October 2011

Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un Artiste...en cinq parties ("Fantastic Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts"), Op. 14

Part 4 - Marche au supplice ("March to the Scaffold")

by Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz (pronounced BAIR-lee-ohz) was born in 1803 in France. He is not an extremely well-known composer, but there are a couple of pieces (particularly this one) that are well-known. Symphonie Fantastique (pronounced SIM-foh-nee fan-tah-STEEK) is easily his most-remembered work. It's a piece in the symphony style, but in five parts (rather than three or four movements).

In 1827, Berlioz saw a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and fell in love with the actress playing the role of Ophelia. Her name was Harriet Smithson. He sent her numerous love letters, but they were ignored. He wrote this symphony as a way to express his frustrated and unrequited love.

Symphonie Fantastique tells an imaginary story in five parts:

  1. Rêveries - Passions ("Reveries - Passions")
  2. Un bal ("A ball")
  3. Scène aux champs ("Scene in the Fields")
  4. Marche au supplice ("March to the Scaffold")
  5. Songe d'une nuit de sabbat ("Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath")

The first part represents a young artist, who suddenly sees the woman of his dreams. There is a distinctive theme that represents the artist fixating on the woman. It shows up in all five parts.

The second part represents a growing obsession. He follows her to a ball and to other places, still unable to approach her.

The third part represents his obsession growing into paranoia. He wanders among a countryside with two shepherds. He debates in his mind about his obsession with this young woman. He begins to wonder if she will betray his love.

In the fourth part, the artist attempts to poison himself with opium (a popular narcotic drug). He doesn't take enough to kill himself, but instead has a couple of horrible hallucinations. The first one is the "March to the Scaffold". He dreams that he has killed his love, and has been caught and sentenced to death. A scaffold is a raised platform that's usually the site of public executions. As this is France, the form of execution is the guillotine (pronounced GEE-yoh-TEEN). This is a machine that is designed to quickly cut off the head of the victim. This march depicts the vision of the convicted criminal marching toward the guillotine having different flashbacks on his life that is about to end, some good, some bad. Toward the end, he is forcefully placed into position by the guards, has one last fleeting thought of the woman he obsessed over (represented by a solo clarinet), and then the blade of the guillotine drops and his head tumbles down the steps.

Still in an opium-induced hallucination, for the fifth part, the artist believes that he has died and has descended to hell. Here, he witnesses a Witches' Sabbath. There's a mocking theme play in this movement. The main theme is from the Gregorian funeral chant Dies Irae (pronounced DEE-es EE-ray).

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

In the summer of 1985, I was able to attend a band camp at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. As I've previously mentioned, I played trombone. For the camp, the director chose (among other pieces), "March to the Scaffold". This is a fun piece for brass, and I marveled at the way the composer was able to represent the guillotine blade falling and the head tumbling down the steps. Little did I know that the fifth part ("Dream of the Witches' Sabbath") has an even more awesome brass part, but to date, I've only performed the fourth part.

In High School, I would seek out recordings of the entire Symphonie Fantastique. It's been one I've kept in my library ever since.


The entire Symphonie Fantastique is kind of long, so I'm just assigning the fourth part ("March to the Scaffold"). Be sure to listen toward the end for the solo clarinet followed by the "WOMP!" of the guillotine blade (followed by the "bump... bump... bump..." of the severed head tumbling down the steps). Happy Halloween! ;-)

Part Four: Marche au supplice ("March to the Scaffold") from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (6:48)

For those interested, this recording was performed by Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

I've talked about it several times now, but the music depicting the execution at the end of this movement is really impressive to me. Berlioz, in many ways, was really ahead of his time. In some ways, he paved the way for modern film score composers.

The fourth and fifth part of this piece are particularly powerful, and I love powerful music. This was also a very early example of creating a simple theme, and taking it throughout a major piece. This was more and more popular in later years (middle to late 19th century).

Extra Credit:

Here's the conductor's score of the symphony, for those who wish to follow along.

Conductor's Score for Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz

And here are the remaining four parts. If you're only going to take time to listen to one of these, I strongly recommend the fifth part. Enjoy!

Part One: Rêveries - Passions ("Reveries - Passions") from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (15:41)

Part Two: Un bal ("A Ball") from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (6:13)

Part Three: Scène aux champs ("Scene in the Fields") from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (16:08)

Part Five: Songe d'une nuit de sabbat ("Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath") from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (9:43)