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Emily Grossman

Idée Fixe

September 25, 2013 at 7:48 PM

As if by the workings of destiny, the artist finally chanced upon the personified muse, the object of his ideals, his One True Love. What next? She would not belong to him. Ever out of reach, she transfixed his every thought and thus, as a recurrent melodic theme weaves its way through an entire symphony, became his idée fixe, his musical obsession. Around every corner, he imagined her face, heard her voice, felt her presence. The words of a childhood song sang clear in his mind:

"Now I have to leave forever my dear country, my dear friend. Far from them I'll spend my weary life in sorrow and regret."

For a moment, love had been suspended weightlessly by its own untainted virtue, then, with the swing of the pendulum, began the long plummet into hopeless despair, rejection, and self-destruction. She haunted him incessantly; even through slumber, he could not elude her, as she tainted his dreams. His mind thoroughly poisoned by this unstoppable, unrequited passion, he could see no other way to escape this torture but through death...


One evening last week, I arrived home, ready to practice Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique for a couple of hours before bedtime. The house was unsettlingly dark and quiet. Thinking I had the place to myself, I jumped when I heard a voice from the couch break the silence: "Good evening."

"George! What are you doing?"
"Oh, just enjoying a cup of tea in the dark."
"...Okay." I frowned, quizzically.
"Power's out."

Ah. We sat for a few moments in the smooth blackness, unwilling to disturb the peaceful hush for a bit. Still, I needed to practice. Unable to escape the tugging sensation, I grabbed a headlamp and headed back to the studio, ready to tackle movement 4: March to the Scaffold. A program symphony, Berlioz created this masterpiece to echo his own emotional journey after becoming enamored by a famous Shakespearean actress who would not yield her attention to him. By the fourth movement, he has given up hope, and, after taking what he thinks will be a lethal dosage of opium, dreams he is attending his own beheading for murdering his beloved. In the fifth movement, the witches come and dance on his grave while the spirit of his beloved laughs on, mockingly.

By the light of a perfect full moon, I worked through my part, which is but a small puzzle piece in the huge scope that Berlioz concocted to express his dramatic feelings. Glaringly missing from the second violin's music in the fifth movement is the Dies Irae, a hymn of Judgement Day, which is sung instead by the menacing lower brass. At the sound of the traditional three death chimes, they begin the Gregorian chant, which in turn incites the violins (a.k.a. witches) to frenzied dancing. Though my part doesn't contain any of this chant, I did not need a recording to imagine the sound of it; my brother Tom's trombone heralded the phrases as clear as the moon, resurrected from a sudden memory of marching bands and magic.

My first experience with Symphonie Fantastique occurred when I was in high school. Our football program at Tulsa Union High School outshadowed most everything else at the school, and games between rivals could draw crowds in the tens of thousands. The Backyard Bowl, Union vs. Jenks, has gained even national attention, with over 40,000 in attendance some years. While I've always been "adamantly against football" (to quote the silly, dramatic words I used in high school), the years in which I attended Union rode the front end of this crest of popularity, and the marching band program benefited from the attention as well, both audience-wise and financially. We had an especially brilliant band instructor who could arrange just about anything, and my freshman year, he chose the last two movements of Symphonie Fantastique. It was Tom's first year for marching band, and the workload required to memorize both the musical part and the choreography was staggering. After devoting most of the summer to practice, he took the field with 180-200 other high school students during the half time show to reenact Berlioz's beheading and subsequent witches' orgy. Flags waved, and the brass bellowed. The resulting experience was so electrifying that it left an impression that remains fresh, all these years later, as I practiced my own part for the upcoming symphony concert.

The darkness brought by the power outage left the moon to create a singular spotlight, and in its light shone my brother's trombone. I felt a certain affinity and swell of pride at the thought of the Dies Irae, and how perfectly suited for the part he was, and how the swing of the pendulum brought me back to the march of his steps for completion. Unrelenting, the idée fixe continued, as I dreamed of a witches' sabbath by moonlight.


From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on September 26, 2013 at 5:03 AM
I loved the blog, Emily. So evocative. Also took me back to my one year of marching band in high school. (Clarinet--I assume you weren't in the band?)

How is your dog doing? I was going to reply to your blog about Hawaii and your dog, but my own dear pet was dying at the time and I couldn't do it.
(Said pet is still alive--a series of miracles.)

From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 26, 2013 at 6:33 AM
As far as I know, I think Ben's doing great! Glad to hear your pet is doing well, too:)
From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 26, 2013 at 1:18 PM
Very evocative post! Sometimes the right atmosphere brings back memories that enhance you understanding of the piece you are trying to master.

BTW, I recall years ago when Tom used to periodically comment on your blog.

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