Hearts and flowers, a box of chocolates and a candlelight dinner are a perfectly acceptable way to show a sweetheart you care.
But if each day is truly Valentine’s Day and your infatuation with someone regularly crosses over into obsession, well, take a tip from Hector Berlioz and write an entire symphony about it.
Berlioz’s “Symphony fantastique,” composed in 1830 (revised in 1832) and inspired by his fixation on Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson, is the musical anchor for Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Valentine’s week program of deeply — sometimes wildly — expressive music.
The program will find SSO music director Ludovic Morlot leading the orchestra through Berlioz’s story-driven “program symphony.”
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Berlioz’s sometimes startling, written introductions to the work’s five movements — detailing an increasingly dark narrative about an artist’s “infernal passion” for a woman — will be in the program.
An important touchstone from the early Romantic period, “Fantastique” was inspired by a 24-year-old Berlioz’s presence at an 1827 production of “Hamlet” in Paris, where he was thunderstruck by Smithson’s performance as Ophelia. The colorful, impetuous Berlioz sent Smithson’s love letters, which went unanswered.
“Symphonie fantastique” is a drama about a musician haunted by an ideal woman and his subsequent descent into jealousy, self-destructiveness and delirium. Smithson eventually attended a concert (the audience also included Chopin, Liszt and Paganini) featuring a revised version of the piece and only then realized her connection to it.
Berlioz and Smithson married a year later. (Let’s skip the part where they eventually broke up.)
“Symphonie fantastique” was praised in an article by Robert Schumann, another giant of the Romantic era.
“The whole thing revolves around fantasy, and we know Schumann loved Berlioz’s format of fantasy,” says Morlot.
Small wonder the “Fantastique” is paired in the Seattle Symphony program with Schumann’s 1850 Cello Concerto in A minor, another essential Romantic work.
“I always find Schumann and Berlioz go well together,” says Morlot by phone from Brussels. “More and more, I want to offer music by Schumann to Seattle. It’s not so easy to program his music on its own and get an audience, so pairing him with a Berlioz warhorse from the Romantic repertoire, in the context of Valentine’s week, is an opportunity.”
French cellist Xavier Phillips, who has previously appeared with the Seattle orchestra, is guest soloist on the concerto. The piece, never played in Schumann’s short life, famously defies a few conventions by presenting no breaks between movements and downplaying virtuosity for much of its length.
The Cello Concerto includes musical gestures toward Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife, including a kind of dialogue between two cellos representing the spouses in the lyrical second movement.
SSO’s program opens with Emmanuel Chabrier’s 1891 “Bourrée fantasque,” written for solo piano but intended by Chabrier to be fully orchestrated. The latter task was left unfinished by the composer, and Morlot is presenting an 1898 orchestration by Felix Mottl.
“Chabrier is one of those French composers no one plays anymore,” says Morlot. “The piece is so inventive with melodies and it’s a wonderful little jewel. I just wanted to introduce a new voice to the Seattle audience.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org