French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is a unique figure in music history. He never mastered one single instrument, dabbling in the guitar and flute early in his life. He initially studied medicine before leaving school to become a composer. His most famous work is among his earliest: the Symphonie Fantastique. He developed a great love for Shakespeare, basing several of his composition on the bard’s work. He was prone to fits of passion and obsession in both his life and his music. As a young man he fell madly in love with Harriet Smithson, an actress whom he saw play Ophelia in Hamlet. He pursued her for years and finally convinced her to marry him, only to have the marriage fall apart in short order. He wrote his music on a grand scale: his Requiem, for example, was scored for: 20 woodwinds; a brass section of 12 horns, 4 cornets and tubas, and 4 additional antiphonal brass choirs of 38 musicians total; 26 percussionists on 16 timpani, 10 cymbals and more; more than 100 strings; a choir of at least 210 voices, plus a tenor soloist. That’s over 400 musicians in total. His experience with such immense musical forces lent him great expertise in instrumentation and orchestration, and led him to write a treatise on the subject. He was prolific as a writer and critic throughout his life, often supporting his family on his writer’s income between compositions.
The “March to the Scaffold” is the fourth of five movements in the Symphonie Fantastique. The symphony as a whole tells the story, in music, of a troubled young artist and his quest for his true love. The true love is represented musically by a melody known as the idee fixe (fixed idea). This melody appears in every movement of the symphony. The first movement introduces the idee fixe and chronicles the beginnings of the young artist’s quest. The second is a waltz, moving the action to a fabulous-sounding ball. The third moves to an imagined countryside where a storm is brewing, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The fourth movement takes on a nightmarish character: having taken opium, the young artist dreams that he has killed his true love and is about to be executed for his crime. This movement thus depicts the artist’s forced march to the scaffold. The idee fixe appears only once, as a sudden remeniscence just before the guillotine strikes the young man’s head right off and the movement comes to a perversely joyous conclusion. The symphony’s final movement imagines the young artist, still in his opium dream, transported to hell. Here he sees his true love, now grotesque and distorted in comically demonic fashion. The creatures of hell amass around the artist, gleefully celebrating his demise.
Berlioz wrote his own program to the piece, which he provided for audience members to read as they listened. Two versions of it are reprinted here. I prefer the first.
There is one go-to site on Berlioz: The Hector Berlioz Website. Go here for literally everything you could possibly want to know about him, including a detailed biography, descriptions of every work, and also downloadable scores of several of his works.
Symphonie Fantastique has many varied descriptions and tributes on the web:
An AOL member. Includes a manuscript of the idee fixe.
A British rock musician. He modernizes the program and discusses why Berlioz is still relevant.
This just scratches the surface. Google it for even more!
The band version of “March to the Scaffold”:
Finally, “March to the Scaffold” performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestre National de France: