Length: 42 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tambourine, triangle), harp, strings, and solo viola
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1924, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with Emile Ferir, viola
Berlioz spent more than a year in Italy in 1831 and 1832, having won the Prix de Rome, instituted by the French Government to enable French artists to study in an environment of classical art treasures, whether painting or sculpture. Musicians were loosely thought to need the same benefits, but for Berlioz the price of a few years' state pension was exile from the central sources of his art. He found the cultivation of music in Italy indescribably narrow and parochial, and he developed a distaste for all Italian opera. It was in the country, in Subiaco, and on the long walk from Naples to Rome, that he really found musical inspiration. 'I long to go to Mount Posilippo,' he wrote, 'to Calabria, or to Capri, and put myself in the service of a brigand chief. That's the life I crave: volcanos, rocks, rich piles of plunder in mountain caves, a concert of shrieks accompanied by an orchestra of pistols and carbines, blood and Lacryma-Christi, a bed of lava rocked by subterranean tremors: voilà la vie!'
At Alatri, on his return from Naples, Berlioz and his two Swedish companions spent a dreadful night on hard beds, plagued by fleas and by the 'young men serenading, going round the village all night singing beneath their mistresses' windows, to the accompaniment of a guitar and a terrible squawking clarinet'.
Here clearly is the background to the last two movements of Harold en Italie. But the work did not come into being at that time. In 1834, over a year after Berlioz's return to Paris, Paganini, in admiration of the Symphonie fantastique, asked Berlioz for a work in which he could display his powers on a fine Stradivarius viola. Berlioz at first planned a choral work based on the last hours of Mary Queen of Scots, but somehow the ideas were transmuted into the four-movement symphony with solo viola Harold en Italie, incorporating two passages that had actually been composed in Italy, Harold's own theme (the melody with which the solo viola first enters) and another theme in the first movement, both drawn from the overture Rob Roy, which Berlioz had recently rejected. The work was to be a series of Italian souvenirs in a symphonic frame. The character of Harold is derived loosely from Byron's Childe Harold, a melancholy wanderer who witnesses scenes of Italian life. All four movements picture outdoor scenes drawn from the most vivid experiences of his Italian sojourn.
The first movement (a symphonic Allegro with a slow introduction) keeps the soloist busy, with many references to Harold's theme. The second movement introduces the pilgrims and tolling bells featured in all musical and literary accounts of Italian landscape at that time, including Mendelssohn's. The Serenade is an ingenious exercise in creating atmosphere while at the same time combining different rhythms, the more languorous melody on the English horn unperturbed by the jaunty piping of the highlander or the stately span of Harold's theme. The last movement borrows the device of parading previous themes in the manner of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, not for any convincing dramatic reason, but to draw the work together and to pay tribute to the masterpiece which Berlioz had recently heard for the first time. The frenetic vigor of the finale makes a stirring close interrupted only once by distant memories of the pilgrims' march.
Because it is a dramatic and expressive rather than a virtuoso work, the soloist is rarely the protagonist, more often a bystander marking his presence with a recurrent theme. Paganini was startled and offended by this; he found the solo part 'too full of rests,' and never played it, though he later came to appreciate its worth by making Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs, which enabled him to compose Roméo et Juliette. Harold en Italie is no concerto, even though the viola part calls for a player of great skill and sensitivity. The music is full of youthful vitality, tinged with that appealing romantic sensibility that Berlioz borrowed freely from literature. For him it was an autobiographical vignette, and the Italian experience was something to which all his later music, from Roméo et Juliette to Les Troyens would bear powerful witness.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.