NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Language and Music
Violist and returning NYO-USA member Faith Pak describes how she came to learn of the close relationship between story and music in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, which she will perform with the rest of the 2015 orchestra on this year's tour. She also recalls last year's experience working with conductor David Robertson, which taught her to look for inspiration in the stories behind the music she plays.
“Songe d’une nuit du sabbat”—“Dream of the Night of the Sabbath”: Read out loud, the phrase, in both French and English, rolls off the tongue with languid, snakelike breath, evoking something deep purple, mystical, and slowly unfolding before your eyes. These words, the title Berlioz gave the final movement of his Symphonie fantastique, are just as musical as the music itself. The composer further extended this connection between words and music with evocative program notes for the entire symphony that invite audiences to fully experience the unhinged passion and drama of his great work.
The symphony is the story of a young artist who falls desperately in love with a woman and is perpetually haunted by her image wherever he goes. Beginning in the first movement, “Daydreams, Passions,” the beloved is represented by a recurring musical phrase, called an idée fixe (“fixed idea,” or “obsession”), which appears throughout the symphony in increasingly twisted incarnations. In the second movement, the artist finds himself at a sparkling ball, where he sees his beloved enter the room, heralded by a great hush of the crowd. The third movement, “In the Meadows,” marks his escape to the tranquil countryside in an attempt to run away from everything that reminds him of her. He fails, however, and is tortured by hallucinations of his beloved betraying him. In despair, the artist poisons himself with opium and slips into a psychedelic fantasy, envisioning himself being executed for murdering her—a scene that is played out with full, slow-pounding drama in the fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold.” The final chapter unfolds in the fifth movement, “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath,” in which the artist imagines he has gone to hell. In a ruined nowhere-land, grotesque spirits dance around a smoky bonfire. The resounding noise in the air is hollow laughter, and the “Dies irae”—the traditional chant-melody often used to represent the Day of Judgment in the Requiem Mass—rings out from distant bells.
Faith shares her viola with a child during NYO-USA’s 2014 interactive concert at Carnegie Hall. (Photography: Chris Lee)
I first encountered this epic story in ninth-grade music class, when we watched a documentary about the piece by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. As he explained the backstory with great gusto and melodramatic re-enactments, I thought of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which I’d read the past year for school. Bursting with thick, over-the-top Romanticism and fantastical gestures and musicality (in the language of Jane Eyre and in both the language and music of Symphonie fantastique), both works inspire the audience to imagine themselves at the center of the drama, to feel the heat of pain and hatred and love.
Even after this realization of the intimate connection between music and its story, however, I neglected the narrative aspect in my playing. Overwhelmed with the burgeoning workload of school and music responsibilities, I began to treat music as a job, simply learning my notes and rhythms for due dates. But I found myself giving my music a story, with more love than ever before, last year with NYO-USA, when conductor David Robertson guided us to truly appreciate the heart of the music we played. Poised with the elegance of a Shakespearean actor, he told us, sometimes with a tear in his eye, about the compassion for the victims of the horrors of war and destruction contained in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto. I was reminded of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a postmodern collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. One quote remains imprinted in my mind: “But it wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.” And it was, as was Britten’s concerto. It was about pacifist compassion and love for those who suffered. NYO-USA taught me to tell a true story with music, and rekindled my curiosity for finding connections between music and literature, sparking and illuminating both. As the start of NYO-USA’s 2015 season quickly approaches, I grow more and more excited to be back on the stage, immersed in the music and the story of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.