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Tchaikovsky on Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Dear fellow Tchaikovsky lovers,

I noticed that Tchaikovsky speaks about his reservations towards several works by Berlioz, with the exception of Symphonie Fantastique. Can anyone shed some light on this as to if Tchaikovsky ever did speak on that subject?


Michael Svoboda

From mid-February to mid-March 1879 Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck were both staying in Paris, and on 2 March a concert by Jules Pasdeloup's orchestra was due to take place featuring Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. A few days before the concert, Tchaikovsky wrote to his benefactress (who was staying in a different part of the city): "We shall listen together to Berlioz's symphony, which, by the way, I don't particularly like." (Letter 1111, 16/28 February–17 February/1 March 1879).

On the day after the concert, Mme von Meck shared her impressions with Tchaikovsky: "I liked the Berlioz symphony yesterday very much. How picturesquely it is composed! This man is able, with astonishing vividness, to convey by means of music everything that he wants, and he speaks through music and depicts where it is required. What a delightful waltz at the ball, how fantastic the last movement is! One listens to it from beginning to end with ever keen interest; one may be exhausted by the duration but never by the music. A delightful composer!" (Letter to Tchaikovsky, 19 February/3 March 1879).

Tchaikovsky replied the following day: "I was pleased with Pasdeloup's concert. It is with great interest that one listens to Berlioz's symphony. I would not say, though, that this is one of my favourite pieces. It has many anti-artistic effects, that is, of a purely external kind: for example, the depiction of thunder by means of kettledrums alone. But the Waltz and the March [to the Scaffold] are wonderful. As for the main theme, which runs through the whole symphony and depicts the beloved woman:

why, surely you agree, my friend, that it is feeble!…" (Letter 1115, 19 February/3 March–20 February/4 March 1879).

The commentary for the Soviet edition (1934-36) of Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Mme von Meck points out, however, that the composer's sketch of the idée fixe theme is not entirely accurate. It should be:

Luis Sundkvist

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