This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In just about every way, this album changed everything in popular music. It was the first "concept album." It was the first psychedelic album. It showed that rock music could be "serious." The Beatles gave up touring, and the craziness that followed them on the road, and locked themselves in a studio and began experimenting with sounds and new ideas. A masterpiece emerged. It didn't sound like the Beatles....it didn't sound like anything else up to that time....it was music from a different planet. And 50 years later, it still sounds that way.
One hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, in 1830, a similar event occurred. A French composer named Hector Berlioz wrote a piece of music that changed everything too. Only this time, the stakes were much different...even higher. Whereas the Beatles were measured against their previous music, which was certainly wonderful (Rubber Soul, Revolver) and all other rock music made before 1967, Berlioz was composing in a world that had just been seismically transformed by a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven. Just as the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys were left open mouthed and spellbound trying to figure out how they could possibly top Sgt. Pepper, every composer after Beethoven had his endless musical shadow with which to contend. A great quote from Johannes Brahms to this end: "You have no idea how it is for the likes of us to feel the tread of a giant like him behind us." Brahms waited many years before he published his first symphony (1876). But young Hector leaped into the post-Beethoven abyss and composed a work that sounds every bit as timeless and fresh today as it did in 1830; the Symphonie Fantastique. It was the first "programmatic" work ever published...essentially a concept album as was Sgt. Pepper. The five movements of SF tell an incredible story of love, opium induced obsession, wild fantasy, madness, and death.
Tom Service said it so well in his article in the Guardian from August 19, 2014:
"Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece that lays legitimate claim to adjectives such as “revolutionary”, “radical” and “unprecedented” perhaps as much as, or even more than any other piece in this series so far. This jaw-dropping work was made by a 26-year-old composer who had already become a famous, indeed notorious, figure in Parisian musical life. But Hector Berlioz also happened to be one of the most brilliant writers on music; and in his letters he reveals the genesis of this diabolically and passionately inspired work."
And Leonard Bernstein described the SF this way in 1969: