Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique & the fork in the recreational road

I’m responding as much to the serendipity of timing as anything else.

  • Recreational marijuana becomes legal in Ontario next month.
  • The Toronto Symphony are about to begin their 2018-19 season with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Is there a connection? I think so.

Let me start by sharing the first link I got when I googled “Symphonie Fantastique drugs”, namely a fascinating essay (originally broadcast on the BBC in 2002) titled “OPIUM AND THE SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE”.

Please note, I am not making the same connection that Mike Jay would make.

So before I speak of Berlioz & his music, let’s talk about the word “recreation”, which underlies its usage when we speak phrases such as “the legalization of recreational drugs.”

The dictionary definition is misleading. Don’t get me wrong, I like fun as much as the next guy. The first one that came up when I asked google for “definition of recreation” was “activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.”

When we ask google for the etymology rather than definition, we get closer to my understanding of the word. The word literally means to create again, to renew.

Let me give you my personal history, and you may notice a connection to Hector Berlioz.

As a child the gym was a place I did not frequent, as I was a chubby kid, awkward. I had some fun in the gym but I understood recreational exercise as something other people did: especially the thin attractive ones.

Then a funny thing happened. I got sick. The first time the doctors had no clue. I spent my 20s and early 30s believing that I was either nuts or the doctors would never figure out what was wrong. I was finally diagnosed in 1990, after my 35th birthday, by Doctor Charles Bull. It was very cool to be able to say he was Hulk Hogan’s doctor, Wayne Gretzky’s doctor: and also my doctor.

He spotted the ankylosing spondylitis first time he saw me, from my funny posture.  Dr Bull prescribed NSAIDs, which I no longer take as of 2016, but which made my life at least possible after 1990. And he also prescribed exercise, with the goal of protecting me.
My relationship with the gym changed. Suddenly I needed to exercise, and recreation was literally going on every time I went to the gym: as it does to this day. This was not just fun and games, it was recreation in the truest sense of the word. As Dr Bull explained it, I was to build a layer of protective muscle.

In 2016 I switched from strong drugs that –after so many years –were threatening to roast some of my internal organs. There had been times when my complexion was yellow verging on green, my hands a funny colour too, likely as a symptom of a liver being over-worked filtering the NSAIDs. I had begun taking CBD oil, with occasional doses of oils containing THC when I needed something stronger. I was taking them under the direction of my doctor, who directed me to a clinic that was prescribing as well as gathering research data on people like me: because this is all relatively new.

Do you see why I might quibble with the word “recreational”? My CBD oil, like my exercise, were for the re-creation of my health, re-creating me. And so yes they are recreational, even if the law’s understanding of recreation is “fun” rather than “therapy”, a crucial difference.

But here’s the thing. When Hector Berlioz was suffering from stress or anxiety in his youth, and took laudanum to make himself feel better, was he taking it medicinally or recreationally? At the time no one had made this artificial split between the medicinal and the “recreational” (meaning that modern usage of “activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.”)

What I believe will be noticed in Ontario over the next few months,  is that the casual user seeking enjoyment will also get the health benefits. Relaxation is a good thing, right? Lots of my friends have back pain and knee pain, indeed it’s a normal part of aging, right? I sometimes joke that the good thing about my arthritis was the way it gave me a soft-landing on aging.  I think cannabis will be helpful, therapeutic, even when people are simply after the fun of a “high”.

Nowadays people are so hypersensitive to dependency that we throw the word “addiction” around casually, perhaps not respecting the seriousness of the word. We speak of someone addicted to CNN or chocolate or blondes, when of course we mean a preference or enjoyment. Perhaps Berlioz became addicted to laudanum, over-using it and becoming dependent. But there’s’ no precise record and the language for such things didn’t exist yet.

When Berlioz took laudanum I believe he was performing recreation in the sense I have described for my own therapeutic purposes, trying to make himself feel better. Symphonie Fantastique is a work of art and shouldn’t be mistaken for a diary entry or a documentary film. But it’s worth contextualizing it. Berlioz’s SF is an example of the early romantic sensibility, that I’d put alongside Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”, another work where drugs create a dream that is then remembered. As in Jane Austen’s youthful novel Northanger Abbey fancy is itself framed within a larger saner world that does not accept those fantasies. What we hear of was in the head of an imaginative fanciful person, explicable by an over-active imagination OR the drugs that induce a nightmare / hallucination. That contrasts to the pure fantasy of the high romantics: that would come later.

This is highly personal for me, given that I see exercise as recreational, in the sense that it’s both fun AND re-creates me, as a kind of therapy. And ditto for cannabis. CBD is safer than THC as far as levels of intoxication / impairment, so I stick mostly to the CBD oils, with the THC ones for weekends when pain becomes un-endurable, when I don’t have to drive, when I am trying to loosen things up. When the laws change next month, it needs to be recognized that however much doctors are involved, the “recreational” use of cannabis as most people understand it will always be helping people as well as leading them to fun. I But I don’t approve of anyone seeing any drug as a roller coaster ride. You must recognize that YOU are the roller coaster. YOU will be changed by the experience and can’t get off the ride, because you ARE the ride. This might be why some people experience paranoia, fear, anxiety, when they are stoned. One must surrender to it, trust it. And even if you have dreams like the ones in Berlioz’s SF there is a morning after.

Berlioz remains my favorite composer. Long ago I made my first acquaintance with the SF, on record and later in Liszt’s transcription for piano. The great thing about the Liszt is how it sometimes lays bare the ways that Berlioz takes us inside the druggy experiences of the SF.

Let’s set aside the last two movements, where we are obviously inside the nightmare, the druggy fantasy. I find the first movement remarkable for its intimations of what’s to come.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the song “Die Post” and its heart-beat rhythms. There are other songs with a pulse, for instance the coda to Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto just after the cadenza. All well and good, but when did a composer ever insert a fevered pulse, a pulse that sounds obsessive or crazed? I think we have that in “Reveries – Passions”, the first movement to SF. Let me show you a bit of Liszt’s transcription, as this is the easiest way to zero in on what Berlioz was doing.

The first time we hear the main theme, that Berlioz called an idée fixe, it may be literally just that. In Liszt’s transcription we can see something resembling a duet:

  • A high theme in the strings (“espressivo con passione”), a melody that is an idea, and arguably in the head
  • Below (“agitato sotto voce”) vibrations, shivers, palpitations? Arguably the body in which those ideas are happening

If you listen to this passage, you may notice that, as the tempo increases naturally so does the tempo of the beats, which we might think of as the heart-rate of the artist whose story is being told.


At times Berlioz is simulating the passions of his protagonist, for instance in this pair of examples below, where
1) we see the repeated chords (ff) that build suspense & excitement (top line),
2) in the frenetic racing from top to bottom of the staff and back (look at those notes looking like a literal chase across the page further below), punctuated by sudden spearing notes, agonized.

2nd sample

That frenzied duet I illustrated with the first picture recurs in an ever more frenetic form this time with the pulsing coming from above and below, the theme sandwiched in between. I have been listening to this since my teens and never fail to be astounded at what Berlioz achieved here.


Please listen to it if you can and tell me you can’t sense a heart beating, and ever faster as the tempo picks up.  This passage is right at the beginning of this youtube sample from Seiji Ozawa’s Toronto Symphony recording of the SF that I had as a teen.

The Toronto Symphony has been in the news this week with the announcement of a new music director. Great. But I’m more interested, or perhaps you would say obsessed, by the upcoming concert, the return of Andrew Davis to the podium. There are other pieces on the program Sept 20, 21 and 22, but as you can probably tell I’m especially interested in hearing the Symphonie Fantastique at Roy Thomson Hall.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique & the fork in the recreational road

  1. Pingback: A new start with the old guy | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Toronto Symphony’s new Berlioz CD | barczablog

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