Symphonic Shocker


By John Schauer

I have long been haunted by something former Ravinia music director Christoph Eschenbach once said in an interview. He was asked for his thoughts on “historic” performance practice, and he mused that no matter how meticulously one tries to duplicate 18th-century style, articulation, tuning, and instrumentation, “We will never be able to listen with 18th-century ears.”

It vividly pointed out the elements of a musical performance, for which we need (a) a composer to write the music, (b) musicians to perform it, and—of vital importance—(c) an audience to listen to it. Without an audience, it’s just a rehearsal. And everyone in that audience brings with them all of their personal listening histories, which greatly determine how they will perceive everything they hear.

A prime example is Berlioz’s great Symphonie fantastique, which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform on July 16 under the baton of Nikolaj Znaider, an accomplished violinist who will also perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3. To today’s audiences, who have heard nearly two centuries of music that was composed after the Symphonie fantastique received its premiere in 1830, Berlioz’s music sounds safe, melodious, beautiful, and brilliantly constructed, but nowhere near as jaw-droppingly shocking as it did to its first audience. Their musical context did not include works by Schumann, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, or Webern; the music of Beethoven, who had died less than four years before, was still dominant in their musical memories. In fact, Berlioz himself first heard Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies a scant two and a half years before composing his own revolutionary first symphony.

Today it’s difficult to understand what made Berlioz’s work so thoroughly fantastic, but because of peculiar circumstances in my own musical development, I was able to have a taste of the same shock and awe felt by audiences in 1830. Classical music did not play a large role in my family; we didn’t go to concerts, and my parents considered recordings a luxury we could live without. So the first symphonic records I had exposure to were a set of Beethoven symphonies that one of my father’s coworkers was discarding—they were old 78 rpm records that no one played anymore in the era of the LP, which was born the same year I was. But I was eager to get classical music from any source I could find, and so I listened endlessly to those scratchy old relics until I knew every note. That set did not include Beethoven’s First or Fourth Symphonies, and it’s amusing that to this day I am nowhere near as familiar with those works as I am with the other seven works in the cycle.

photo by Piano Piano! on flickr: that was my musical background when a friend of mine from school invited me over to hear a new recording he had bought of the Symphonie fantastique. He began by teasing me with multiple excerpts of some of the most unusual passages, and just as must have happened to the audience in 1830, my jaw dropped open. It seemed almost inconceivable that something so totally new and bizarre could have been composed right after Beethoven. I soon acquired my own recording of this innovative, tradition-shattering work, and my musical world was never the same again.

I later learned that beyond the style of the music, there were other factors that made Berlioz a radical revolutionary. For starters, he had given the work a “program,” the story of a love-sick artist who attempts suicide by taking an overdose of opium and succumbs to a series of vivid, Technicolor hallucinations. The second movement was a waltz, which, far from being a staid and proper dance from the past, was still a scandalous new fad—Johann Strauss had not yet toured to Paris to introduce what was then considered an indecent dance, in which the partners actually touched in an embrace and whirled until near-hysteria was induced. The fourth movement was a march to a guillotine that ends with the artist’s execution, and the final movement finds our protagonist in hell, where his beloved appears as a vulgar tramp who dances lasciviously while the orchestra’s frantic fugue is punctuated by tolling funeral bells and the Dies irae from the Gregorian requiem mass. Though it would become a common device for later composers, this was the first time any composer ever dared to quote that august and terrifying evocation of death.

I consider myself very lucky to have been able to hear Symphonie fantastique for the first time through “19th-century ears.” But regardless of your own musical experiences, it’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and an exhilarating symphonic roller coaster ride. Fasten your seat belts!

Find out more about the July 16 concert featuring Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.