Mendelssohn’s Impression of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

In 1831, in a letter to his mother, Mendelssohn gave his impressions of Berlioz’s famous symphony. After summing up the explanatory notes written by the composer, Mendelssohn went on to give an unfavorable review of the work:

“How utterly loathsome this is to me, I don’t have to tell you. To see one’s most cherished ideas debased and expressed in perverted caricatures would enrage anyone. And yet this is only the program. The execution is still more miserable: nowhere a spark, no warmth, utter foolishness, contrived passion represented through every possible exaggerated orchestral means: four tympani, two pianos for four hands, which are supposed to imitate bells, two harps, many big drums, violins divided into eight parts, two parts for the double basses which play solo passages, and all these means (to which I would not object if they were being properly employed) used to express nothing but indifferent drivel, mere grunting, shouting, screaming back and forth.” (from Sam Morgenstern’s anthology “Composers on Music”. Pantheon Books.1956pp141-142.)

Perhaps Mendelssohn would have been a little more positive if he heard this symphony conducted by Pinchas Steinberg:

Here’s the last movement with bells, tubas, dies irae, great bassoon playing, and of course strings played with the wooden part of the bow- col legno. Question to musicologists: What composer before Berlioz used col legno? Was it an effect from opera? Is this the first piece using that effect?

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One Response to “Mendelssohn’s Impression of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique”

  1. john gibbons Says:

    Rossini uses col legno. Maybe it is indeed operatic in origin, like seemingly everything else. Opera is often a proving ground. Or maybe some lunatic just didn’t know which way to hold the bow! I’m delighted that you found and published the Mendelssohn quote, I will definitely use it in my classes coming up, which concern precisely this repertory. Probably you know that Schumann also famously reviewed the Fantastique. Crazy as it sounds, Schumann and Berlioz not only respected one another, but actually got along reasonably well. Clara didn’t like Hector, however. Have you ever considered how fortuitous it is that Berlioz’ first name is Hector?

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