I must confess that I am a philistine when it comes to classical music. It’s not that I don’t like it – I went through a period in Southend as a teenager driving around with Classic FM blaring from the loudspeakers of my battered Fiat Uno. But even this, to tell the truth, largely contrasted with the music pumping out of the local wideboys’ souped-up cars. Sometimes, when I particularly enjoyed a piece, I would listen to the composer’s name. Mostly it was Vaughan Williams. That’s how far my self-study went.
It’s kind of embarrassing to realize that I’ve never bothered to do more than scratch the surface. In those teenage years my musical preference was mainly for pained, romantic singer-songwriters like Jeff Buckley. I listened to The Last Goodbye, narrating deeply as he sang, “This is our last hug / Must I dream and always see your face?”, even though I’ve never been in a relationship that lasted more than three months. from orchestral music in the arrangements of artists like Björk and Nick Drake, or film composers like John Williams, whose work was etched in my brain like any other child of the 1980s.
So when Nick Collon and Jane Mitchell of Aurora Orchestra reached out to me to ask if I’d like to be involved in Aurora’s 2019 Prom performance of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, I had to decide in a split second. Am I pretending to know who Berlioz is and claiming to be a huge fan of the play, or am I confessing my total ignorance? Fortunately, Collon started explaining before I made my decision. I suspect he knew. His eyes lit up as he told me it was his favorite symphony and he explained the story behind the composition.
Berlioz was a young composer living in Paris in 1827 when he joined an English theater company that performed Hamlet at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. He immediately fell in love with Harriet Smithson, the actor who plays Ophelia. He became obsessed and watched her come and go from her apartment, which happened to be opposite his. He wrote her passionate letters to which she did not reply. He was tormented by this unrequited love, depressed, unable to sleep. After two years, he decided to write a symphony so brilliant it would “stun the world” and Harriet would be so impressed that she was sure to love him.
The symphony he wrote was one of the first attempts to tell a story through music. As Collon put it, a film score before there were films to score. Berlioz didn’t stray far for inspiration for the story, the story of an artist who sees a woman and falls desperately in love with her. The tension of this love leads to torturous isolation and, convinced that his love is unrequited, the artist poisons himself with opium. He slips into a terrible dream where he kills his love and is then executed for her murder, after which he is surrounded by witches and demons who dance and celebrate his death.
His Symphonie Fantastique indeed rocked the world: Smithson finally heard and, remarkably, they married. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship was not sustainable. Within a few years, Berlioz began an affair with a new crush.
Ghosts hadn’t aired when we first worked on this concert, but I chuckled at the more than fleeting resemblance to the melodramatic late poet Thomas Thorne, whom I play on that show, a character driven by an obsessive crush on someone he barely and whose mood swings constantly between states of ecstatic mania and tormented melancholy. While the poetry that inspires this in Thomas is terrible, in Berlioz it inspired a masterpiece. His Symphonie Fantastique is truly an ingenious groundbreaking work. The obsession is the main innovation that Berlioz made – a short melody that we associate with the object of the artist’s affection. It appears when he first sees her and returns when he encounters her (or the thought of her) again, recognizable but changing each time depending on the context in the story, much like we might recognize in the character themes of a film score like Star Wars, recorded about 150 years later.
Berlioz wanted his description of the symphony’s story to be included in the program at every concert where it was performed. Aurora’s plan was to go one step further and do something theatrical with a staging of the play. We didn’t want to pantomize the story through every move and thereby diminish the power of the music, but rather to open it up somehow and introduce a little bit of Berlioz’s character. We used the composer’s own words to explain his motivation for writing the symphony and to fuel every movement of the piece.
I like the way Berlioz described the depths of his feelings and the heights of his ambition. It’s easy to find him a little ridiculous, and it’s clear that his feelings for Harriet are obsessive and superficial and don’t seem to extend to wanting to fully know her as a human being. But anyone who has ever been young and heartbroken knows how awful it is when you go through it. And I’m sure many people, like the young me, will have found that the greatest balm can be the work of an artist who has found a way to vividly describe that feeling back to you and make you feel less as a result. alone.
Fantastique, with Mathew Baynton, will be at the Royal Festival Hall, London on September 27. Aurora will also perform Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique at National Concert Hall, Dublin (October 5) and Warwick Arts Center (October 7)