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Music / Symphonie Fantastique

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Symphonie Fantastique is the most famous work of French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), released in 1830. The piece was a major game changer for Romanticism, as it developed the approach of Ludwig van Beethoven's sixth symphony, the Pastorale, to a programmatic symphony that even contained a plot told in musical pictures, anticipating the Tone Poem of Franz Liszt as well the Leitmotif of Richard Wagner.


The plot consists of five acts, akin to theatre. The story was written down by Berlioz himself and included in the program of the premiere.

1. An artist is struggling with himself. He meets his Love Interest and falls head over heels, the Leitmotif is established here. 2. The artist meets her at a ball and her ironic flirting is too much for him. 3. The artist flees into the countryside and has some beautiful calm hours. His Love Interest keeps haunting him, represented by the idée fixe bursting back into the score, so he decides to commit suicide by an opium overdose. 4. In his dying thoughts, he imagines being decapitated in a public execution for killing her inside his fantasies. Played for Laughs musically with a huge march sequence. 5. In a deeper layer of his dying thoughts (think of twice-dead), he imagines his Love Interest participating in a witches' feast, represented in a grotesque parody of the idée fixe juxtaposed with the Dies Irae motif.


The symphony is said to be an expression of Love Hurts on Berlioz' part, who fell madly in love with the acress Harriet Smithson, whom he eventually married after she listened to this musical love letter, but it became an unhappy marriage for both sides and they divorced again.

This piece provides examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: If it wasn't for Berlioz' detailed story, one could only speculate what this piece was about.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: The Witches' Sabbath movement is the artist's vision of himself at (a parody of) his own funeral.
  • Cerebus Rollercoaster
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  • Dance Party Ending: In a prime example of Romantic Irony, the piece ends in a frentic dance during Witches' Sabbath.
  • Denser and Wackier: The fourth movement and especially the finale, compared to the seriousness of the third movement.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: In a musical example, he imagines his own execution and then a Witches' Sabbath; the music becomes frenzy and psychedelic.
  • Downer Ending: Played for Laughs thanks to massive use of Romantic Irony. The protagonist is dying due to Opium overdose, but his mad hallucinations are quite entertaining, including the Ironic Echo of the centuries-old Dies Irae motif, that turns it into a tasteful self-parody.
  • Dying Dream: Big time, the last two movements are all his dying thoughts.
  • Follow the Leader: Earned a massive cult following among composers. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner directly picked up on its innovations.
  • Gainax Ending: When dying, the artist hallucinates about being decapitated and then a full-fledged Witches' Sabbath.
  • Ironic Echo: The idée fixe is perverted in the finale as a jovial dance motif, invoking a crude way of expressing Hotter and Sexier set in music.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: He wents to the countryside as an attempt to escape her, but he keeps seeing her, it's left ambiguous whether she actually is there or if he's just hallucinating.
  • Mind Screw: The last two movements are a dying fantasy of the artist, who madly hallucinates about being decapitated and whitnessing a witches feast in which his Love Interest participates.
  • Mushroom Samba: The last two acts are dedicated to the effects of Opium.
  • Romanticism: One of the most famous examples.
  • Trope Maker: Of the tone poem, when Ludwig van Beethoven's 6th symphony had been the Ur-Example.
  • Unrequited Love

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