In 1827 Hector Berlioz developed a crush on the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he saw in English-language Parisian productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.Though he hardly understood a word of English, by the third act of Romeo Berlioz claims to have fallen in love with “Juliet.” The two eventually married, but after two decades of passion and turbulence they decided they’d been a poor match at the outset. The Symphonie fantastique became a recounting of Berlioz’ life with Harriet, its subtitle (“Episodes in the Life of an Artist”) making its biographical reference clear.
It was the first prominent programmatic symphony of the Romantic period; no previous piece had worked out a storyline in such relentless detail. “The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment,” Berlioz wrote, in a note distributed at the premiere in December 1830. “As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance.”
Thus at its heart, the Symphonie is a dramatic work, an orchestral expression by a composer who had yet to score any genuine successes at the Paris Opéra, and who found here an outlet for his dramatic gifts. At its musical core is what Berlioz had called the idée fixe, the chief melodic motif that represents Harriet.