Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Daniele Gatti about the Symphonie fantastique

Daniele Gatti was introduced to Berlioz and his music fairly late in his career, but it was in an auspicious place: Paris, where he conducted the Orchestre National de France.

Daniele Gatti: ‘Berlioz enriched my stay in Paris immeasurably. Not just with the orchestra, but as an ordinary citizen. I lived in the city, I had a little apartment, and I experienced the city like a Parisian. I read a lot of history, I’m mad about the French Revolution, and I became aware how at that historic, epic moment, the world changed completely. Not just in politics, but also in the arts. The Enlightenment developed into the Sturm und Drang of the Romantic era. Berlioz is the clearest example of that, a composer who demonstrates quite literally what it means to be a ‘Romantic’ in a very personal sense: to consider the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the everyday as sacred, and the finite as infinite. In September of 2014, I conducted Roméo et Juliette with the Orchestre National, and it was then that I said, before I leave Paris I also want to do the Symphonie fantastique.’

How did you approach the score?

‘I began reading the score without first listening to any recordings. I discovered many elements that spoke to my imagination. And then the quality of the writing: it is a really modern score! It’s a theatrical piece, full of theatrical effects. The violins rattle their bows, the timpanist is asked to use only one stick – these are all stage directions. I have a lot of experience conducting opera, and that came in handy here. You really are a stage director, and you need to balance the drama in order to draw the audience in. It’s fascinating.’

What makes the Fantastique a modern composition?

‘Berlioz wrote this in 1828, 1829 – a few years after Beethoven’s Ninth. This is the first example of programmatic music, of a “symphonic poem”. It describes a descent into hell, in five movements. It is a negative symphony, in a way, but it has a strong formal structure. The first movement is in sonata form, the second is shaped like a song, and the last movement is a fugue. Berlioz uses purely musical elements to build the drama. That puts him quite close to Mahler, and you could also see a parallel with Alban Berg. Take Wozzeck, an intensely dramatic opera. It, too, is written with formal music, old musical forms – the sonata, variations, the fugue and so on.'

‘With Berlioz these forms can be irregular, as is his phrasing. There are sections of seven, nine or even thirteen bars. Usually, Western music is divided into phrases of eight or sixteen bars, so it’s very, very strange to see it done like this. But it’s deliberate: Berlioz knows the audience has a certain routine, that it expects a climax at certain moments, and he plays with those expectations. In this way, he can manipulate the audience.’

How did you approach the Fantastique with the Concertgebouw Orchestra?

‘This is an orchestra with quite a history, real quality, and above all musical intelligence, so you can approach it with an idea which may – provided it’s not too bizarre – change the perspective of the piece. There are bars where, vertically, the flute plays mezzo forte and the double bass both pianissimo and sforzato. There are many instances like that. So if we were to play that like a Brahms symphony, we would murder the modernity of this score. That’s why I didn’t listen to any recordings, not out of arrogance, but because I wanted the score to sound as pure as possible in my head. Only then could I say to the orchestra, “Look, Berlioz wrote this the way he did because he intended to create a theatrical narrative within the orchestra. If we could focus on the tiny details, and less on the grand gestures, we may be able to give the audience an aspect of Berlioz which is not often heard.” '

‘All things considered, that’s the secret to making music, even today. When people say to me, “Surely by now we must know how this should be done,” I say, “Oh, come on!” There are lots of things we can propose without betraying the score – precisely without betraying the score. Perhaps we’ll confound people’s expectations, but if I have the choice, I’d much rather confront those expectations.’

The synopsis of the Symphonie is a vision. Berlioz imagines an artist – possibly based on himself – who meets an ideal love, after which he descends into a series of dreams, which become increasingly agitated. They end up in a mad nightmare, a Witches’ Sabbath. How does all that work musically?

Daniele Gatti: ‘The first part is idyllic, a rêverie. I really love the introduction. The first bar has four triplets, twelve notes. These are usually played with a ritenuto, as if the stage curtain is slowly opening… But this is a dream. When you’re dreaming, do you know where the dream begins or ends? No. You don’t dream from point A to point Z. You’re inside the dream. That’s why I tried to play this in one straight tempo. It’s risky because we’re so accustomed to things opening in such a style, and because the orchestra needs to feel and breathe as one. But when it works, it’s magical. And for the audience, you’ve provided a first little shock.'

‘When the violins pick up the theme, at the beginning of the allegro, the hero of the story is in love. He is proud, but shy. Berlioz writes two little crescendos there. The hero lifts his chin, as it were, but then he withdraws again, into a shadow. He’s full of passion, yet in control of himself. So, in three bars the composer asks me to express three very different feelings. Usually these bars are played quite quickly, but I thought, if I go too quickly, I can never convey that arc to the audience. And so I took the tempo just a little bit slower there.'

‘At the beginning of the second movement, our hero arrives at a ball. First the music is heard from outside, softly, with a tremolo, and only then do you enter and are enveloped by a waltz. Berlioz interrupts this dance with his idée fixe, a recurring theme played by the clarinet: the hero sees his beloved, or imagines that he sees her; the theme might just refer to his obsession, not to a person. Here, too, are some theatrical effects: the orchestra plays pianississimo, the melody is perhaps mezzo piano, and you can hear the dance continuing in the distance. If you consider that this was written in 1828, 1829, you can really feel the perspective of music changing.’

What is the orchestration of this second movement like?

‘The score indicates two harps, but these are sometimes doubled to four, something Berlioz himself appears to have done on occasion. I came up with another solution: I didn’t double the harps, but I reduced the strings to ten first violins, very few. I could do that because Berlioz calls for only seven wind instruments, flutes, one oboe, clarinets and horns. That’s all. I chose to work with fifty per cent of the power available, but with a much more transparent sound, almost like a chamber orchestra. It was written in this transparent way, so you can clearly distinguish the two harps.'

‘The third movement begins with cor anglais and oboe. During the rehearsals, the two fantastic musicians of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were playing this with a strong sound, vibrato, very espressivo. I stopped them and said, “We need to go back to Mahler’s experience of Naturlaut, the sound of nature itself. Not the cuckoo, but a pure sound. The cor anglais plays a signal, like that of a shepherd, and the oboe answers in the distance. So, what would be more expressive, playing with vibrato or playing without, like a pure sound?” They understood completely.'

‘There the viola starts a tremolo. The shepherds are communicating, and as they talk, a little wind rustles the leaves. Mind you, I don’t intend to give an imitation of wind and leaves, only to give the feeling of them. After that, violins and flutes take up the melody, as a single line, without harmonisation, in unison. That gives a kind of … honeyed effect. Quite special, herrlich, so peaceful and so honest in its expression. Then there’s a moment where our hero is tormented by doubts: will his beloved be unfaithful to him? Will she begin an affair with someone else? The tension can be heard in the orchestra, a tremolo, an accelerando – it is as if he’s losing control. When the second violin plays the peaceful melody again, the double basses suddenly play a sforzatissimo diminuendo – brum! brum! It seems one part of the orchestra is determined to disturb the peace. At the end, the cor anglais returns, hoping to continue his conversation with the oboe, but the oboe has disappeared. Instead, you hear four timpani in sharp contrast, like a thunderstorm approaching. This is almost Edgard Varèse…'

‘The fourth movement, the march to the scaffold, is a real nightmare, a bad opium trip. The poor hero imagines he has been condemned and is being driven to the guillotine. Berlioz directs the timpanist to play the sextuplets in the march with one hand. This is a precise indication of the tempo. When you play with two hands, you can beat very quickly, but you can’t with just one. So, there are no metronome markings here, but this little message to the timpanist gives the information that his is the right tempo, not any faster.'

‘Suddenly there’s a massive chord – bam! – not only indicating the hero has been decapitated, but also marking the end of his desire: right before that, you hear the idée fixe. And then, pizzicato, plunk-plunk-plunk, his head rolls down the steps! Perhaps the next little motif is Sanson, the executioner, holding up the head for all to see.'

‘Then begins the finale, that insane Witches’ Sabbath. You hear the idée fixe again, but distorted and grotesque; you hear a medieval Dies irae, the violins playing col legno, like the rattling of bones. It’s almost like Stravinsky or Mahler, who also used col legno to create such archaic effects. It’s fantastic, but only when everybody in the orchestra is absolutely razor-sharp. And they are.’

Interview: Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood