When Hector Berlioz walked into the Theatre Odéon in Paris Sept. 11, 1827, to see a performance of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," little did he know the experience would change his life.
Starring in the play was Harriet Smithson, a beautiful young actress. Berlioz, a poor, 24-year-old music student, was immediately smitten. He had found his "Ophelia."
For the next three years, he was completely infatuated with her, although during that time they never met. He wrote letters to her, but she never replied. He produced concerts to get her attention, but she never noticed.
He loved her incessantly, but much of it was all in his mind. He spoke not a word of English and she spoke not a word of French. He had fallen in love with her as a character in a play, a picture on a playbill.
In 1830, he composed his masterpiece "Simphonie Fantastique," a grand symphonic work in five movements. This piece broke with all the conventional expectations of a symphony work at that time and incorporated a story that had a striking resemblance to Hector Berlioz's own life and his infatuation with Harriet Smithson. For three years, he had anguished over his incredible love for this actress. He could not eat or sleep. Every thought of his was consumed by his love for her.
"Simphonie Fantastique" begins with love, but ends with rejection, murder and death. It's a violent dream of his obsession and rejection by Harriet Smithson played out in Berlioz's mind.
The "Simphonie," subtitled "Episodes from the Life of an Artist," tells the story of a young composer who has overdosed on opium and while in this delirious state, has a "fantastic" dream. He falls in love with a beautiful woman. They dance. They share a summer evening in the countryside.
Then things turn dark. She betrays and rejects his love. He kills her and is sentenced to death by guillotine. The piece ends with the famous "Witches Sabbath," where the melody of his beloved has become grotesque and incessant. Amidst shrieks and groans, the bells and low brass toll "Dies Irae," the "Day of Wrath" chant from the Roman Catholic "Mass for the Dead."
When the piece premiered in 1830, Berlioz invited Harriet Smithson to attend, but she did not. She had in fact instructed her servants to never allow Hector Berlioz near her. Because of his numerous letters and invitations over the years, she viewed him as a "stalker" and she ardently avoided contact of any kind.
In 1832, the piece was performed again in Paris. By this time, Harriet Smithson was no longer the glamorous poster girl, riding the tides of rave reviews and thousands of adoring fans. Tastes had changed in the fickle Parisian audience and Harriet Smithson was now poor and in debt. She attended the second performance of Berlioz's "Simphonie Fantastique," agreeing to go to the concert before she knew what was on the program and who the composer was.
When she entered the box overlooking the stage, there was quite a stir in the audience. Almost everyone knew the story behind "Simphonie Fantastique" and Berlioz's unparalleled infatuation with the famous actress.
A year later, in 1833, much to the disapproval of both of their parents, they were married. Although they remained married until Harriet' Smithson's death in 1854, they were mostly estranged after the first six years.
At the Allentown Symphony concerts, 8 p.m. April 13 and 3 p.m. April 14, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, during the performance of "Simphonie Fantastique," Hector Berlioz's dream will be represented by the projection of a film behind the orchestra.
You will experience what Berlioz might have seen in his mind as he dreamed his fantastic dream and composed the melodies for his symphony: psychedelic colors, close-ups of instruments, shadow puppets dancing, photos of beautiful countryside, storm clouds and then skulls, fire, smoke and bells tolling for the dance of the dead.
It will be a world premiere for the film, also titled "Simphonie Fantastique," designed to be shown during performances of the Berlioz piece. I wrote storyboards for the film so that the images would synchronize with the music. Cinematographer for the film was Jason Knobloch. Artwork for the film was created by Rick Peckham. Ben Hackett was production assistant.
Also featured on the concert will be Ludwig van Beethoven's famous Overture to Leonore No. 3, with the triumphant off-stage trumpet solo performed by Bethlehem resident Larry Wright, and the wonderfully jazzy Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel, another noted composer from Paris who took the world by storm with his piece "Bolero." The piano concerto will be performed by Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez, whose new CD "Chopin: The Complete Preludes," was just released by Telarc to rave reviews. You won't want to miss hearing her live.
Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director (U.S.A.) of the International Cultural Exchange Program with the Sarajevo Philharmonic, Bosnia.
Ticket information for concerts at Miller Symphony Hall: Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; AllentownSymphony.org, 610-432-6715