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Musicologist DeVoto Revealed the History of Berlioz' Impassioned 'Symphonie fantastique'

By Paula Horvath Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was a baffling enigma for those who witnessed a performance in the 1800s. But for Berlioz, this wild departure from the era’s conventional pieces was a symbol of love. A lot of people at the time thought he was completely insane,” explained Mark DeVoto, a musicologist, composer, and Tufts University professor who’s made Eastport his part-time home for many years. “But he had fallen madly in love. He had conceived of the idea of the Fantastique to impress a Shakespearean actress he’d never even met.”

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center co-organizer Greg Biss introduced Mark DeVoto at the April 30 event.

Mark DeVoto engaged a crowd with the colorful back story of Hector Berlioz' 'Symphonie fantastique.'

DeVoto was on hand Sunday, April 30, at the Eastport Arts Center to talk about Berlioz’s almost hallucinogenic symphony that was deeply emotional and personal to the French composer. “It’s a work of extreme originality and vision,” DeVoto said. The idea for the symphony grew in Berlioz’s mind after he saw an 1827 production of Hamlet in which an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, played the part of Ophelia. He fell passionately in love with her despite the fact that she refused to meet him or even return his numerous letters. Berlioz wrote the symphony – which follows the story of an artist whose unrequited love for a woman leads him to poison himself – as a declaration of his obsession for Smithson. It broke all the norms that had been set by Ludwig van Beethoven for musical construction. In this symphonic story, the love-mad artist consumes opium and is beset by hallucinations, including dreams that he has killed his beloved and is taken to the scaffold for the crime. The final movement transports him to a witches’ Sabbath where he encounters monsters of all kinds.

Certainly its plot was unusual but so was its staging. The symphony utilized an enormous orchestra that had several novel wind instruments, including the ophicleide, a predecessor of the tuba. It was the largest symphony composed up until that time, with five movements that spanned nearly an hour. “It’s insane and it’s wonderful at the same time,” DeVoto said. At the time, audiences were not so enthusiastic. “The first performance (at the Paris Conservatoire in 1830) was very likely a failure,” DeVoto said, citing the fact that there had been few rehearsals and some of the instruments Berlioz imagined were missing. Berlioz himself was deep in depression, still hungering for the Irish actress. But when Berlioz returned to Paris after the premiere “he dusted off the script and realized the object of his original obsession was back in town,” DeVoto said.

Harriet Smithson was in the French city to set up and manage her own theater company. She heard about Berlioz’s symphony in 1832 and realized it was about her. By that time her theater company had imploded and her financial status deteriorated. She finally agreed to meet Berlioz and, despite the objections of both sets of parents, to marry him. The couple were married in 1833 over those parental protests. In a later memoir, Berlioz gloated on his conquest. “She was mine and I defied the world.” Symphonie Fantastique will be performed by The Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra as part of June, 2, 3 and 4 concerts in Eastport, Machias, and Calais. The performance will include an ophicleide as one of the wind instruments. The orchestra's program will also feature the Mozart Piano Concerto No.15 with Phil Silver as soloist.

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC constituent group The Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away for lack of funds. The complete Sunday series schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs may be found here: https://eastportartscenter.org/constituent-groups/the-concert-series/.

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