Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique

Program Listing

Saturday, may 18, 2024, 7:30 PM
SUNDAY, May 19, 2024, 2 PM
MONDAY, May 20, 2024, 7:30 PM

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 Sponsored by Gilbert & Peggy Miller


Jun Märkl, Conductor
Carolin Widmann, Violin

Claude Debussy

Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

Toru Takemitsu

Far Calls, Coming, Far!
Carolin Widmann

Ernest Chausson

Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25
Carolin Widmann
Hector Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Reveries and Passions: Largo - Allegro agitato e appassionato assai
A Ball: Waltz - Allegro non troppo
In the Country: Adagio
March to the Scaffold: Allegretto non troppo
Dream of the Witches' Sabbath: Larghetto - Allegro


Program Notes

Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune
Far Calls, Coming, Far!
Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

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Claude Debussy

Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”)

Work composed: 1892-94
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony on March 12 & 14, 2016, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps, and strings.
Estimated duration: 10 minutes

Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova writes music with ‘glowing tonal harmonies and grand, sweeping gestures [which] convey a huge emotional depth’ (The Strad). Her debut album, String Paths, on ECM Records, was nominated for a Grammy in 2014. In a 2019 interview, Tabakova described “the core of my reason for composing – melodies, textures, and layers of materials, a desire to connect and communicate, and an interest in shaping time through sound.”

During her composer-in-residency with the BBC Proms Orchestra, Tabakova wrote an homage to conductor Sir Henry Wood. “Celebrating 150 years since Proms founder Henry Wood’s birth, the title of this piece includes the nickname by which the beloved figure was known among Proms audiences and musicians – ‘Timber,’” Tabakova explains. “As I was contemplating what Henry Wood would have made of the world today, it also made me think of the world that he would have found himself in on his arrival in 1869. I kept coming back to the great industrialization over the century that preceded Wood’s birth. Machines freed up time, which people could now invest in learning about the world, educating themselves, and enjoying cultural activities – an opportunity, which, ultimately, inspired the concept of the Proms concerts.

“Throughout the piece, I wished to create a sense of drive, movement, progress … this relentless energy is what motivated my new work. The title also alludes to the founding elements of industrialization and, helpfully, has a connection to the materials found most broadly among orchestral instruments themselves – woods and metals. These two sound worlds are constantly being pitted against each other, beginning with the woody marimbas, which lay the foundations for brass sparks. A series of musical ‘cells’ slot together throughout the piece – many of these cells carry material made up of the musical equivalent of Henry Wood’s name and the title of the work – some examples are the opening figure in the marimbas or the jagged first full orchestra outburst.

“As well as being an accomplished painter, carpentry was among Henry Wood’s various hobbies, and I would hope that he would have enjoyed the jigsaw of ideas which form the spine of my humble homage to a great figure in British musical life.”


Tōru Takemitsu

Far Calls. Coming, Far!

Work composed: 1980. Commissioned by the Min-On Contemporary Music Composition Festival.
First Oregon Symphony performance
: solo violin, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo, 1 doubling alto flute), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, 3 suspended cymbals, antique cymbals, gong, 3 tam-tams, celesta, 2 harps, and strings
Estimated duration: 15 minutes

TōruTakemitsu’s 1980 work for solo violin and orchestra, Far Calls. Coming, far! marks a shift in the composer’s style away from stark modernism to explorations and renderings of nature into music. Far Calls. Coming, far! takes its title from one of Takemitsu’s favorite books, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. At the end of the novel, Anna Livia is moved by the beauty of the River Liffy running into the ocean: “We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far!” The sound of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing fuses with Takemitsu’s musical portrayal of the river, as glimpsed in a dream, flowing to the sea, or, as Takemitsu put it, “the Sea of tonality, C.”

The solo violin meanders over, under, and inside the orchestra. At times the violin seems to float quietly on top of the orchestra’s riverine texture; in other moments the soloist takes a more assertive tone. Together, soloist and orchestra trace the river’s wandering course as it flows towards the ocean.


Ernest Chausson

Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25

Work composed: 1896
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Resident Conductor Gregory Vajda led the Oregon Symphony on April 21-23, 2007, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 16 minutes

Ernest Chausson’s Poème was inspired by a story by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, Le chant de l’amour triumphant (Song of Triumphant Love). Turgenev was in love with the French singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, even after her marriage to Louis Viardot, and this love inspired his romantic fantasy. Despite this colorful subtext, Chausson distanced his music from a direct link with an extra-musical program with the declaration, “There is no description, no story, nothing but sensation.” Claude Debussy echoed this idea when he wrote, “Nothing touches more with dreamy sweetness than the end of this Poème, where the music, leaving aside all description and anecdote, becomes the very feeling that inspired its emotion.”

Poème begins quietly, with a slow declaration of the main theme in the orchestra, followed by comments from winds and strings, before the solo violin reiterates the theme a cappella. The orchestra echoes the soloist, who then plays a passionate unaccompanied cadenza that ushers in the rest of the piece. The violinist’s theme recurs throughout, in harmonically different places, to lend structure to an otherwise free-form composition that showcases emotional intensity and rhapsodic style, rather than displays of virtuoso pyrotechnics.


Hector Berlioz

Symphonie fantastique (Episode in the Life of an Artist), Op. 14

Work composed: Between January and April of 1830, although some of the material Berlioz included was written as early as 1819.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Jun Märkl led the Oregon Symphony on March 21-22, 2015, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Instrumentation:2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas (ophicleides), 2 sets of timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, bells, field drum, 2 harps and strings.
Estimated duration: 49 minutes

Say what you want about Hector Berlioz: he was an arrogant, selfish, self-obsessed man, full of vitriol (try reading his music criticism sometime), and he drove poor Harriet Smithson, the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique, to drink and despair. All true, to be sure, but none of Berlioz’ deficits as a human being take away from the fact that at age 27, he wrote, by general agreement, the most amazing first symphony any composer has yet produced.

This feat is all the more surprising when we realize that Berlioz completed his Symphonie fantastique just three years after the death of Beethoven. When heard in that context, it is possible to appreciate how truly original this music is. Berlioz was no doubt inspired by Beethoven’s own symphonic innovations, especially Beethoven’s use of a program in his Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony, but, typically, Berlioz pushed the programmatic elements further than any other composer.

Berlioz’ inspiration for the Symphonie fantastique was born from his obsession with Smithson, an Irish actress he first saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827. Berlioz spoke almost no English, so it seems clear that his violent infatuation with Smithson was carnal rather than courtly. (Berlioz and Smithson did not actually meet for another five years, after the premiere of the revised version of the Symphonie.)

What made Berlioz’ program so innovative and shocking to his audiences was the extent to which the story was overtly autobiographical and literary. Along with Smithson, who was musically transformed into the idée fixe – recurring theme – of the symphony, Berlioz drew on plots from literature, most notably Faust, in his exploration of the ruinous and glorious nature of love. What audiences, both then and now, often misunderstood was the quintessentially Romantic nature of Berlioz’ program. He was not interested in a literal depiction of events, but rather the transformation of his emotional response to those events into music.

Berlioz insisted that his music could not be understood or appreciated without its accompanying program, which he provided to audiences at the first performances of the work. Its five movements, in roughest outline, proceed as follows: Part I: Dreams – Passions: Boy meets girl. Part II: A Ball: Boy obsesses about girl. Part III: A Scene In the Country: While strolling about the countryside listening to shepherds’ songs, boy convinces himself girl doesn’t return his love. Part IV: March to the Scaffold: In despair, boy takes a less-than-fatal dose of opium – enough to induce horrible visions and hallucinations – including a death march to the guillotine. Part V: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath: Still hallucinating, the boy dreams his funeral is a witches’ Sabbath, and his beloved joins in the diabolical festivities.

Or, as Leonard Bernstein so eloquently put it, in one of his Young Peoples’ Concerts, “Berlioz tells it like it is … You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”


© Elizabeth Schwartz