Tolling the bells once again for Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie fantastique’

James Ross, a CSO percussionist, plays the offstage bells during Berlioz’s "Symphonie fantastique."

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

“From the bells bells bells bells/Bells bells bells!/In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in a poem shortly before his death in 1849, and it’s fascinating to speculate whether this work might have been inspired by a revolutionary opus published over a decade earlier: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

Truly ground-breaking, Symphonie fantastique is “one of the most shockingly modern works in the repertoire and surely the most astonishing first symphony any composer has given us,” observes CSO annotator Phillip Huscher of the work, written in 1830 and revised through 1855. “For its time [it stretched the definition] of the symphony to the limit.”

Composed in five movements, Symphonie fantastique is remarkable for its “staggeringly inventive use of the orchestra, creating entirely new sounds with the same instruments that had been playing together for years; for the bold, unexpected harmonies, and for melodies that are still, to this day, unlike anyone else’s,” Huscher writes. “There isn’t a page of this score that doesn’t contain something distinctive and surprising.”

Symphonie fantastique depicts the life of an artist — a thinly veiled Berlioz himself — as he confronts unrequited love, opium-induced hallucinations, witches, guillotines and finally, in the fifth movement, a sabbath dance that culminates furiously with funeral rites. Here the bells toll in a magnificent clamor. In his score, Berlioz called for giant church bells in G and C, and the sound of this distinctive percussion instrument must have been pealing in Poe’s mind when he wrote The Bells.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work in the 2013-14 season, it was recorded for a Beyond the Score presentation. This video documents those concerts, from December 2013. (The CSO also will present the work in concerts March 4-5 and 8, under Paavo Järvi.) If you’re wondering for whom the bells toll, jump ahead to the video’s 45-minute mark.