoons and 2 tubas:
Each note has an accent, and that's the most important aspect of these Dies Irae passages other than intonation. As I've said before in this blog, I do not like to change reeds in the middle of a piece. However, this is one of those passages which really might call for a special reed, one that plays loudly and in tune in the extreme low range. I did not change reeds during our recent performances, but I used this passage to test new reeds for the piece, and the reed I chose was strong in the low range so that switching reeds was unnecessary.
Although the tubas may easily outblast the bassoons, the bassoons do have the physical advantage of being located closer to the front of the stage, so we probably can be heard somewhat. Is it OK to allow a bit of buzz to creep into one's sound for this passage for extra "edge" and projection? Maybe.
The bassoons participate enthusiastically in the Witches' Round Dance:
This excerpt was my sight-reading for my Performer's jury (the junior year jury which determines candidacy for the Performer's Certificate) at Eastman, interestingly. It's easy to become entangled in the eighth notes after 72, so some wood-shedding helps (if it's not sight-reading, that is).
Shortly thereafter the bassoon section engages in a round with the cellos. The cellos begin two measures before the bassoons enter at 3 after 76:
Clarity and incisiveness, even as the passage diminuendos to an eventual ppp, seem appropriate here as the whirlwind winds down.
The following trill passage which begins in the fourth bar of 83 has been known to make an appearance on an audition or two:
One very common mistake that woodwind players make on this passage is to make the eighth note trills (which begin on the fifth full bar of the passage, or 9 bars after 83) sound as though the trills are actually grace notes before the beat. Yes, it's easier to play it that way, but that's not what Berlioz wrote. He wanted the trills on the beat. I think it's helpful to think of those eighth note trills as triplets so that the "trill" (which really is just a triplet at this fast tempo) falls on the beat. Also keep in mind that the seven bars before 84 are marked p leggiero. Those eighth notes often sound a little too frantic for p leggiero.
With Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz managed to revolutionize not just orchestral music, but also orchestral bassoon playing. It's so hard to believe that it was written 188 years ago, on the cusp of the Romantic era!