Artistic project


Conductor François-Xavier Roth founded the authentic-instrument orchestra Les Siècles in 2003. Comprised of young musicians from some of the finest French ensembles, the group’s aim is to offer a new approach not only to repertoire but also to the very nature of the concert form. This disc was recorded live at the 2009 Berlioz Festival in La Côte-Saint-André and features the composer’s immortal Symphonie Fantastique. Especially for the recording, recently discovered, rare instruments from Berlioz’s period were used.


“Playing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in the composer’s hometown was a unique and unforgettable experience for all the Siècles’ musicians including myself. Instruments from Berlioz’s period were rediscovered and restored, right down to the famous bells of the “Dies Irae”, which brought their spectacular character and resonance during the 2009 Berlioz Festival.”

François-Xavier Roth


The Fantastic Symphony

Program of the symphony, by Berlioz

A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere.

Part one – Daydreams, passions

He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.

Part two- A bal

He meets again his beloved in a ball during a glittering fête.

Part three – Scene in the countryside

One summer evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds dialoguing with their ‘Ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring; but she reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him… One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody, the other one no longer answers. The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four – March to the scaffold

He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for a moment like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five – Dream of a witches’ sabbath

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance-tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roars of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae.

“Immediately after this composition on the subject of Faust [the Huit scènes de Faust], and still under the influence of Goethe’s poem, I wrote the Fantastic Symphony; some parts caused me great difficulty, but others came with incredible ease. Thus the adagio (the Scene in the countryside), which always has such an effect on the general public and on myself, exhausted me for more than three weeks; I gave it up then started it again two or three times. By contrast the March to the scaffold was written in one night. Nevertheless I made many changes to both pieces and to all the other movements of the work over a period of several years.”

Extract from the Memoirs 26; Hector Berlioz

The bells

Instruments from Berlioz’s period were rediscovered and restored, right down to the famous bells of the “Dies Irae”

Bells have been introduced into orchestral writing to produce effects that are dramatic rather than musical. The timbre of low-pitched bells is appropriate only for scenes of a solemn or tense character. High-pitched bells, on the other hand, give rise to more peaceful impressions; there is something rustic and artless about them which make them particularly suitable for religious scenes from country life. That is why Rossini made use of a little bell in G to accompany a graceful chorus from the second Act of William Tell, the refrain of which is “voici la nuit”. Meyerbeer on his side needed to use a deep bell in F to give the signal for the massacre of the Huguenots, in the fourth Act of the opera of that name. In addition he was careful to make that F the augmented fifth of the B natural played by the bassoons below. Assisted by the low notes of two clarinets in A and B flat this gives the passage the sinister timbre which evokes the feelings of terror and fear which permeate this immortal scene.

Extract from the Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration, Berlioz

The Bells during the 2009 Berlioz Festival