Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds (but not Symphonie Fantastique) was ubiquitous in my house growing up. I haven’t heard the work since my son studied it at his own school over ten years ago, nor did I listen to it very much in the many years prior. Still, I can easily hum the piece’s major theme—its idée fixe—recall its unusual instrumentation, and tell the story.
I’ll never know if the music, without the narrative, would have been as compelling. Having heard the tale and been shown in the score where certain events are “told,” I cannot separate the music of Symphonie Fantastique from images of the warped waltz, the walk to the scaffold, or the Witch’s Sabbath. When you attach words to music it is magnified in the same ways pictures enrich words. But I’ve often read books where my image of a main character doesn’t match the one the graphic designer decided to put on the cover. Can branding a piece of music with a story be equally limiting?
Abstract music does not tell a story but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute toward an inner narrative. As a former flutist, playing was an alternative form for me of speaking a feeling or relating a sensation. When I was in college, I played in the orchestra that accompanied a performance of Bach’s great choral work, his St. Matthew Passion. The work includes a beautiful duet between flute and the alto soloist. We were performing in a gothic cathedral whose gloominess had settled over me like a shroud. The vocalist was my voice teacher who had no fondness for me nor I for her. Yet by the end of the duet, I had become the music and, in becoming the music, had no defense against anything that might harm me. Music leaves me vulnerable.