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For Théophile Gautier, the flamboyant figures of Berlioz, Hugo and Delacroix formed a “trinity of Romantic art”. The young Berlioz’s first masterpiece, the Symphonie fantastique, is one of the key works in the history of the Romantic movement and was much admired by Schumann. It was completed and first performed in 1830, and according to the composer it was written “with great difficulty in certain parts, with an incredible facility in others”. Berlioz was then in the throes of an “infernal” passion for a young Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who he was to marry in 1833. He described the programme of this “instrumental drama” as an evocation of the “reveries” of a young artist who idolises a woman who does not return his love. In despair, he attempts suicide, and then dreams of being present at his own execution after having killed his beloved. The beloved is represented by an “idée fixe”, a kind of leitmotif that crops up in all five movements of the symphony, each of which is conceived as a poem in its own right – to the artist himself (“Rêveries-Passions”), to the dance (“Un bal”), to nature (“Scène aux champs”), to love and to death (“Marche au supplice” and “Songe d’une nuit de sabbat”). The last two movements are truly grotesque, dark and violent – qualities that are highlighted by the strikingly original orchestration. The young hero is led to the scaffold to the accompaniment of the theme of the Dies irae.
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