Opium and the Symphonie Fantastique

In 1829, at the age of twenty-five, Hector Berlioz was gripped by a strange and harrowing nervous condition. For a year he wrestled with bouts of feverish excitement and insomnia, interspersed with blank intervals of exhaustion and depression. Musical ideas assailed and tormented him, whirling him into ecstatic frenzies and then dropping him like a limp rag doll. “So many musical ideas are seething within me”, he wrote to a friend, “oh, must my destiny be engulfed by this overwhelming passion?”. “This imaginary world”, he wrote to his father several months later, “has become a real malady”. But the work which was gestating inside him remained chaotic, out of focus, impossible to fix or transcribe. Then abruptly, in March of 1830, the fever broke. Over the next six weeks he wrote the entire Symphonie Fantastique, some movements apparently scribbled almost automatically in a single night. On the 16th April he wrote to his friend and collaborator, the librettist Humbert Ferrand, including his first draft of the Symphonie’s programme.

The narrative of the first three movements is one of unrequited love: the protagonist yearning for his beloved, encountering her at a ball, imagining her in the pastoral setting of a meadow. But the final two movements make a violent and shocking transition into fantasies of delirium, nightmare and death. This transition in the story is effected by a plot device which has since become familiar, but was in its time strikingly novel: the protagonist takes a large dose of an intoxicating drug, opium. In his letter to Ferrand, Berlioz explained the narrative as follows:

“Movement 4 – In a fit of despair he poisons himself with opium; but instead of killing him the narcotic induces a horrific vision, in which he believes he has murdered the loved one, has been condemned to death, and witnesses his own execution. March to the scaffold; immense procession of headsmen, soldiers and populace. At the end the melody appears once again, like a last reminder of love, interrupted by the death stroke.
Movement 5 – The next moment he is surrounded by a hideous throng of demons and sorcerers, gathered to celebrate Sabbath night. They summon from far and wide. At last the melody arrives. Till then it had appeared only in a graceful guise, but now it has become a vulgar tavern tune, trivial and base; the beloved object has come to the Sabbath to take part in her victim’s funeral. She is nothing but a courtesan, fit to figure in the orgy. The ceremony begins; the bells toll, the whole hellish cohort prostrates itself; a chorus chants the plainsong sequence of the dead (Dies Irae), two other choruses repeat it in a burlesque parody. Finally, the Sabbath round-dance whirls. At its violent climax it mingles with the Dies Irae, and the vision ends.”

berliozHere, finally, were the fruits of Berlioz’s year of delirium and exhaustion. The source of his torment had been an idée fixe, as he called it, meaning both a strange, almost supernatural obsession and an overarching musical motif. Now it had finally snapped into focus: the Symphonie had its form. And no wonder he had struggled with it. To capture it, he had to produce both music and narrative unlike anything which had ever been heard before. Central to its structure was the idea that the final two movements should represent scenes which were only possible in the world of dreams, and specifically dreams produced by taking a large dose of opium. But why opium? And how central was the drug itself to the convulsive process of the Symphonie’s composition?

There is little doubt that Berlioz was taking opium throughout 1829 and 1830. In the last letter to his father before the the torrent of composition finally burst forth, he tells him: “I see myself in a mirror. Often I experience the most extraordinary impressions, of which nothing can give any idea…the effect is like that of opium”. Later in life, as these strange states recurred, he would be more specific: when his nerves were worn to shreds, the only solution was “ten drops of laudanum, and forget things till tomorrow”.

Berlioz’s father, Louis-Joseph, would have picked up the hint. He himself, a distinguished physician, was taking opium regularly at the time, and had done so for many years. Nor were the Berlioz family unusual. Typically in the form of laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol, it was among the most widely-used medicines of the age: it might be characterised as the aspirin of the nineteenth century. The image which opium conjures today – dark, visionary, romantic, the crucible of agony and esctasy for poets, painters and musicians – needs, for this reason, to be applied with caution. The fact that Berlioz used it during the course of his nervous illness does not in itself explain why it appears as the dramatic motif for the Symphonie’s transformation into its delirious final movements. The explanation for this lies not with the drug itself but with the way in which its effects were being audaciously reconceived by a new generation in the 1820s.

Sydenhams-opium-tincture-300x228The opium with which the nineteenth century began was a largely uncontroversial and highly respected medicine, which had been a staple of doctors ever since the birth of the medical profession. The seventeenth-century British doctor Thomas Sydenham was among the pioneers of the laudanum preparation: his opium diluted in wine, fortified with cloves and other spices, had been prescribed by the gallon to Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, and doctors ever since had concurred with Sydenham’s sentiment that “among the remedies which the Almighty saw fit to reveal to man to lighten his sufferings, none other is as useful and effective”.

Opium is indeed a remarkably effective medicine. In the era before anaesthetics, it was the most potent suppressor of pain available. It also had specific efficacy against fevers, gastric illnesses and infectious diseases like cholera. In areas like the Fens in the east of England, damp, cold and windswept, most families had since time immemorial grown a stand of white poppies in the corner of their gardens, harvesting them to make a ‘poppy-head tea’ which was supped as a traditional remedy against the chills, flus, and agues which were a common backdrop of rural life.

But it was more than simply a physical remedy. A dose of opium or laudanum has a benign effect on mood and emotional tone. Anxieties melt away, black moods lift temporarily; the subject feels cocooned not merely against physical pain but also mental distress, emotionally disengaged and free to drift into comfortable worlds of dream and reverie. For this reason it was commonly used for nervous, anxious or highly-strung conditions – not just the nineteenth century’s aspirin but its valium, too. In this sense, Berlioz’s use of opium during his nervous crisis was quite typical. He writes to his father: “sometimes I can scarcely endure this physical or mental pain (I can’t separate the two)”. His physical symptoms included stomach cramps and insomnia, for both of which opium might have been effective – but it would have been equally effective for calming his fevered moods and releasing him from the grip of his idée fixe.

Opium’s dangers, such a familiar part of its image today, were also recognised in Berlioz’s time, but were accorded less importance. It was understood that if opium was used recklessly, the subject’s tolerance to it would increase, and within weeks they might require many times their original dose to achieve the same effects. But this addiction, as it would become known, was seen by most doctors as a minor side-effect of an indispensible medicine. Many people took opium regularly, but were careful not to increase their dose, and spent a lifetime with a low-level opium habit which was regarded in rather the same way as we might regard habitual tobacco smoking or drinking a few glasses of wine every night: not to be encouraged perhaps, but not a medical crisis either. More serious than the risk of addiction was the risk of overdose: only a few multiples of the active dose of opium is enough to kill by suppressing respiration. Fatal overdoses among the careless were not uncommon, and it was a favoured method of suicide, particularly for women. But, overall, the image of opium in the 1820s lacked both the glamour and the danger with which we associate it today. By choosing it as the source for the dark visions of the Symphonie, Berlioz was among the first artists to begin the modern process of investing it with both.

So Berlioz’s use of opium alone is not sufficient to account for its prominence in the Symphonie’s narrative. He had not discovered a new source of visions – and nor were the visions in the Symphonie entirely the product either of the drug or of his fevered brain. As significant as the drug itself was his immersion, during 1829 and 1830, in the writings of the man who did most to map the opaque hinterland of the opium reverie: Thomas de Quincey.

The Symphonie is far more than pastiche or plagiarism, but there are several literary borrowings in its story. One source is Goethe’s Faust which, Berlioz tells us in his memoirs, “made a strange and deep impression on me”. Throughout 1829 he read it “incessantly, at meals, at the theatre, in the street”. Its influence in the programme of the Symphonie is easily recognised: at the end of its first part, Gretchen, its heroine, imagines a huge crowd gathering at night in the town square, and dragging her to the guillotine accompanied by the tolling of deep funeral bells. Berlioz had also read Victor Hugo’s gothic short stories, and their influence is palpable too. Hugo’s Ronde de Sabbat, or Sabbath Dance, contains the brooding image of a Walpurgis Night dance, a monastery bell striking midnight and summoning an unholy convocation of witches, demons and grotesques.

de quinceyBut the other book with which Berlioz was obsessed during the crisis of the Symphonie’s composition, and the one which almost certainly prompted the bold use of opium in his story, was Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. It had first been serialised in the London Magazine in 1821, and became an instant bestseller when published in book form the following year. In 1828 it was translated into French for the first time by Alfred de Musset: a rather stodgy and inaccurate rendering which would be forgotten after Charles Baudelaire produced his masterly reinterpretation in 1860. But de Musset’s version was enough for Berlioz to fall under de Quincey’s spell.

The adolescent Thomas de Quincey had been a worshipper of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and had sought them out in the Lake District and subsequently became Coleridge’s secretary in 1808. De Quincey, already secretly using opium himself, found Coleridge in the thrall of its chronic and chaotic use: bed-ridden, nerves shattered, weeping, self-pitying, borrowing money from de Quincey yet managing with extraordinary cunning to keep getting hold of opium despite having pleaded with those close to him to keep him from it at all costs – and leaving de Quincey with the impossible task of attempting to organise his shreds and tatters of half-finished writing for publication. Coleridge tells us that he “pleaded with flowing tears, and with an agony of forewarning” for de Quincey not to take opium, but the spectacle of Coleridge’s disintegration told his young protegé a different story: that this was the result of a self-deception about opium which had caused its subject to become its slave, and that the way to escape the drug’s clutches was not to curse its effects but to understand and address them, and to forge from them the central narrative of one’s life.

In this de Quincey succeeded admirably. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was to be his only huge hit in a career which combined reams of short-order hack journalism with nuggets of brilliance, and ‘The Opium Eater’ remained his instantly recognisable epithet not only throughout his life but for many decades afterwards. In a century which was awash with opium use, his book made him its prime exemplar – in his words, “the true church on the subject of opium – of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member”. He wrote this defining text at the age of thirty-six; at the age of seventy he was still revising it and working on its perpetually imminent but somehow never quite completed sequel.

Thanks in part to its sensational title, Confessions of An English Opium Eater did more than any other work in the nineteenth century to define the image of opium which we have inherited. But de Quincey’s idea of opium was quite unlike that of the vast majority of users before and after him, for whom it remained a simple anodyne, invested with no more poetry than valium or antihistamines today. The clue to the novelty of his approach is in the title, admitting surreptitiously as it does that the true subject of the book is not the obvious buzzword – opium – but the opium eater himself. Confessions… takes opium not as its subject, but as a dark mirror through which to reflect de Quincey’s own mind. The visions which he paints throughout the book were, in his view, aided and abetted by opium’s power, but their true origin must be sought not in the rusty depths of the laudanum tincture but in the author’s own childhood and subsequent adventures. In his case, these were highly unusual – he ran away from school, spent his adolescence on the road in Wales, and squatted with prostitutes in Soho; there, with opiated detatchment and pinprick pupils, he wandered aimlessly among the London theatre crowds – and he spends much of the book unpicking the cavalcade of images, tender and grotesque, from these years.

This is one of many qualities of the Confessions which would have spoken to Berlioz very directly. He, too, was gifted with extraordinarily vivid recall of his childhood, and felt a direct connection between his early memories and the overheated imagination of his young adulthood: as he wrote to his father about his nervous excitation, “I can remember having experienced exactly the same thing from the age of twelve”. He would also, as a tormented insomniac, have been haunted by de Quincey’s still unsurpassed descriptions of clammy night terrors – sleep hags, suffocating waking dreams, nightmares of guilt and premature burial. But it is in Berlioz’s use of opium as a motif that we can locate de Quincey’s inspiration most clearly, and on two quite distinct levels.

First, de Quincey may have offered Berlioz a means of narrating his own condition to himself. De Quincey argues in the Confessions that this is the correct use of opium – as he puts it, “to compose what had been agitated, and to concentrate what had been distracted” – a suggestion, perhaps, to Berlioz that he could use his opium-induced respites from chaotic excitation to crystallise the imaginary world which was tormenting him, and knit its snatches of musical accompaniment into a coherent work. In this sense the role of opium in Berlioz’s creativity may not have been to inspire wild reveries and visions but to withdraw from them, and allow him to mediate and organise the impressions which otherwise danced beyond his artistic reach.

sabbat danceSecondly, de Quincey might also have suggested to Berlioz how opium could work as a motif for the Symphonie itself: as a prism through which his maddening shards of inspiration could be focused into a linear narrative. Just as de Quincey used opium to overlay the bare facts of his life with shifting veils of dream and memory, reverie and vision, so Berlioz uses the dose of opium in the story to interpose multiple layers between the scenes we hear and the real world. We are to understand that the march to the scaffold and the Sabbat dance are not taking place in reality, but in a dream; moreover, that this is no ordinary dream, but one inspired by opium; and, furthermore, that this opium was taken not with the intention of producing such a dream but of seeking suicide. Such elaborate distancing of the scene represents a striking departure from the prior history of symphonic music, but finds many parallels in de Quincey’s prose.

Within a month of completing the Symphonie, Berlioz was offered the chance to perform it at the Theatre des Nouveautés in Paris. But the performance never took place. It gradually became clear that the work could only be realised on a huge scale: Berlioz had to add a further eighty players to the orchestra, there was nowhere to seat them, the production designer was driven mad, and the directors, in Berlioz’s words, “recoiled before such tumult, and the enterprise was abandoned”. When it finally premiered the following December at the Conservatoire, it created a sensation, dividing the critics between claims of genius and unlistenable cacophony. Berlioz was little impressed by either claim. He wrote: “the amount of fatuous theorising and sheer foolishness poured forth by French critics in praise as well as execration of my music since that time beggars description”.

But the influence of the Symphonie soon extended beyond the world of music: back into the world of literature from which it had taken much of its inspiration, and particularly back into the steadily growing corpus of ‘drug literature’. By the 1840s, the demi-monde of Paris had begun to espouse a set of lifestyles, attitudes and causes which were probably never combined before but have spontaneously replicated themselves ever since: long hair, outlandish dress, radical politics, getting up late and staying up all night, sexual abandon, heavy drinking and, of course, a voracious curiosity about drugs. The most celebrated coterie among this new generation was a baroque salon known as the Club des Haschischins. The Haschischin luminaries included Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert; Gerard de Nerval, the translator of the edition of Goethe’s Faust which Berlioz had been glued to; and Charles Baudelaire, who was simultaneously bringing the work of Thomas de Quincey to the notice of a wider French public. The proceedings took place in the seclusion of the Hotel Pimodan on the Ile de St.Louis in the centre of Paris, and involved a light dinner followed by a large swallowed dose of hashish.

Much of the reportage from the Club des Haschischins appeared in magazines as sensational journalism, purporting to be accurate description of the visions produced by the drug. But, like the narrative of the Symphonie, it betrays many artistic borrowings – including, perhaps, from the Symphonie itself. The most celebrated account, written by Theophile Gautier, draws heavily on the images of the march to the scaffold and the Sabbath dance. Gautier, having consumed dinner and a teaspoonful of green hashish jam, finds himself, like Berlioz’s protagonist, transported into an outlandish and nightmarish new world:

Theophile-Gautier-241x300“My neighbours began to appear somewhat strange. Their pupils became as big as a screech owl’s; their noses stretched into elongated probosces; their mouths expanded like bell bottoms. Faces were shaded in supernatural light…Little by little the salon was filled with extraordinary figures, such as are found only in the etchings of Callot or the aquatints of Goya, a pele-mele of rags and tatters, bestial and human shapes…it teemed, it crawled, it toddled, it leapt, it grumbled, it hissed, as Goethe says in the Walpurgis Night…
A small, unknown voice said to me: Take care, for you are surrounded by enemies; invisible forces are trying to lure and hold you. You are a prisoner here: try to escape and you shall see”.
…I rose to my feet with difficulty and went towards the door of the salon, which I reached at last after a considerable time, an unknown force pulling me back one step in every three…on looking down I saw an abyss of stairs, whirlpools of spirals, bewildering circumvolutions. This stair must pierce through the very ends of the earth, I thought, as I continued my mechanical march.”

Although this poses as factual reportage, any such claim must be taken with a tablespoon of salt: as Gautier himself admitted in later life, “it was the fashion to be pale and greenish-looking; to appear to be wasted by the pangs of passion and remorse; to talk sadly and fantastically about death”. As in Berlioz’s case, there were many shaping forces at play in the transition from drug to art, and Gautier namechecks many of his literary and visual inspirations explicitly. A pattern is beginning to emerge as we watch the motif of drug intoxication become a familiar artistic device, and this pattern gives us further clues about the role which opium played both in Berlioz’s composition of the Symphonie and in the work itself. Drugs like hashish or opium may produce a state of creatively fertile derangement, but they do not write the script. They may also, as apparently in Berlioz’s case, provide a respite from such derangement, and offer an emotionally sheltered zone where the essentially sober business of organising, writing or composing can begin. During the course of this process, they may also insinuate themselves into the foreground of the story as an elegant and vivid device for taking the reader or listener on the artist’s own strange journey.



This article was first broadcast as a spoken word piece on BBC Radio 3 in 2002

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Painting: http://www.isabelle-de-kervalec.com/symphonie_fantastique.htm