Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique is the classical music equivalent of a modern day horror movie. It has it all: bucolic pastoral scenes, a ballroom dance, a horrific death and ending with a macabre scene of monsters, ghouls and witches with their cauldron and funeral bells tolling in the background. To top it all off, it is autobiographical and was at least partly composed while Berlioz was under the influence of opium. The perfect piece of classical music for Hallowe'en!
While attending a theatrical production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Berlioz became totally smitten with the actress portraying Ophelia, Harriet Smithson. He wrote her love letters which were never answered and he
essentially stalked her for a couple of years. In his despair, he took some opium and envisioned a musical interpretation of his unrequited love which became Symphonie Fantastique.
The symphony is in five movements. He employs an "idée fixe" (fixed idea) which is a theme representing his "beloved". This fixed idea goes through various transformations throughout the symphony. Each movement is prefaced with the composer's own program notes. He is very explicit about his story and what he wants the audience to hear.
The first 3 movements are innocuous enough: "Dreams - Passions" in which the theme of his beloved is introduced. "A Ball", which is a dance party where the theme of his beloved haunts him everywhere. "Scene in the Country", a pastoral movement with happy thoughts of his beloved somewhat overshadowed by a sense of foreboding.
In the 4th movement, "March to the Scaffold", things start getting weird.The artist takes some opium, hallucinates and believes he has killed his beloved. He is condemned to death and witnesses his own execution by guillotine. The drop of the blade interrupts the theme of the beloved. At the time, this was heavily criticized as sounding far too realistic.
The final movement, Dream of a Witches Sabbath, is an orgy of witches, ghosts, and monsters dancing around a bubbling cauldron. The theme of the beloved has become ugly and combined with a Dies Irae (a hymn from the Latin mass for the dead) all with a background of tolling funeral bells. Berlioz employed numerous sound effects including having the string players strike the strings with the wooden back of the bow to create the sound of a bubbling cauldron. Berlioz captures the horror and chaos of his vision.
Back to real life - Harriet Smithson attended a performance of Symphonie Fantastique, met Berliz and they married. They were miserable and separated after a few years.
Enjoy the 5th movement of Symphonie Fantastique conducted by Leonard Bernstein.