Focussing on the development section, analyse how Berlioz exploits texture, harmony and melody in 'Symphonie Fantastique'. Relate your evaluation to other relevant works.

The French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-69) was an influential figure in the development of Romantic Music. Berlioz received much criticism regarding his earlier works from Paris’s audiences, primarily due to the somewhat radical nature of his works. However, he is now viewed as a leading composer of his time. Interestingly, he was not himself a pianist, as was expected of most composers, which in turn led to an exceptional ability regarding orchestration. The influence of Beethoven on Berlioz is clear in the way that Berlioz wished further to challenge and break the boundaries that the Classical period had created and he achieved this in his ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ in many ways. For instance, in the huge scale of the orchestra, the variation of traditional sonata form and frequent changes in tonality. ‘Symphonie Fantastique' was first composed in 1830 (although it has been revised many times since) and is a programmatic symphony consisting of five movements. It tells the story of an artist who had poisoned himself with opium because of hopeless love, a story, which suggests that this piece belongs in the heart of the Romantic Period in musical history.Throughout the development section of Reveries - Passions, there are multiple changes in texture. This is a common feature of Romantic music in contrast with the Classical period where melody-dominated homophony would often prevail throughout an entire movement. For example, in the development section of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (Movement 1) there is less contrast in texture. There are many examples of melody dominated homophony in ‘Symphony Fantastique', for example the exciting climax at bar 409 with a varied statement of the idée fixe played fortissimo with accompanying syncopated block chords and quaver decoration. A dramatic three bar silence at bar 229 is all the more effective followed by four bars of homophonic off-beat crotchet chords. The monophonic pianissimo horn solo, with the performing instruction perdendo, heralds the gentle return of the idée fixe in octaves in the woodwind with an underlying rocking-quaver string accompaniment. Berlioz often exploits octave doubling to enhance the melodic line. For instance, in the opening bars of the development section and in the fragmented return of the second subject. Octave doubling is also a feature in the lower string writing in the opening of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’. Berlioz gave considerable independence to the wind section, which would have been seen as radical for the time. The wind instruments alone play the first few bars of a fragmented second subject (bar 191) in homophonic texture during the development section. Similarly, in Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’, the wind share homophonic moments without input from the strings. By the time Debussy was composing his large orchestral works this independence of orchestral families was much more established.The harmony during the development section of the first movement is often diatonic and functional like many early Romantic works by composers such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. The use of a pedal notes (for example the G and D inverted pedals in bars 166-190) are a feature which dates back to the Baroque period and to works such as Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major and Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor. However, tonality and functional harmony are frequently obscured by chromaticism and the development section is perhaps the most dissonant section of the piece, the key of G major being almost non-existent at times. An excellent example of this is the descending string chromatic scale over a long-held dissonant chord in the wind at bar 202. Chromaticism is a common feature of Wagner's Symphony in C major and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and takes centre stage in many other late Romantic works. Chromaticism is usually, but not always resolved in Berlioz’s works, unlike the dissonant harmonies of 20th century works by composers such as Shostakovich.Central to the melodic writing of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is the ‘idée fixe’ (a recurring theme serving as a structural device). Leitmotif’s are a feature of many modern film scores, used to represent certain characters; for instance in the music for Batman, Danny Elfman uses three reoccurring leitmotifs for the characterisation of 'Catwoman', 'Batman' and 'Penguin'. In the development section, the leitmotif/‘idée fixe’ is subverted and fragmented so that only small elements of the melody are apparent. There are clear references to the ‘idée fixe’ as the lower string line rises sequentially by semitones in bars 166-178. Melodic sequences, both ascending and descending, are prominent during the development. In addition to the sequence in the opening bars of the development there is a rising sequence in bars 179-186 in the bassoons, violas, cellos and basses. Melodic sequences are also exploited in the development section of the first movement of Clara Schumann's Piano Trio in G minor as a way of extending and manipulating the original material from the first subject. Melodies in Berlioz’s development section are often based around scales. For instance the dramatic ascending and descending chromatic movement between bars 198 and 221 in all of the string parts. This conjunct movement based on scales is also a prominent feature of the string writing in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, where it is also exploited for dramatic effect.Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is one of the great programmatic works of the Romantic Period. It surpassed so many expectations of the time in terms of the orchestration, the harmonic language, texture and melody, ensuring it would stand out as a radical work that would contribute to the changing attitudes of both audiences and composers – the former becoming more willing to accept the new styles and soundscapes that were being presented to them and the latter who were keen to push the boundaries of traditional musical principles and conventions.

Answered by Leo A. Music tutor


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