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December 2013
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Making a Fantastic Symphony


Things You Never Knew about Berlioz

To sit down with the Chicago Symphony’s Gerard McBurney is to reformat the brain and reconsider half-baked factoids while gaining an entirely different awareness of music. It happened recently with a conversation about Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony.

It should be said that radio people and program annotators LOVE the Symphonie fantastique because it’s got a good story. We can hold court with the toughest crowd, chomping on this delicious tale like a piece of ripe fruit:

Berlioz had barely written anything, let alone a symphony. He goes to the theater to see some Shakespeare and falls in love with Ophelia. He doesn’t even speak the same language as the actress Harriet Smithson, but he’s so heartsick he writes a huge symphony for her.

Then it gets dark.

With the symphony, Berlioz generates a fiction around the excruciating longing he feels for this woman. The music plays out like a drama in which he imagines attempting suicide and murdering the woman who barely knows he’s alive.

Berlioz could get in a lot of trouble for putting musings like that on Facebook.

He does end up marrying her. Not surprisingly the real Harriet Smithson didn’t measure up to the Harriet Smithson in Berlioz’s brain, and the marriage didn’t last.

What makes this affair so unforgettable is the symphony. At 26 years old, Berlioz arguably wrote the greatest first symphony of all time. Today there are nearly 200 recordings of the piece, all with booklets that show the little tune that’s supposed to represent Harriet Smithson. From there, one could spend a whole afternoon examining the intricate tone painting used throughout the symphony. What you wont find in these recordings is information demonstrating that Hector Berlioz had been on the cusp of writing such a singular masterpiece. Compared to any other composer, Berlioz’s musical background is thin.  That’s where the intensive research of Gerard McBurney starts to put meat on those bones.

With that research, Mr. McBurney crafts a fascinating, multimedia production, complete with the Chicago Symphony onstage, poised to play excerpts. These programs, called Beyond the Score, always offer the nuts and bolts of a piece on the first half, and a complete performance on the second (performances are this Friday and Sunday). Invariably McBurney’s efforts produce more information than can be written into half a concert. Sometimes the greatest insights are cut from the show, just because they’d take too much time to explain. With that in mind, we asked Gerard to talk about some of the things that will not be part of this weekend’s Beyond the Score:



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