An Episode in the Life of the Artist Opus 14, usually referred to by its subtitle Symphonie fantastique (Fantasy Symphony) is a symphony written by French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is widely regarded as one of the most important and representative pieces of the early Romantic period, and is still very popular with concert audiences worldwide. The first performance took place at the Paris Conservatoire in December 1830. The work was repeatedly revised between 1831 and 1845.
The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.
There are five movements, instead of the four movements which were conventional for symphonies at the time:
The first movement is radical in its harmonic outline, building a vast arch back to the home key, which, while similar to the sonata form of classical composition, was taken as a departure by Parisian critics. It is here that the listener is introduced to the theme of the artist's beloved, or the idée fixe. Throughout the movement, there is a simplicity of presentation of the melody and themes, which Robert Schumann compared to "Beethoven's epigrams", ideas which could be extended, had the composer chosen to. In part, it is because Berlioz rejected writing the very symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies which were, "so intense in every note, as to defy normal harmonization", as Schumann put it.
The theme itself was taken from Berlioz's scène lyrique "Herminie", composed in 1828.
The second movement has a mysterious sounding introduction that creates an atmosphere of impending excitement, followed by a harps-dominated passage, then the flowing waltz theme appears, derived from the idée fixe at first, and then transforming it. It is filled with running ascending and descending figures. The idée fixe theme interrupts the waltz twice.
The movement is the only one to feature the two harp sections, identified in a published score as Harps I and Harps II, without specifying how many are to be used. The harps may well symbolize the object of affection, but certainly provide the glamour and sensual richness of the ball being represented. Berlioz wrote extensively in his memoirs of his trials and tribulations in getting this symphony performed due to supply or lack of capable harpists and harps, especially in Germany.
The two "shepherds" that Berlioz mentions in the notes are depicted with the cor anglais and offstage oboe tossing back and forth a characteristic melody. After the cor anglais/oboe conversation has ended, the principal theme of the movement appears on solo flute and violins. Berlioz salvaged this theme from his abandoned Messe solennelle. The idée fixe returns in the middle of the movement. The sound of distant thunder at the end of the movement is an innovative passage for four timpani.
Berlioz claimed to have written the fourth movement in a single night, reconstructing music from an unfinished project, the opera Les francs-juges. The movement begins with timpani sextuplets in thirds, for which he directs: "The first quaver of each half-bar is to be played with two drum sticks, and the other five with the right hand drum-sticks". The movement proceeds as a march filled with blaring horns and rushing passages, and scurrying figures which would later show up again in the last movement. Prior to the musical depiction of his execution, there is a brief, nostalgic recollection of the idée fixe in a solo clarinet, as though representing the last conscious thought of the soon to be executed man.. Immediately following this is a single short fortissimo G minor chord that represents the fatal blow of the guillotine blade; the series of pizzicato notes following represents the rolling of the severed head into the basket. After his death, the final nine bars of the movement contain a victorious series of tutti G major chords, seemingly intended to convey the cheering of the onlooking throng.
The return of the idée fixe as a "vulgar dance tune" is depicted with a prominent E-flat clarinet solo. There are a host of effects, including eerie col legno playing in the strings, the bubbling of the witches' cauldron to the blasts of wind. The climactic finale of the symphony combines the somber Dies Irae melody with the wild fugue of the Ronde du Sabbat (Sabbath Round).
He later adds:
As part of this he uses an example of cyclical structure in music, which was an idea drawn from Beethoven's use of similar rhythmic structures or shapes in his Fifth Symphony, and the idea of musical "cycles", such as a "song cycle". Berlioz did not know of Mendelssohn's Octet, which also uses this device.
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."
In 1831, Berlioz wrote a much less well known sequel to the work, Lelio, for narrator and orchestra.
Franz Liszt, who was on good terms with Berlioz, made a piano transcription of the work in 1833 (S.470).