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Marches Madness: Off With His Head!


By Tom Huizenga

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's Marches Madness! Throughout this month, we're posting some of our favorite marches — from the concert hall, opera stage and parade ground. Got one we should hear? Played any yourself? Let us know in the comments section.

We march for many occasions. There are brave military marches, joyous wedding marches, mournful funeral marches and proud graduation marches.

And then there's the most gruesome march of all — the march to the scaffold. No one depicted it in music more terrifyingly than Frenchman Hector Berlioz did in his Symphonie Fantastique.

The symphony is a shocking confessional essay in sound, documenting the composer's feverish emotions and obsessive pursuit of his beloved. When the piece premiered in 1830, some felt it was dangerous. It still packs a wallop today.

By the time we get to the movement called "Marche au supplice" (March to the Scaffold), our protagonist, hallucinating on opium, imagines he has murdered his beloved and witnesses his own execution. He's marched through a noisy crowd to the guillotine. All his romantic thoughts from the previous movements turn monstrous as the full orchestra roils — timpani pound, brass snarl and bassoons grunt like feral beasts. At the final moment, love music floats in softly — a wisp of memory brutally cut off by a swift guillotine blow from the entire orchestra. The onlookers, in the form of a brass fanfare, yell hooray!

Enjoy the analytical play-by-play in this performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestre National de France.

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