Dream of a Witches' Sabbath (tr Patterson)

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Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz (trans. Merlin Patterson)

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General Info

Year: 1830 /
Duration: c. 10:00
Difficulty: V (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Orchestra
Publisher: Merlin Patterson
Cost: Score and Parts (print) - $275.00


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None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

Berlioz completed the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, when he was 26 years old. A programmatic and vaguely autobiographical work, the symphony grew out of an intense infatuation with a French actress Berlioz had met years before. Berlioz wrote this description of the symphony, “A young musician poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. Too weak to result in death, the opium plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by strange visions. The fifth and final movement finds the young man present at a witches’ revel assembled for his funeral amid strange sounds and shrill laughter. He hears the theme of his beloved, but it has become a vulgar and grotesque dance tune. She joins in the debauchery. Bells toll for the dead. A burlesque parody of the Dies Irae is heard as part of the witches’ blasphemous and demonic dance.

- Program Note from Heritage Encyclopedia of Band Music

Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts) Op. 14, is a program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is an important piece of the early Romantic period. The first performance was at the Paris Conservatoire on 5 December 1830.

Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature, and because history suggests Berlioz composed at least a portion of it under the influence of opium. According to Bernstein, "Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral."

Dream of a Witches' Sabbath is the fifth movement of the symphony, entitle in French Songe d'une nuit du sabbat. Quoting Berlioz:

He sees himself at a witches' sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath ... Roar of delight at her arrival ... She joins the diabolical orgy ... The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

- Program Note from Wikipedia

One particular evening that marked a sea change for Berlioz came in 1827, when he first experience Shakespeare through a production of Hamlet. In future years, Berlioz would write much music on Shakespearean themes, but the immediate impact was more personal: Berlioz left the theater smitten with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Ophelia.

Berlioz obsession soured by 1830, at which point personal suffering became creative fodder. Expanding from the model of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, with its "pastoral" program, Berlioz conceived a symphony built around a dramatic tale of failed romance. This work's true title was An Episode in the Life of an Artist— Symphonie fantastique was the subtitle — and its explicit link between instrumental music and a narrative story marked the birth of a new genre. To support this programmatic format, Berlioz stretched the symphony to new extremes of structure (using five movements), thematic unity (with one idée fixe appearing throughout), and instrumentation (incorporating recent inventions such as valve trumpets and ophicleides and doubling the harp and timpani). The radical work debuted in 1830 at the Paris Conservatoire, and it caused such a stir that the school's director, Luigi Cherubini, struck Berlioz from the registry of students.

Berlioz' own program note describes the symphony's narrative in detail. He introduces "a young musician of morbid disposition and powerful imagination" — a plain surrogate for Berlioz — who "poisons himself with opium in an attack of despairing passion." In the ensuing opium dream, "the beloved herself appears to him as a melody, ... an obsessive idea that he keeps hearing wherever he goes."

The final movement, Dream of a Witches' Sabbath, heard as transcribed by Merlin Patterson, is the macabre final chapter of the Symphonie fantastique featuring "a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for [the artist's] funeral." Berlioz depicts "strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter" with diabolical orchestral effects, and introduces a terrifying quotation of the Dies lrae (Days of Wrath) plainchant melody.

The Symphonie fantastique is a rare leap forward in music, an achievement that is almost inconceivable from a 26-year-old student, working in a country with little symphonic tradition, and coming only six years after Beethoven's ninth symphony. Berlioz followed with many more masterful orchestral scores, and his treatise on instrumentation is still essential reading for aspiring composers. The late-blooming Berlioz turned out to be a new breed of virtuoso, one whose "instrument" was the orchestra.

- Program Note adapted from Aaron Grad/Kennedy Center


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State Ratings

  • Texas: V. Complete


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