Psych album of the week: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830)

While your mileage may vary when it comes to its psychedelic nature, Symphonie Fantastique certainly takes the listener on a trip, musically and thematically speaking


Hector Berlioz, photographed in 1863 by Pierre Petit.


It may be a bit disingenuous to describe Symphonie Fantastique as a psychedelic album. For one thing, albums didn’t exist when Hector Berlioz composed it in 1830. Of course, the work has been released as an LP countless times since the advent of sound recording. (Recent versions include a 2019 release by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and one from the Utah Symphony, which came out this past March.)

Where we encounter a real semantic minefield is in calling Symphonie Fantastique psychedelic. After all, that word was coined by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1956, some 87 years after Berlioz’s death.

Don’t blame me, though. Blame Leonard Bernstein.

At a 1968 “Young People’s Concert” cheekily titled “Berlioz Takes a Trip”, the great American conductor and composer described Symphonie Fantastique as “pretty spooky stuff”.

“And it’s spooky,” Bernstein argued, “because those sounds you’re hearing come from the first psychedelic symphony in history. The first musical description ever made of a trip—written 130-odd years before the Beatles, way back in 1830, by the brilliant French composer Hector Berlioz.”

Berlioz takes a trip

While your mileage may vary when it comes to its psychedelic nature, Symphonie Fantastique certainly takes the listener on a trip, musically and thematically speaking. It’s a journey into Berlioz’s mind, which turns out to have some very dark corners.

Inspired by his unrequited love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (who would, in fact, become his wife a few years later), Berlioz tells the tale of a young artist who has fallen hopelessly in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists.

The composer symbolizes the object of his protagonist’s affections through an  idée fixe—a melody that appears in every movement of the symphony. Bernstein heard “lovesick yearning” in it, and he wasn’t wrong.

Where things take their darkest turn is in the third movement, known as “March to the scaffold”. In his program notes, Berlioz describes it as the young artist’s opium-fueled vision. He has murdered his beloved and is being marched to his execution. Horns blare and timpani pound. We can practically see the procession to the gallows.

“The diabolical orgy”

Next comes the “spooky stuff” of the fifth and final movement. Let’s let the composer himself describe his young subject’s predicament.

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,” Berlioz writes. “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.

So, just how authentically psychedelic—or at least narcotic—is Symphonie Fantastique? Berlioz is known to have used opium. However, whether or not he took it for artistic inspiration is anyone’s guess.

For his part, Bernstein didn’t seem to think so. He attributed Berlioz’s masterwork to something else: pure, innate talent.

“He was a creature of wild imagination—wild enough to have these visions and fantasies without taking a dose of anything,” Bernstein said in 1968. “His opium was simply his genius, which could transform these grotesque fantasies into music.”

In their own words

Hector Berlioz:

“Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions.

“He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts.

“At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.” (Excerpt from the composer’s 1845 program notes)

Leonard Bernstein:

“Berlioz tells it like it is. Now there was an honest man. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

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