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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Witches’ Sabbath

Can you guess this piece? Here’s a hint: Double, double, toil and trouble!

Berlioz pulled out all the stops in this final movement of his five-movement symphony of 1830. As the audacious story comes to its violent conclusion, the symphony’s protagonist has fallen into an opium-induced trance and believes that he has been executed for murdering his beloved. The music rejoices in bizarre and ugly effects, as the protagonist dreams himself at a black mass of witches and ghouls who drag him to hell to the sound of triumphant fanfares. Thrown into this nightmarish stew is the DIES IRAE, a medieval sequence dating from the mid-thirteenth century. By the nineteenth century this melody had become a kind of musical shorthand for death or the uncanny or supernatural, also appearing earlier on tonight’s program in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.

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