Hector Berlioz traveled around Italy for 15 months from 1831-32. The Prix de Rome, awarded by the Paris Conservatoire, included a scholarship and a
stay at the Villa Medici, which allowed him to remain in Italy.
During his time in Italy, long walks brought him closer to the music of ordinary people. About the influence from his journey on writing
, he wrote in his memoirs that he placed the viola “among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in Abruzzi”.
The poems of Lord Byron accompanied Berlioz during his expeditions in Italy. It was during this period that he wrote
, a play inspired by Byron's work. The first sketches for the overture
features the viola, which should—according to Berlioz—correspond to that of a “melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold”. He refers here to the lengthy romantic poem
The following lines from the third canto of the romance enable us to acquire an impression of the heroic type of characters which emerged again and again during the Romantic period, especially in Lord Byron’s works. They were often melancholic, sensitive, in conflict with society, and desired to escape from the agony of bourgeois existence and to become one with nature.
Contents of the four movements
The first movement “Harold aux montagnes” refers to experiences of the character Harold while in the mountains. Harold’s mixed feelings are portrayed by the slow, melancholic main theme—the opening melody of the viola—and the lively sonata movement afterwards. Byron makes the extent to which Harold is spellbound by the beauty of nature very clear.
In the second movement, “Marche des pèlerins” Harold travels with a group of pilgrims. Slowly, the violin integrates itself to represent “singing of the pilgrims”, which takes shape as a crescendo, then slowly fades, as if the group has moved on.
In the third movement, “Sérénade”, a love scene takes place. A serenade is played for someone’s loved one in Abruzzo. Harold, though he wants to escape any connections to other human beings, is confronted with the power of love: “the tender mystery” as it is described in the original text. Berlioz remarked about the third movement, “I then heard the pifferari*
* on their home ground, and while I had found them remarkable in Rome, once in the wild Abruzzi mountains, where my wandering fancy had taken me, I was moved by them even more”. The sounds of the pifferari
(wandering musicians) can be heard in his symphony by means of the oboe, piccolo, and the bagpipe's bordone sounds, imitated by the divided violas.
In the fourth movement, “Orgie de brigands”, Harold is beneath the brigands. Unlike those in Byron's The Corsair
or Scott's Rob Roy
, to which Berlioz had written an overture, these brigands are not noble figures who rebel against the shadows of society. In stark contrast, Berlioz describes his fourth movement as a “frenzied orgy, where the intoxication of wine, blood, joy, and anger come together. Where the rhythm soon stumbles, sometimes drifts forward, where curses are thrown out of the metal mouth and blasphemies respond to pleading voices, where one laughs, drinks, beats, breaks, kills, desecrates, and finally amuses [...] while the solo viola, the dreamer Harold, fleeing frightened, lets a few trembling sounds of his evening song be heard in the distance”.
The viola begins to sound the counterpoint of the fugue theme, then recalls the procession singing and the “Sérénade”, the melody of the Allegro, and its reference theme from the Adagio. Then the violin is silent until the end of the movement, where the procession song is heard again.
Adolf Nowak writes about this in Fluchtpunkt Italien:
Berlioz shows how the protagonist, in the form of the solo viola, finds something other than what he himself
brings in. They are the manifestations of what cannot be ruled: the “outgrowing” of mountains, religion, love, and, finally, the horror of evil. Also, the music shows how he adapts to these experiences: the spatial expanse through “his” theme, the faithful and the lovers by contrasting and tuning into their melody; the evil, despite its fascinating presentation, by not tuning in and by reflection of the past good.
Berlioz was not attached too closely to his literary work. What was important to him was the mood, character, and feeling that linked his Harold en Italie
to the hero of Byron. When the harp sounds in the first movement, reference is made to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
But when the sun was sinking in the sea,
Performances and reworking
He seized his harp, which he at times could string,
And strike, albeit with untaught melody,
When deemed he no strange ear was listening
Although the previously discussed premiere was a complete success, following it, Berlioz decided to conduct his plays by himself.
On February 4, 1937, Lionel Tertis as a soloist, made his last public appearance as a soloist. Harold en Italie
was performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
In 1944, the first studio recording of the work was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, featuring William Primrose as a soloist. It was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.
Harold en Italie
was reworked in 1836 by Franz Liszt for piano, accompanied by viola.
http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch (Buch einsehen)
Vanishing point Italy: A decree for Peter Ackermann, edited by Johannes Volker Schmidt and Ralf-Olivier Schwarz
* Dallas Kern Holoman, Catalogue of the works of Hector Berlioz, (= Hector Berlioz. New edition of the complete works, Bd. 25), Kassel u.a. 1987, S. 138 ff.
**Pifferari: Shepherds from Abruzzi, who played reedpipes, bagpipes, and sang monotonously. During Christmas time, they came to Rome to play in front of pictures of the Virgin Mary.