[Pt. II Proj.1] ~Research point 2.1- ‘Harold en Italie’

Research point 2.1- Harold en Italie

Harold en Italie, Symphonie en quatre parties avec un Alto principal, Op. 16 is the second symphony by French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). It’s a symphony with a difference however, namely the inclusion throughout of a solo viola part, commissioned by the violin virtuoso Paganini who wanted to showcase his new Stradivari viola, an instrument on which he was also supremely proficient. Berlioz gave the piece its title as a reference to the poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824), an emotional tale of an individual’s soul searching in exotic locations, with clear appeal in the era where the ideal of the artistic outsider was so prevalent. The symphony is in four movements, each with subtitles, and neatly encapsulates the essence of programme music. Though Paganini never performed the piece having initially rejected it as being too simple to show off his technique, when he first heard it three years after the premiere, he was hugely impressed. The premiere itself was not such a pleasing affair for Berlioz however, with an incompetent conductor and plentiful wrong notes and missed entries by the orchestra. In his memoirs Berlioz comments ‘It was sheer murder’.

Listen to a recording of Harold en Italie reading along with the score.

Write around 400 words on your impression of the score and music. Among other things consider:

To what extent do you find the composition depicts its programme?

What do you find extraordinary?

What catches your eye or your ear?

How is the solo viola used?

Remember to make a note of unfamiliar instrument names in your instrument glossary.

Composer: Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) Orchestra: Philharmonia Orchestra Conductor: Sir Colin Davis Viola: Yehudi Menuhin Year of recording: 1962

Harold en Italie, Symphonie en quatre parties avec un Alto principal, Op. 16. H 68 (1834) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

‘Harold en Italie’ is a programmatic symphony in four movements.

  • I. Harold aux montagnes
  • II. Marche des pélerins
  • III. Sérénade
  • IV. Orgie de brigands

‘Harold en Italie’ borrows Lord Byron’s literary device of describing the ‘poetic memories’ of a traveling hero in Byron’s poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. However, the journey is Hector Berlioz’ own whilst traveling in the Abruzzi region in Italy and being inspired by the landscape there.

Pacentro – Abruzzo (2018) copyright Kat Kalashian

My intention was to write a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant while retaining its own character. By placing it among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold. Hence the title of the symphony: Harold in Italy...’ (Berlioz, x)

I think it very effectively conjures up the landscape described in the subtitles of the four movements. The first movement which depicts Harold’s mountain stay is suitably pastoral and charming with buoyant, rhythmic and loud tutti sections and crescendos interspersed with a slow and melodic viola solo.

It is indeed the viola solo which gave rise to the piece, originally commissioned by Paganini as a way to show off his new viola.

Quoting again from Herlioz’ autobiography; ‘… Paganini came to see me. “I have a wonderful viola, he said, a superb Stradivarius instrument, which I would like to play in public. But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a solo for viola?’. (Berlioz, x)

However, after hearing initial sketches for the first movement Paganini decided the part would not sufficiently show off his virtuosity or the technical ability of the Stradivarius viola. It is however the simple, yet beautifully effective viola solo which pricks my ears the most. I find the clarity of the slow notes set against the harp astonishingly atmospheric.

The effect of this simplicity is even more overpowering when set against the finale of the first movement which ends with a tempo increase doubling the time and superimposing two tempos on top of each other. This section has become famously difficult to conduct and get right and only works well as a construct if executed perfectly. This part of the construction I find the most extraordinary.