Musical Sorcery: Berlioz and Dukas | Further Exploration

Both Symphonie fantastique and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice tell stories through music. It’s easy for songs to do this because the words do most of the work, but how do composers combine the various elements of instrumental music to form a narrative?


A popular way to define character is to attach a tune to a person as Berlioz does in Symphonie fantastique. Film composers do it all the time - do you know Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago?

There are themes for different characters within the Harry Potter films, too. Here’s Hedwig’s Theme, played at the BBC Proms.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is one of the best-known classical pieces of storytelling for young people. Prokofiev assigned a different instrument to each of the animals – such as cat and clarinet, grandfather and bassoon. Peter has a catchy tune of his own too, played by the violins.

What instrument would you choose to portray yourself?

What would be your theme tune? It could be a TV or film theme or even your favourite song.


Rhythms are great at portraying movement as well as conveying emotions such as excitement. Fast music can sound angry and slow music might seem calm by comparison. Check out some examples below.

Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger is named after a type of steam locomotive and is a musical portrait of a train setting off, picking up speed, hurtling down the track and, finally, slowing down as it reaches its destination. Listen to the music in the video below to see if you can hear the train.

Watch this black-and-white film clip of a steam train moving to the music.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams does what the title suggests. The composer’s own description was “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

Watch a performance of the piece at the BBC Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

Listen to the composer and the man who commissioned the piece talk about it below.

Can you tell a short story just using rhythm?


To most ears, music in a major key sounds happy and music in minor keys sound sad. This pianist has transformed well-known tunes by changing them from major to minor. Listen out for Happy Birthday at 0:27!