On Music: the strings in Symphonie Fantastique


I'm thrilled at how you've already taken to the ON MUSIC feature! Lots of great comments yesterday, which I'll take into consideration going forward, especially the request to feature 20th century music.

Today I'm digging out the Berlioz, however. The most "romantic" of all the Romantics. Besides all the juicy love affairs and near love affairs, his attempts to kill himself and his outrageous hairdo, Berlioz was something of a rogue, getting into trouble often, causing a stir with his behavior as well as his seriously avante music. But the most interesting factoid I can drop about him, which you won't discover unless you do some serious reading about the genius (and let me recommend his autobiography if you're interested in learning more) is this: he couldn't play piano!

Berlioz was a guitarist and wrote most of his compositions sitting at a desk with nothing more than pen and staff paper. Pretty amazing, especially when you listen to how vivid and colorful his orchestrations are.

So let's do exactly that, by dropping in on the finale of his most famous piece, his Symphonie Fantastique. Yesterday we listened to several different handlings of the brass section, so I thought we'd do the same today, only in the string section.

In the beginning of this excerpt, note the nasally sound of the cellos and violas. This is accomplished by playing right near the bridge of the instrument, where the strings are tightest. Then, around 20 seconds in, the violins join the little canonic passage, only they're playing normally, which creates a nice juxtaposition against the raspy cellos. Moments later everyone is playing normally, creating that rich, full sound. But it gets even fuller at 40 seconds in when the whole string sections starts playing the tune in unison, deep and low down—listen to how rich and warm that is!When the brass come in with the counter melody a few moments later, the violins soar with the tune into the stratosphere. And then start diving up and down the scale.

Next comes my favorite part of all! At 1:15 into the excerpt, listen as the strings flip their bows upside down and start bouncing the wood side against the strings! In Italian, it's called col legno, and it means to strike "with the wood." String players hate to play col legno because the bows are very expensive and it ruins the wood. Some even carry extra bows, cheap ones, for moments in scores such as these. But what a great effect, eh? This piece, written around 1826, might very well be the first ever call for col legno.

Lastly, listen closely around 1:55 when the strings start a wild tremolo down in the lower register. This, combined with that scary rolling bass drum create the thunder-like effect you hear before the launch into the wonderfully bombastic finale.

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