Tales of Despair: The Fantastic Descent into Hell

Perhaps disheartened by the difficulty of writing an actual opera, in 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) had the bright idea to tell a musical story without the words, and so was born the programmatic symphony. His sixth orchestral masterpiece, the “Pastoral” symphony, was one of the first great musical creations to not just paint a scene or don a mood, but tell, from start to finish, a coherent and structured tale, through wordless music alone.

And it was a phenomenal achievement; through five intertwined movements, we are taken through the experience of the composer as he travels to an idyllic countryside, breathes in the beauty and serenity of the pastures and streams, and revels in the joyous dancing of the country folk. In a dark turn, we are overcome by a terrifying and violent storm, threatening to ravage the countryside, until finally it passes, and we rejoice with the shepherds. The story is, admittedly, rather naïve, but Beethoven was one of the great advocates of Goethe‘s humanism at the time, desperate for the belief that man was a better creature, and could aspire to beauty and greatness.

As the world moved forward into the romantic era, the youthful idealism became tainted with the dark reality of industrialism, war and poverty. Stories continued to be told, but they became ever darker. Composers and pianists, the rock starts of the nineteenth century, became corrupted by their popularity. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869), the infamous French composer, wrote many of his greatest works under the heavy influence of opium. In fact, perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven – a twisted retelling of his tale of beauty and serenity – is the Symphonie Fantastique, in which that very drug is the catalyst for a descent into murder and madness.

Being a child of the romantic era, Berlioz was infused with the passion and impetuosity of many of those of his generation, and he found himself infatuated with several women in his life. One of these, an Irish actress called Harriet, caught his fierce attention in Romeo and Juliet, and she became the inspiration for what is today perhaps his most enduring work.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is, as was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a song with a tale to tell. Our young musician, in a dream of passion, discovers a woman who embodies his every ideal, and cannot rid her from his mind. He is delirious, love-struck, despairing and joyful, and sees her in his mind every waking moment. These thoughts consume him even as he passes through life – at a ball, a festive, joyous occasion, he cannot see the lights or the music. Wandering in the fields, by the brook and past the shepherds, he cannot but brood on his terrible loneliness. He wishes – hopes – that he may soon not be alone, but thoughts of betrayal of evil creep through his mind.

And then, the story takes a dark turn, and does not return. Convinced his love has forsaken him, he poisons himself with opium, and as he lays dying, he is plagued with the terrifying dream that he has murdered his only beloved. Powerless from the drug, he watches helplessly as he is captured, and led to the gallows. The crowd looks on, he cries out in despair – and, as the guillotine’s blade descends, he sees her in the crowd – alive.

And it does not end there. Dead, he finds himself transported to hell, lost in the midst of a witches’ Sabbath. Shadows, demons, sorcerers dance sickeningly around him, taunting and teasing him in his own death. And then – horror upon horror – he sees that she is a part of the diabolical gathering, that she is dancing to his death with the witches. As the bells of his death sound, the terrible creatures conspire to mock god, dancing over the ancient music of his wrath, and all is lost to perpetual darkness.

Inspired by the beautiful Harriet, Berlioz went on nonetheless to become engaged to a Camille, instead. When she spurned him, he raced to Paris, seeking to murder her, her mother and her fiancé. Eventually, when this plan failed, he returned to Harriet – and there, he discovered the painful truth behind infatuation. The two wed for a mere two years.

Berlioz would go on to produce one of the most famous renditions of the legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil. He separated from Harriet, and though he continued to provide for her for the rest of her life, she died not long after from severe alcohol abuse. His mistress, whom he eventually married, died eight years later. A girl for whom he had affection, only twenty-one years old, died also, and Berlioz was left with nothing but his grief.

At the age of only sixty, he began, in his despair, to wish for death, and not long after, he was stricken with violent abdominal pains. The pains soon grew and spread, and in the end, consumed him. On his death bed, he spoke these final words:

Enfin, on va jouer ma musique.

2 thoughts on “Tales of Despair: The Fantastic Descent into Hell

  1. For me, programmatic music is often cheesy, and Beethoven’s 6th is my least favorite of his symphonies for that very reason. The great advantage of music is it that it creates a new reality where time is controlled by the composer and the drama is completely foreign to our normal everyday drama, so why would we want to lose that advantage. My favorite composer who was semi-programmatic is Mahler. His Resurrection Symphony, #2, is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that can be had by a human being. Thank you for the post-good topic!

    • It’s a touchy subject – some people love the idea, some people hate it. I often find it easy to downplay Beethoven’s playful side (very evident in the Pastorale), in the light of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of his heavy stuff.

      The nice thing about programmatic music is that you can forget the program, if you like, and simply enjoy the music. I love Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and most especially the final two movements (I get all quivery when the Dies Irae comes in!).

      For me, the biggest problem with a lot of programmatic music is that the stories themselves are often far from engaging. I suppose some composers just aren’t good storytellers!

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