We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin

Returning now to the Symphonie fantastique, the fifth and last movement, in which the artist imagines his own bizarre funeral, was at first notorious for all the deliberately ugly music it contains. One can hardly hear the opening bars, with their interminably sustained diminished-seventh chords, without thinking of Weber's “Wolf's Glen,” a work Berlioz revered and, both as critic and as composer, did his best to propagate. (His interpolated recitatives, composed on commission, allowed Der Freischütz to be performed at the Académie Royale, the bona fide “Paris Opera,” rather than at the Opéra Comique.) But Berlioz's music, unlike Weber's, had to do the work of the whole “production.” It is surely with Der Freischütz in mind that D. Kern Holoman praises “the ghostly beginning of the last movement, with the eight-part divisi strings articulating a dramatic sonority, the whole concept as splendid as the curtain rising on an eerie stage lit in green and purple.”30 With such a task to perform, it is no wonder either that the first part of the “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath” is the part of the Symphonie fantastique with the most detailed program, or that every event it details is unmistakably represented in the music. The program, and the “unmistakability” of the representation, were alone what justified the outrageous musical effects.

The whole slow introduction (Larghetto) can be related, as Holoman suggests, to the “unearthly sounds, groans, shrieks of laughter” listed in the program, but the “unearthly cries, to which others seem to respond” have a more specific referent in the woodwind semaphores in Ex. 6-11, answered by the muted valve horn (a very recent invention, introduced in concert only two years before, and specified here for the first time). The “unearthliness” was due not only to the literally unheard-of timbre, but to the octave glissandos, which (as Berlioz knew full well) have to be “faked.”

Varieties of Representation

ex. 6-11 Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, V, mm. 7-11

Varieties of RepresentationVarieties of Representation

ex. 6-12 Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, V, mm. 40-54

The character-transformation of the idée fixe into “an ignoble dance tune, trivial and grotesque,” previewed at m. 21 and played in full at m. 41 (Ex. 6-12), was another device borrowed straight from the opera, but one destined for a long career in orchestral music (as we have already begun to see), largely thanks to Liszt, who attended the premiere performance of the Symphonie fantastique and immediately introduced himself to Berlioz, with whom he maintained a cordial friendship until the latter's death. (Berlioz conducted the premiere performance, in Weimar, of Liszt's E♭-major Concerto, where the device of thematic transformation received a workout; Schumann, too, not only knew but had even reviewed the Symphonie fantastique by the time he wrote the Fantaisie in A minor for piano and orchestra that eventually became the first movement of his Concerto.) Once again timbre plays a hitherto unprecedented role in characterization: to depict his beloved in a fright wig Berlioz used yet another instrument new to the symphony orchestra, the small, shrill-sounding E♭ clarinet, employed previously only in military bands.

Between the preview and the full statement comes the most radically disruptive and “incoherent” musical event in the score: the sudden tutti on E♭ that interrupts the C-major statement of the tune after its seventh bar. This moment is again carefully given its precise “objective” referent in the program—“a howl of joy greets her arrival”—without which the music would have been simply incomprehensible.

But now comes a profound change in the relationship between the music and the scenario, which from this moment is nothing more than a list of musical events such as might be found in any concert program. For this most fantastic episode of the Fantastic Symphony verbal justification was no longer necessary because a different (and older) kind of musical symbolism had kicked in, one that drew its referents not from within the work but from a wider range of reference on which the composer could rely because he shared it with his audience.

That shared asset was the musical treasury of the Church, the most traditional symbolic repository of all. Berlioz's appropriation of the stern medieval Dies Irae melody and his burlesque treatment of it were a little risqué at a time when representations of religious services on the opera stage were subject to censorship, but it was essential to his “objective” or naturalistic purposes to employ an artifact from “reality,” even if it served to illustrate a figment of fantasy.

Yet even here the device seems to have had its source not in real life but in literature. The Dies Irae, sung offstage in the original Latin, was employed as a stage effect in the cathedral scene from Goethe's Faust, a play Berlioz placed almost on a level with Shakespeare. Associations with Faust, a play all about diabolical havoc, would seem to have furnished the pretext for Berlioz's strange use of the chant to symbolize not divine redemption (as in the liturgy) but devilish fun and games. Such was the force of Berlioz's example that it irrevocably changed the chant's significance for composers to come, who inevitably associated it neither with Goethe nor with God, but with the unholy jigs in the Symphonie fantastique.

Not only the Dies Irae device but the midnight chimes that accompanied it (Ex. 6-13) were theatrical borrowings, making use of an instrument that had to be carted to the concert hall directly from the opera house. The most striking musical effect in the Dies Irae travesty is the irregularity with which the eight-measure peal of the chimes (spaced now four, now five bars apart) impinges on the rhythmically regular Dies Irae variations. That seemingly uncoordinated (but of course meticulously calculated) relationship was another “naturalistic” touch: the singers and the bell ringers, working independently, seemingly come together only from the chance perspective of the onlooker (that is, the audience).

Varieties of Representation

ex. 6-13 Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, V, mm. 121-146

The chant variations proceed in a curiously academic, even pedantic manner, by strict diminution. But that is only the first of Berlioz's ironic borrowings from conservatory routine. The Ronde du sabbat (“Witches’ round dance”) itself is introduced through an ungainly but altogether “correct” fugal exposition, and the climactic section, in which the round dance and the Dies Irae are combined, is a cantus firmus exercise such as every counterpoint pupil is still forced to write. (It remained a favorite device with Berlioz: compare the climax of the overture to his opera Benvenuto Cellini, in which all the themes are his own, including the cantus firmus.)

All of these devices work together to make the latter part of the symphony's finale a piece of mock church music in the academic manner—just the sort of thing a well-trained musician might imagine under the influence of opium. The effect of the incongruity between the “learned,” somewhat archaic compositional devices and the garish program (to say nothing of the orchestration, which reaches a peak of wildness with the col legno at Fig. , where the violinists and violists are asked, for the first time in an orchestral score, to “strike the string with the wood of the bow”), is a source of humor to those in the know, and by the end one is almost convinced that the sophisticated composer's tongue is in his cheek.

Whether or not it was intended, Berlioz's fellow composers appreciated the joke, and appropriated it. Burlesque Dies Iraes—in which the Church's most terrifying musical artifact, describing the Last Judgment in appalling detail, was defaced, distorted, covered with composerly graffiti of every kind—became something of a rage or a blasphemous sport in the wake of the Symphonie fantastique. Most directly inspired by it was Liszt's Totentanz (“Dance of death”), a one-movement piano concerto subtitled “Paraphrase über ‘Dies Irae’ in der Form einer Variation” (1838, revised and published 1859). Funniest of all was the Danse macabre, an orchestral showpiece by Camille Saint-Saëns (1874), that thoroughly defanged the chant, doing to it what Berlioz had done to his idée fixe (Ex. 6-14).

Varieties of Representation

ex. 6-14 Camille Saint-Saëns, Dies Irae in Danse macabre

The last major contribution to this odd little tradition was the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934) by the Russian pianist-composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, a One-movement concerto consisting for the most part of variations on the theme of Paganini's twenty-fourth Caprice, with the Dies Irae thrown in as a reminder of Paganini's “diabolical” persona. By now the tradition (or traditions, for Paganini's Caprice had spawned another) has become entirely jocular, but its improbable longevity perhaps testifies to the ambivalence with which audiences reacted to Berlioz's original appropriation of the tune, and a wish to settle the uneasy questions it raised.


(30) Holoman, Berlioz, pp. 102–3.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006008.xml