Review: Obsession and Psychosis in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

Picture: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Photo credit: Julien Jourdes
Picture: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Photo credit: Julien Jourdes

Concert Performance
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz: Lélio

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
National Youth Choir of Scotland
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor.
13 August 2015 at the Usher Hall.
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Reviewed by Vivek Santayana

Hector Berlioz’s musical idiom was quite maverick for his time and his Symphonie Fantastique pushed the boundaries of what the symphonic form could achieve. But considering how it has become such a mainstay in the symphonic repertoire, the revolutionary character of the Symphonie Fantastique, and indeed its power to shock, can sometimes be taken for granted. In a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique at the Edinburgh International Festival (on 13 August 2015 at the Usher Hall), the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, was particularly effective in recovering what was truly shocking about Berlioz’s symphony. The symphony is a sustained musical depiction of a very complex spectrum of mental states, including morbidity, obsession, intoxication, hallucination, depression and suicidal ideation.

To begin with, the Symphonie Fantastique is about obsession. Berlioz notes in his programme notes[i] comments about the first movement that the image of the woman is associated with a musical idea and ‘this melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe’. This ‘double’ is in the sense that the phrase has to meaning: an idée fixe is on one hand musical leitmotif that accompanies the protagonist’s thoughts of the beloved and represents his unrequited love. There is a yearning melody that seems to recur higher and higher until its eventual resignation and collapse. On the other hand, this idée fixe is, as Leonard Bernstein notes in his lecture on Berlioz,[ii] a ‘fixed idea … in other words, an obsession’. The nature of this theme embodies a pathological obsession that drives the artist crazy. And the nature of this obsession is almost like an addiction, as Berlioz notes this idée fixe ‘haunts’ the artist ‘ceaselessly’. It is a theme that recurs in every movement in different guises, sometimes even plaintive, sinister or downright menacing as in the later movements. This depiction of love and obsession resonates with Berlioz’s own life, as the symphony emerged from his prolonged obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson. Gardiner’s phrasing and his use of a remarkably brisk tempo in the opening movement captured the restlessness and the frantic desperation that the theme represented. The sense of agitation in Gardiner’s interpretation embodied the way in which an obsession can consume the self. The music depicts the psychology of obsession and the way it intensifies through the subsequent movements.

The Fourth Movement, ‘March to the Scaffold’, in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, performed by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Moreover, this music also depicts the experience of intoxication with psychotropic substances and the resulting hallucinations. Bernstein describes the Symphonie Fantastique as ‘the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip, written one hundred thirty odd years before the Beatles’. Berlioz’s programme notes for the symphony confirm this, as he describes the opening of the fourth movement (in the video above) as the representation of the following episode:

Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts.

Gardiner’s interpretation was exceptionally powerful in the way it captured these violent contrasts. The sudden shifts in tempi and mood in the first movement from severe agitation to a blissful serenity, or the contrasts of images like an idyllic countryside, a savage execution and the terrifying hallucinations of witches and ghosts, embodied the turbulent experience of intoxication, addiction and withdrawal. Moreover, the orchestra’s rendition of the fourth and fifth movement emphasised the hallucinatory nature of the music. In the Dies Irae in the final movement, the period instruments the orchestra used gave the chant a raspy texture (as opposed to the powerful, imposing quality of the modern tuba) making the Dies Irae sound like a sinister parody rather than a genuine requiem. This musical trip that Berlioz depicts, evident from Gardiner’s interpretation, represents severe detachment from reality. These drastic shifts between different moods and colours are effectively a musical depiction of schizophrenia caused by prolonged drug use. This manifests itself in violent fantasies of death and self-harm.

There is something deeply unsettling about the way the protagonist of the Symphonie Fantastique seems to hallucinate about his own execution. There are many Freudian readings of this supposed ‘death drive’, not to mention its complex entanglement with the protagonist’s erotic desires. This death drive is evinced in the self-destructive, even suicidal, nature of the story that this music depicts. It seems to suggest that the experience of psychotropic intoxication, obsession and withdrawal left the protagonist’s different emotional stages deeply entangled, and his inability to realise his romantic interest in the woman, coupled with an all-consuming obsession, have left him in a state of severe depression, which then motivate his sadistic desire to kill his beloved and subsequently be executed for his crime. These desires lead to the violent and ghostly hallucinations in the last two movements. Gardiner’s interpretation of the symphony emphasised these disturbing subtexts and was quite a poised and sensitive depiction of this experience of psychosis.

The Symphonie Fantastique is a compelling musical portrait of the troubled psyche of an artist. It explores an artist’s obsession with his muse, as what begins with a reverie gradually escalates into a pathological fixation on the object of these affections. The frustration of this obsession leads the artist to violent self-destructive fantasies, exacerbated by the use of psychotropic drugs. The symphony is a striking representation of a trip, including the rapid fluctuation of emotional states and the detachment from reality. Gardiner’s interpretation was true to the original orchestration of the piece and also especially sensitive to the narratives of obsession and intoxication that the music is meant to represent.


Vivek Santayana is a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests in the medical humanities include narrative ethics, literary representations of medicine, literature and psychotherapy and medical-ethical debates. Besides the medical humanities, his research interests include postcolonialism, postmodernism, ecocriticism, literature and science, continental philosophy and the history and philosophy of science.


[i] A translation by Michel Austin available on the Hector Berlioz Website

[ii] Originally part of the CBS series Young People’s Concerts, this lecture being titled Berlioz Takes a Trip and originally broadcast on 25 May 1959, the transcript of which is available here on the web site of the Leonard Bernstein estate.


Image © Julien Jourdes.

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