Opening Night Symphonie Fantastique! Program Notes

Fate Now Conquers
Carlos Simon (b.1986) 

Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate. Jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona. Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depicts the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.

We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from the Iliad, in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished it to fate. Fate now conquers.

~ Fate Now Conquers Program note by Carlos Simon

The Golden Flute
Chen Yi (b. 1953)

Born in Guangzhou, China, Chen Yi began studying the violin at the age of three. During the Cultural Revolution, she was sent into the countryside for forced labor, but took her instrument with her. At 17, she returned home to serve as concertmaster of the Beijing Opera Troupe. She came to the United States in 1986, studying at Columbia University. She is now Distinguished Professor in Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Inspired by James Galway’s enthusiasm, Chen wrote a flute concerto titled The Golden Flute, “using a western flute to speak in the language of Chinese wind instruments, such as the dizi made from bamboo and the xun made from clay.” The world premiere was performed by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yong-yan Hu, with flutist Donna Orbovich, on November 8, 1997.

In her program note, Chen says the opening movement, imitating the dizi, is based on the Chinese folk song Old Eight Beats. There is a substantial cadenza between the first two movements, then the “intermezzo-like” second movement, which imitates the xun, “a slow but tense, mysterious and dreamy” sound. The last movement returns to the virtuosic style, featuring “an extreme contrast between the low sonority from the orchestra and the screaming passages from the solo part mixed with piccolos.”

Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

In 1827, Berlioz fell madly in love with an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, who ignored him. He turned to his music as an outlet for his unrequited love. The result was Symphonie Fantastique, which was first performed at the Paris Conservatory on December 5, 1830. Harriet Smithson was not in the audience.

The composer provided an explicit program for the work: “A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to result in death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, sentiments, and recollections are translated in his sick brain into musical thoughts and images. The beloved woman herself has become a melody… which he finds and hears everywhere.”  Berlioz called this melody the idée fixe.

Accordingly, the five movements depict various dreams of our hero. The first movement, “Dreams, Passions,” finds him remembering his life before meeting his beloved. In the second movement, he sees her at “A Ball,” in which her tune is transformed into a waltz. The third movement, “Scene in the Fields,” depicts shepherds, whose pastoral calm he contrasts with his own turmoil. In the fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold,” he dreams that he has killed his beloved and is being executed. The Finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” portrays the beloved involved in an infernal orgy with ghosts, witches and assorted monsters. The idée fixe changes into a grotesque version of the original. Berlioz also parodies the Dies irae (“Day of Wrath” from the Mass for the Dead) in a grand free fugue to end the work.

~ Program notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2022.