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.

Tales of Despair: The Tragedy of the Symphony “Pathétique”


This is the first post of what I hope will become an ongoing series on the nature of despair. What I envisage is to introduce a work of art – be it imagery, poetry, music, film or novel – that was created from the darkest places of the soul. Darkness and despair have been a part of my life since my early teens, and as I have grown accustomed to it, and rediscovered joy in the midst of it, I have become inextricably marked by depression, and to this day there is nothing in the world so comforting as a warm, dark corner where no one can see me, My Dying Bride playing in the background, and a glass of wine reflecting the candlelight.

Being a musician and composer by training, many of these tales are likely to revolve around songs, symphonies and albums. However, I hope to reach out to further art forms, and discover among the canon of literature, film and imagery endless tales of despair.

The Tragedy of the Symphony Pathétique

There is in my mind no more fitting work of art more wrought with despair than Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, popularly known as the Pathétique (in Russian, Patetičeskaja). This is a piece of music that passes through a sea of emotions of an intensity beyond anything I have heard or seen in my life. From the moodiness of the opening to the fury of the first movement’s climax, the calm sadness of the lilted waltz to the dizzying madness of the third movement, and ultimately the chilling, profoundly bleak finale, in fifty minutes this symphony takes the listener through a world of thought and a lifetime of tragedy.

The symphony’s name derives from the Russian word for passion, not pity, and it is a just name. The deep and overwhelming sadness of this music, however, is how closely it ties to Tchaikovsky’s turbulent personal life. Six days after its world première, Tchaikovsky died. He claimed to his brother that the symphony was steeped in meaning, but he would not reveal the music’s subject to anyone. Some have since said that it was his final death letter.

Tchaikovsky’s own life was a mirror for this tragedy. His sorrows began with the death of his mother at the age of fourteen, and from that day onwards he succumbed to a cloud of depression that even the recognition he eventually garnered could not completely break him free of. His life was a tale of abandonment, despair and frustration; Though homosexual, the social convictions of Victorian Russia prevented him not only from being open about this, but even from acknowledging it in his own mind. He suffered two affairs, both of which ended with the woman he cared for leaving him. He did eventually marry, but they lived together for less than two months, and she eventually bore children from another man.

Even the one light of hope – his patron, Nadezhda, with whom he corresponded for thirteen years in over a thousand letters – ceased communication with him in 1890, and he remained hurt, bitter and bewildered over this for the remaining three years of his life.

Tchaikovsky died in 1983 by his own hand. Perhaps he had become overwhelmed by the depth of despair into which his life had sunk; perhaps he could no longer bear the terrible conflict of his sexuality, which culminated in an attempted affair with his own nephew. On the night of the première of the sixth symphony, Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water, contracted cholera, and died six days later.

The terrible pain, sadness and despair is overwhelmingly prevalent in this symphony. Before his death, Tchaikovsky confided to his brother that the symphony was full of a deeper meaning, but would not say what it was. After he died, his brother realized he had been speaking of his own death – his final symphony, a monument to tragedy, was his suicide note. A parallel for his own life – childhood sadness, angst and fear at odds with the fervor and passion of creativity. Tchaikovsky destroyed more manuscripts than he completed – the artist’s madness refusing to allow him to ever be content with his own music.

This symphony, even out of context, is a tragic and moving musical journey; always a master of emotion, the composer filled his final work with every skill he possessed, and left us thus with his greatest work being his last. When considered as the final cry of a doomed man, a testament to despair, the final, terrible notes of the finale take on the reek of death, and speak of the utter finality of the grave. Tchaikovsky knew as he wrote that this symphony would be his last, and killed himself upon its completion.