I have a love/love relationship with Symphonie Fantastique. Some of my fondest concert memories are of this piece, and it takes a seriously lousy performance for me to get bummed out about it. (Which does happen.) Summer is winding down, there's not a lot to write about (well, there is, but I'm lazy), so I might as well dust off this story about me, the Symphonie, and a Berlioz scholar.
But first, a bit about the Symphonie. The most immediately appealing movement is the fourth, a march, and a march to the scaffold, at that. But this is no ordinary march, because the person envisioning it is dreaming, or hallucinating. It isn't real. The entire procession is inside our protagonist's head, so this is a psychological march as much as an actual march, with soldiers and drums and flags.
Right after one of the bigger outbursts, after the brass come in for the first time, there's a repeat sign and it returns immediately to the march's beginning,and the soft burst of timpani. The brakes get applied to this procession, and the effect in concert is similar to moving the runners back to the starting line after a false start.
Berlioz doesn't mention this in his Memoires, David Cairns doesn't mention it in his exhaustive two-volume biography, and no musicologist steps up in the Cambridge Companion to Berlioz to say that the repeat sign dates from 2:30 one afternoon in 1827 and therefore cannot possibly be ignored. My take on this puzzling excursion back to the beginning is that we're in psychological territory, and the protagonist is hallucinating, so naturally reality is going to be a bit bent. Seems reasonable to me, and lord knows sitting in the trumpet section during that symphony's third movement gives you a long time to come up with theories.
Conductors who don't observe the repeat earned my scorn for a while, therefore, since they were clearly simple-minded idiots who hadn't done any serious thought about the background of the piece. Hadn't they thought about what this could mean? Why must they so casually discard such a strange feature?
Then, in 2003, the year of the Berlioz centennial, several Berlioz scholars came to Bloomington for a three-day festival of lectures and concerts, and one of them was Julian Rushton (scroll down for his biography). I buttonholed him after one of the sessions, and put this theory to him. "What do you think about that repeat? Isn't it important? Don't you think it should be observed?" (I like to think I'm slightly more tolerable to be around today than I was then.)
"I don't really think about it," Rushton replied. Symphonie Fantastique was the focus this evening on Exploring Music with Bill McLaughlin, and McLaughlin played the March to the Scaffold, and I can't recall whether that repeat was taken. Sitting back, I followed the melody I've heard a million times, and didn't even notice whether we went back to the beginning. Maybe they did, and the conductor respects the validity of the score, or maybe Rushton is right and it doesn't really matter.