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Ooooooo blasphemy!!!

It was fun surfing for Witches' Sabbath/Black Mass clip art for today's post.  One thing I learned from this:  Witches liked to party hard.  I'd have to get wasted to do some of those things.

The Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz is probably best known for its final movement, the programmatic representation of a Witches' Sabbath.  Although that, by itself, doesn't sound so risque, what Berlioz did that shocked people is that he quoted for effect and mocked the Dies Irae, liturgical music commonly used in common Catholic funerals.  Just to be clear, when we talk about the Dies Irae, we don't mean one of the finer works by Mozart or Beethoven, but the Dies Irae music of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, which dates back to medieval Gregorian chants.  We're talking about the old, old, OLD thirteenth century Dies Irae.

Traditional Dies Irae Gregorian Chant

More below about the Dies Irae and Berlioz, and then the music, where we left off last time.

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Berlioz started a horror flick tradition by doing this.  I thought, at first, of making a clip of famous allusions to the Dies Irae theme.  Then I realized, there was no point, because it's just about everywhere.  One film site compares the Dies Irae to the Wilhelm Scream:

During college I took a music appreciation class. I am the furthest thing from a musician, but it was an informative class and I really enjoyed it. One of the more memorable pieces we studied was Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique.

My instructor pointed out the Dies Irae melody during that song. Dies Irae means "day of wrath." It is a Latin hymn that was later adopted as a death mass. It is quite old, and I have been surprised how many movies I have heard the basic melody in over the years.

It is not as common as the Wilhelm scream, but once you are familiar with the melody, it jumps out at you. [...] Today this theme is often associated with many horror movies and even some not so scary films. After hearing it many times in movie soundtracks, I started to keep a list. (No, not for an any assignment. I'm just a list guy). Here are some of the movies that use the melody or a variation of it at some point in the film.

He goes on to list some films that used it, and his list is far, far, from complete.  For instance, I heard it just a few days ago in the 1940s film The Red Shoes.  It's ubiquitous, and that's just in film.  The Dies Irae is also quoted extensively in classical music.

Why did Berlioz do this?  What was Berlioz thinking?  

We can guess that one reason he did it was for the obvious shock factor.  

For the record, Berlioz was Catholic, and at times had been very devout, although the depth of his religious feelings when he composed this are unclear.  Said Berlioz:

"Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out I have always kept most tender memories of it.
Indeed, not-burning people is one of the first things I look for in a good church.

He also uses it to create a scary atmosphere.  The bells toll.  The Dies Irae INTRUDES into the music.  And rather than being used in a respectful manner, it is mocked and jerked around, enhancing the sense of blasphemy.  After all, the final movement is supposed to be a witches' sabbath, and what could be more musically evocative of the feeling of Satanic mischief than sacred music being used inappropriately.  As Frenchmen of that time knew, and you probably know, too, the Black Mass was supposed to be a mockery of the traditional mass, with elements of the Roman Catholic mass turned upside down, mirror image, and used... inappropriately.  

But Berlioz had yet another intention in this, because the symphony has a recurring theme, the idee fixe.  The symphony tells a story in four movements of obsessive love, love that starts, at first, as an inspiring vision of beauty and purity, and ends, in the final movement, with the protagonist's funeral, the witches' sabbath -- and the return of his dead beloved, whom he has murdered, (represented by a melody, the idee fixe theme), no longer pure at all, but now wicked and lewd.  Our lurid story of love, inspiration, obsession, stalking, murder, death, and satanic blasphemy ends in well-crafted black humor.

Pepe Le Pew: I am the broken heart of love. I am the disillusioned. I wish to enlist in the Foreign Legion so I may forget. Take me!
To review, here are the program titles of the five movements.  We talked about the first two movements in THIS DIARY.

1. Rêveries – Passions (Daydreams – Passions)
2. Un bal (A ball)
3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)
4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
5. Songe d'une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches' Sabbath)

In the second movement, as we covered last time, the theoretical point-of-view hero of our symphony ran into her at a ball, "throwing his spirit into confusion," as Berlioz writes.

In the third movement, which we'll hear next (not quite yet, though), our hero, in a pastoral, outdoor setting, ponders his feelings.  "He broods on his loneliness," as Berlioz writes.  And then our little romance loses some its innocent quality, as he wonders: "But what if she betrayed him!"

Betrayed?  He doesn't even have a relationship with her!  That's clear from the program.  Ooookay.  Suddenly we're into Madonna stalker territory, as the program is written.

In the fourth movement, The March to the Scaffold, the hero gets high on opium.  (By the way, Berlioz was an opium addict.)  While intoxicated, "He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution."  I assume that witnessing your own execution just compounds the humiliation of having your head chopped off in public.  PLEASE NOTE, for historical purposes, this was at a time when the guillotine in France was the usual way of taking care of business in France.  After the guillotine comes down in the music (a long snare drum roll suggests that's what is happening) and chops off his head, there's a short ba-LUMP, ba-LUMP sound -- the sound of the head rolling down.  And then a big brass fanfare -- cheering from the crowds.  Yay, that Madonna stalker killer guy is dead!

And then comes the Witches' Sabbath.  "He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral."  What about his beloved?  "The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath... Roar of delight at her arrival... She joins the diabolical orgy..."

There's a beautiful kind of petty misogyny to the turn this has all taken, isn't there?  He falls in love.  He's tormented.  He's unworthy.  He can't have her.  And then....... it turns out she's a whore after all!

Poor guy.  He's dead, he's witnessing his own funeral, witches are dancing and mocking the church, and the girl he ruined his life over is right there having a fucking orgy on his grave!  Oh, the indignity of it all!!  But, hey, he deserves it.  He did kill her, after all.  What a putz.  

You have to admit, that's much better than a happy ending, eh?

Let me know if the audio quality is improved over last time.  I switched to Adobe Premiere to make the following clips from the same FLAC of a live (analog) performance that I used in the previous Berlioz diary.

Berlioz's written program for the third movement:

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their 'ranz des vaches'; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own... But what if she betrayed him!... This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder... solitude... silence ...
Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, third movement. "Scène aux champs" (Scene in the Fields).  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ricardo Muti (a live analogue recording)

The movement begins with a forlorn "shepherd's call" on the english horn and oboe that wavers between major and minor.  The atmosphere is sober.  Despite the idyllic "In the fields" description for this movement, there's an underlying sense of tension.

At 2:05, the main theme of the movement begins, carried by the violins and woodwinds in unison.  It's somewhat derived from the idee fixe theme, but it is not THE idee fixe theme.  I may have confused matters by including it in my spoilers clip last time.  I'll point out the idee fixe when it appears.

At 5:19, a variation on this theme enters, carried by bassoon and cellos.  At 5:59, we are interrupted and get some minor key drama.

At 6:49.  Ahhhh...  The idee fixe, the theme of our beloved, reappears, played in a very feminine form by a flute, while very brusque, anxious figurations occur in the basses.  At 7:42, the anxious figurations become ascendant, and we reach a loud, anxious crisis that then fades away.  (Our hero is anxious about his beloved!)

At 8:40, we have a new variation on the theme of the movement, introduced by a clarinet, with plucked strings for accompaniment.  

Another variation at 9:40, carried in the woodwinds.  The accompaniment in the strings becomes more and more animated as it goes along.

At 11:04, the idee fixe theme, or actually the first part of it, returns, played by the flute.  It is woven into the main theme here without replacing it.  At 11:51, a dark doubtful sound briefly intrudes.

Now we have a long, gentle fade away, telling us the movement is ending.  It's sleepytime.  Time to take a nap.  

But it doesn't end when we think it should.  At 13:06, the english horn returns, repeating the opening theme.  There is a rumble of distant thunder from the drums behind it.  Berlioz: "At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder... solitude... silence ..."  Eerie.

Just to remind you: this was composed six years after Berlioz attended the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth.  How very un-Beethovenish.

Berlioz's written program for the fourth movement, The March to the Scaffold:

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.
Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, fourth movement. "Marche au supplice" (March to the Scaffold).  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ricardo Muti (a live analogue recording)

Ah... this is much more fun.  :)  This gets my feet stomping.  And much easier to explain.

After an ominous drumbeat, the main theme enters, carried by the cellos and deeper strings.  A descending scale, a trudging march.

At 1:39, a contrasting second theme (in a major key) is introduced by the brass, our hero crying out "for forgiveness."  

At 2:00, we return to the beginning.  The ominous drumbeat, the minor key main theme repeat.  Hero cries out again.  Cries out again at 4:20.  It may be difficult to hear in this recording, but listen to how agitated and ornamented the background is becoming.

At 4:56, our main theme returns, but it is becoming more animated.  The brass and the timpani are really showing off here.  At 5:35, a new urgency enters the music as it picks up a fast galloping rhythm and tempo.  We're approaching the end.

6:06.  And there, just at the end, before the blade comes down, you hear it, just a few notes on the flute, his beloved, the idee fixe.  Oh life is so cruel!

6:17.  THWACK!  Well, we all know what that was!  A soft little ba-dump, ba-dump follows that, as our hero's head hits the basket.  At 6:20, the fanfare begins.  YAY!  Another one bites the dust!  Bring on the next condemned prisoner!

Berlioz's written program for the fifth (final) movement, A Witches' Sabbath:

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath... Roar of delight at her arrival... She joins the diabolical orgy... The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.
Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, fifth movement. "Songe d'une nuit de sabbat" (Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath).  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ricardo Muti (a live analogue recording)

The movement begins spooky with an ominous motif in the basses.  Listen to how that flute trails off with a slide at the end, there.

At 1:39, there she is...  The idee fixe theme returns in the clarinet (just the first part of it, now), but it's in a vulgar, dancing, comical form, not the refined beauty of the flutes and violins that we heard in the first movement, the beautiful vision that set our hero on the path to ruin!  Oh no!  Berlioz: "It is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath."

At 2:00, the first full statement of the NEW and IMPROVED beloved, with all the woodwinds joining in in a burbling, skipping, form.  There's also a dissonance to it, too, as if some of the woodwinds are deliberately out of key, I think.   At 2:27, it turns into a malevolent whirlwind.

The wind dies down.  And into this new silence, at 3:08 comes the toll of bells.  

3:35: The Dies Irae theme, played by the tubas, I think, as the bell still tolls.  The other brass pick it up and speed up the tempo.  The dancing, skipping motif of the witches can be heard in the violins.  At 4:34, the drums enter with a scary "slouching towards Bethlehem" sliding thump.

At 5:20, the main theme of the movement, of which we have only heard bits and pieces so far, enters in its full form.  And it begins a rockin' fugue.  In a symphony that hasn't been very big on counterpoint, suddenly we get big gobs of it.  The Dies Irae theme and the main theme duke it out a bit here, competing with each other.

At 8:39, there's a new orchestral sound, col legno, unusual for its time, which is the slapping of the wooden bow against the strings to produce a whispery, papery, percussive clackity-clackity sound -- in this case, like that of skeletons dancing.  

At 9:17, the Dies Irae returns and the tempo speeds up.  The force of it tells us we're in the coda....

And then it's all over but the applause.  Take a bow, Ricardo!

------------------- THE END --------------------------

That was a nice, interesting sixty minutes of music, eh?

NEXT WEEK:  Schubert!  We're going to do all or part of his Ninth Symphony, but first, I think the first movement of his String Quartet #15 might make a good warm-up act.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu May 17, 2012 at 08:42 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, An Ear for Music, and Community Spotlight.

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