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Harold in Italy, Symphony with Viola Solo, Op. 16

About the Work

Hector Berlioz
Quick Look Composer: Hector Berlioz
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pinchas Zukerman, violin & viola Oct. 13 - 15, 2005
© Richard Freed

Harold in Italy, Symphony with Viola obbligato, Op. 16 Berlioz completed the score of Harold in Italy on June 22, 1834, and heard the work’s first performance five months later (November 23) at the Paris Conservatoire, with Chrétien Urhan playing the solo part and Narcisse Girard conducting. Norman Lamb was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of this work, conducted by Hans Kindler on November 21, 1948; Roberto Díaz was the soloist in the most recent ones, with Richard Hickox conducting, on May 20-22, 1993. In addition to the solo viola, the score calls for an orchestra of 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 2 tambourines, harp, and strings. Duration, 45 minutes. _________________________________________________

The legendary violinist and composer Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), one of the dominant figures of the musical world when Berlioz began making a name for himself, was enormously admired by his fellow musicians as well as his adoring public. Berlioz described him as "a Titan among the giants," and as "that great artist who exercised such a happy influence upon my destiny.” It is to Paganini that we owe the existence of two of Berlioz’s finest works" both of them among the four called symphonies--though he never performed either of them, and actually heard only one of them. These two remarkable musicians first met after a concert of Berlioz’s works conducted by Narcisse Girard on December 22, 1833, three years after the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and within a few weeks Paganini asked Berlioz to compose a work for him in which he coupled play the Stradivari viola he had just acquired. Berlioz responded that he knew too little about the viola, and that Paganini himself would be better able to write the brilliant piece he wanted, but Paganini persisted, adding that he was "too unwell at present to compose," and Berlioz took on the assignment. He recalled some years later,

I endeavored to write a solo for the viola, but so combined with the orchestra as not to diminish the importance of the latter, feeling sure that Paganini’s incomparable execution would enable him to give the solo instrument all its due prominence.

When Paganini was shown the first movement he was clearly disappointed. "This is not at all what I want," he said; "I am silent a great deal too long. I must be playing all the time." To which Berlioz replied, "What you really want is a concerto for the viola, and you are the only man who can write it." Paganini left Paris a few days later, for what turned out to be a three-year absence, but he paid for the work he had commissioned; Berlioz went ahead with the composition of the remaining movements, and the work was introduced at the end of 1834, during Paganini’s absence.

At first Berlioz had planned a work in the style of his Symphonie fantastique, but with a chorus as well as solo viola, on the subject of Queen Mary of Scotland (Les Derniers Instans de Marie Stuart was the working title), but he discarded the idea of using a chorus, and changed both the subject and the locale, explaining,

I conceived the idea of writing a series of scenes for the orchestra, in which the viola should find itself mixed up, like a person more or less in action, always preserving his own individuality. The background I formed from my recollections of my wanderings in the Abruzzi, introducing the viola as a sort of melancholy dreamer, in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold. Hence the title of my symphony, Harold in Italy.

The original Scottish character of work was allowed to remain, curiously, in the form of the principal theme (or idée fixe, in Berliozian terminology), representing Harold himself, which Berlioz lifted from an overture he had written a year earlier for a dramatization of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. Berlioz wrote that the overture had so disappointed both him and the audience that he burnt the score immediately after the single performance-but Donald Francis Tovey reminds us that

In Berlioz’s vocabulary "burnt" means carefully preserved, so that an admiring posterity can discover . . . the truth of Oscar Wilde’s assertion that a true artist lives in a series of masterpieces in which no program whatever can be discerned. The Overture to Rob Roy turned up early in [the twentieth] century, and proved to be quite an engaging work.

Tovey’s essay on Harold in Italy, perhaps the most entertaining piece in all the seven volumes of his Essays in Musical Analysis (it is in Vol. IV), expresses the greatest admiration for Berlioz and for the work, but begins by debunking the connection with Byron:

There are excellent reasons for reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. But among them I cannot find any that concern Berlioz or this symphony, except for the jejune value of the discovery that no definite elements of Byron’s poem have penetrated the impregnable fortress of Berlioz’s encyclopædic inattention. Many picturesque things are described in famous stanzas of Childe Harold, but nothing remotely resembling Berlioz’s Pilgrims’ March, nor his serenade in the Abbruzzi [sic]. As to the brigands, Byron has described the varieties of costume in a crowd of mixed nationality consisting undoubtedly of potential brigands; but the passage is not in the Italian cantos, and Berlioz tells us that his work concerns Harold in Italy. On the other hand there is no trace in Berlioz’s music of any of the famous passages in Childe Harold. No doubt "there was a sound of revelry by night" in the Orgy of Brigands, but the Duchess of Richmond’s ball was not an orgy of brigands, nor was it interrupted by a march of pilgrims singing their evening prayer. Nor is there anything to correspond to an invocation of the ocean, except a multitude of grammatical solecisms equivalent to Byron’s "there let him lay." There, then, let Berlioz lie; the whitest liar since Cyrano de Bergerac. (This sentence is a completely Berliozian enharmonic modulation.) [From Essays in Musical Analysis, by Donald Francis Tovey. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.]

Amusing as Tovey’s remarks may be, it must be noted that Berlioz did not suggest that his composition was based on Byron’s poem; he wrote that it is only "in the style of" Childe Harold, and in fact based on his own experiences in Italy. In other words, we have Berlioz himself telling us that for "Harold" we may read "Hector," and that the title simply enabled him to capitalize upon the popularity of Byron’s creation. As for the "Orgy of the Brigands," here is a pertinent observation from Jacques Barzun’s Berlioz and His Century, as republished by the University of Chicago Press:

The last movement of the symphony is the well known "Orgy of Brigands," whose significance deserves a word, for it is a cultural symptom as well as a rousing allegro. The brigand of Berlioz’s time is the avenger of social injustice, the rebel against the City, who resorts to nature for healing the wounds of social man. Berlioz had already given vent to the feeling in an extravagant passage of the melologue [in Lélio, the sequel to the Symphonie fantastique] which introduces the brigands’ song and chorus. In Harold he purged himself more thoroughly, the release of violence and vulgarity acting as a needful antidote to the repressions of conventional life.

With the forgoing observations of both Tovey and Barzun in mind, the respective movement headings are so fully descriptive that "programmatic" analysis is hardly indicated, but a few observations may be of interest.

I. HAROLD IN THE MOUNTAINS. SCENES OF MELANCHOLY, HAPPINESS AND JOY. A portrait of the hero, against a background of extraordinarily evocative and varied nature-painting. The Harold/Rob Roy theme has been noted as resembling one in the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work with which Harold shares some perhaps surprising movement-by-movement common traits as well as a similar emphasis on rhythm and color.

II. MARCH OF THE PILGRIMS SINGING THEIR EVENING PRAYER. Berlioz wrote that he improvised this movement "in a couple of hours one evening over my fire" and then spent more than six years brushing it up, even though "it was always completely successful from the moment of its first performance." It was encored at the work’s premiere, in fact, just as the corresponding-and strikingly similar—movement of Mendelssohn’s "Italian" Symphony was. Convent bells are not represented here by real bells or chimes, but, as Berlioz noted, are ingeniously "suggested by two harp-notes doubled by the flutes, oboes and horns."

III. SERENADE OF AN ABRUZZI MOUNTAINEER TO HIS MISTRESS. In the symphony’s scherzo, oboe and piccolo represent pifferi (rustic oboes of varying ranges), while the strings provide musette effects. By way of trio there is a lyrical duet for the viola and English horn.

IV. ORGY OF THE BRIGANDS. RECOLLECTIONS OF THE PRECEDING SCENES. There is no introduction; the orgy bursts out in full force, relenting only momentarily for brief review and rejection of material from the earlier movements. "Whatever may have induced Harold to enroll himself among the brigands," says Tovey, "it is a moment of genuine pathos as well as genuine music when he parts with his very identity in the last broken reminiscence of the main theme, now heard faintly in those chaste clarinets, echoed with sobs, and dying away slowly at the beginning of the fourth bar." Berlioz himself described the remainder of the movement as that furious orgy wherein wine, blood, joy, all combined, parade their intoxication-where the rhythm sometimes seems to stumble along, sometimes to rush on in fury, and the brass seems to vomit forth curses and to answer prayer with blasphemies; where they laugh, drink, fight, destroy, violate, and utterly run riot.

The premiere of Harold in Italy was not an unqualified success. Girard’s largely inept conducting almost caused the final movement to fall apart, and Berlioz reported that the first printed review

"Overwhelmed me with invectives. . . On the morning after the appearance of this article I received an anonymous letter in which, after a deluge of even coarser insults, I was reproached with not being brave enough to blow out my brains!"

Paganini, the work’s godfather, did not hear Harold in Italy until December 16, 1838; he was so thunderstruck that at the end of the performance he dragged Berlioz back to the stage and there knelt and kissed his hand before the cheering audience and musicians. A few days later he sent Berlioz a congratulatory letter and a gift of 20,000 francs, a benefaction that subsidized the composition of the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette. The score of that work, dedicated to Paganini, was on its way to him when he died in May 1840. While Paganini never performed Harold in Italy, the solo part was eventually played on the Stradivari viola for which he commissioned the work from Berlioz. The instrument, now in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, was heard in all the prior performances of the work by the National Symphony Orchestra listed in the opening paragraph of this note, for which occasions it was lent to the respective soloists, both of whom served as the orchestra’s principal violist.