Halloween Special: Symphonie Fantastique (Witches’ Sabbath)

In today’s video, we’re going to take a closer look to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – particularly the fifth and final movement from the symphony, “witches’ sabbath”.

This is such an iconic and hair-raising composition. To me, it was the perfect way to celebrate October 31st, Halloween!

Symphonie Fantastique: Basics

The full title for Symphonie Fantastique is:

Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties

(Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist in Five Parts)

This symphony was written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in the early Romantic era, in 1830. Berlioz would have been about 27 years old when this was written, and it’s the composition he’s most known for.

This symphony is one of music’s first drug trips. Not only does the story itself involve opium, but it’s thought that Berlioz composed some of it while being under the influence of opium himself.

Over 90 instruments are used in a performance of this symphony, which is very large – larger than anything else previous.

Symphonie Fantastique: History

Though this symphony was written in 1830, Berlioz revised it heavily over the next 15 years into the version we know and enjoy today.

This was Berlioz’s breakthrough work. You can hear a “passing of the torch” from Beethoven’s symphonies to Berlioz’s, but Berlioz went further into uncharted territory than Beethoven ever did.

The influence of opera is also clearly felt in this symphony, what with the epic storyline that explores everything from hallucinations to witches to love.

Listen to the full version here:

Program music

This symphony falls under the genre of “program music”. Program music is basically music that tells a story, and generally has an accompanying text/program to explain the music.

The story of this symphony is about an artist going heavy on the opium because he’s in despair. He’s in despair because he’s in love with someone who doesn’t love him back.

For each of the movements and for the preface, Berlioz wrote the program notes himself. This is what Berlioz wrote in the 1845 publication:

“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.”

Symphonie Fantastique Movements

At the time, symphonies generally had 3 or 4 movements. Symphonie Fantastique had 5 movements, and they are as follows:

  1. Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions) – C minor/C major
  2. Un bal (A Ball) – A major
  3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields) – F major
  4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) – G minor
  5. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath) – C major

I didn’t want to skim over these movements too briefly, so today we’re going to focus exclusively on the last movement – Dream of the Night of the Sabbath, or sometimes shortened to Witches’ Sabbath. I wanted to talk about something spooky and Halloween-y, since it is Halloween.

Fifth movement: “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath)

Before we get into this, let’s read what Berlioz had to say about this movement in the program notes:

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

Just to give a little explanation on what Dies irae is: It’s a very old medieval Latin hymn that means “Day of Wrath”. It’s used and quoted over and over again in music. It’s really intense, and deals with the Last Judgement.

This symphony was very bold and forward for its time. Not only is it unusual in having 5 movements, it’s also far more intense and frightening than anything else from the era.

Four sections

We’ll start by dividing this piece into four different parts:

  1. Introduction (Larghetto)
  2. Allegro – idee fixe (measure 21)
  3. Dies irae (measure 127)
  4. Witches’ round dance (measure 222)

Introduction (Larghetto)

We start the fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique off on a really creepy note, with a dramatic atmosphere being created by sudden dynamic changes (like sforzandos). The string instruments use effects like tremolos and pizzicatos as well.

Let’s take a quick listen to this eerie introduction.


Part 2: Allegro (Idee fixe)

On measure 21, we hit a tempo change (allegro) and hear the idee fixe. An idee fixe, or “fixed idea”, is a recurring melody that links the whole symphony together. If you listen to the whole symphony, you’ll hear it in other movements as well.

The fixed idea is first played by the C clarinet, but it gets all gnarly and twisted-up. First it’s blasted into chaos at the allegro assai section on bar 29. Then it continues along, this time with an Eb clarinet, giving us a higher-pitched, more shrill sound than the C clarinet.

Let’s take a quick listen to this “main theme” of the symphony.

Leading into dies irae

Berlioz uses some ominous-sounding tubular bells to lead us into the Dies irae section (which starts at bar 127).

When the dies irae section starts on bar 127, it’s announced by four bassoons and two tubas (which sound very dark and ominous in conjunction with each other).

Let’s have a listen to this entrance, and then go deeper into the woods with dies irae.

Part 3: Dies irae

Once we start getting a little more rhythm and movement in the dies irae section, and the string instruments kick in, we get to the real “meat” of the piece. This, to me, is one of the coolest parts of the movement.

The dies irae theme in this movement is all about impending death. Death is following the artist, sometimes as a loud and powerful presence (like the ending), sometimes like a nudging. Even when this theme is interrupted, as it will be during the first part of the witches’ sabbath, it always returns. Death is on your doorstep!

Lead-in to the Witches’ sabbath

Once we reach bar 222, we get into the “witches’ round dance” motif, repeatedly played by the strings like so:

They are punctuated by repeated brass notes.

Once we get through this introductory segment, we hear the full motif (the full Sabbath Round) played at bar 241. This part is feverish and jubilant, manic and exhilarating.

This section is the longest in the symphony, and goes through many epic phases. Definitely check it out in full!

Part 4: Dies irae in the witches’ sabbath

On bar 414, we hear the return of the dies irae tune, blaring loudly as brass instruments. This is another great moment in the composition. The ecstasy of the witches’ sabbath starts turning into something more ominous – a darkness starts gripping the mania.

This is the grand finale of the entire symphony. Death is triumphant. If this part doesn’t make your heart pound, I don’t know what will!

conclusion

Happy Halloween, friends! I hope you enjoyed this spooky analysis. 🙂

xo,

Allysia

Credits/music

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 – 5 Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath

European Archive

Public domain mark 1.0

recordings and score

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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