Anatomy of An Obsession

Edouard Dubufe - Portrait de la comédienne Harriet Smithson 1830

Portrait of Harriet Smithson by Éduard Dubufe, 1830.

Are the circumstances surrounding the composition of Symphonie Fantastique a romantic love story? Or a stalker-ish nightmare?

Berlioz saw the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson play Ophelia in Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1830, and immediately fell in love with her. He wrote to her obsessively, in spite of the fact that they had never met. He even rented an apartment across the street from hers so that he could see her return home from the theater at night and watch her until she went to sleep. Smithson ignored all of his advances, until  she attended a performance of Symphonie Fantastique; she realized that the symphony was about her, and was won over. They were married in 1833; the marriage turned out to be disastrous.

She died in 1854. When Berlioz learned that the cemetery in which she was buried was being destroyed, he had her remains disinterred and re-buried at Montmartre. He described the disinterment in his memoirs:

A municipal officer, who had orders to witness the exhumation, was waiting for me. The grave had already been opened. On my arrival, the grave-digger jumped down into it. The coffin, though ten years in the ground, was still intact; only the lid had decayed from damp. Instead of lifting out the whole coffin, the gravedigger wrenched at the rotting planks, which came away with a hideous crack, exposing the coffin’s contents. The gravedigger bent down and with his two hands picked up the head, already parted from the body – the ungarlanded, withered, hairless head of ‘poor Orphelia’ – and placed it in a new coffin ready for it at the edge of the grave. Then, bending down again, with difficulty he gathered in his arms the headless trunk and limbs, a blackish mass which the shroud still clung to, like a damp sack with a lump of pitch in it. It came away with dull sound, and a smell.

Romantic in the true nineteenth-century sense of the word: dark, uncanny, wild, nightmarish.

Charles_Kemble_and_Harriet_Smithson_as_Romeo_and_Juliet

Harriet Smithson as Juliet.

It can be said that Hector Berlioz made some poor choices. As Leonard Bernstein notes in his commentary on Symphonie Fantastique: “Berlioz tells it like is . . . you take a [drug] trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

 

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