Berlioz by Signol

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Berlioz in Italy

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Berlioz’s third century



Contents of this page:

Major places visited by Berlioz

This page is also available in French

See also (in French): Berlioz en Italie. Le voyage en Italie – Le séjour à Rome

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Introduction: Berlioz and Italy

    Berlioz’s first trip abroad was different in character from his subsequent travels in Europe. He travelled to Italy as a result of his winning the Prix de Rome in 1830: the rules required that the winner spend two years in Rome. Berlioz would have preferred not to go, for both personal and musical reasons – his engagement to Camille Moke, and the need to promote his career in Paris, which for him was the centre of his musical world. He tried to get excused from the journey, and eminent figures interceded on his behalf with the Minister of the Interior – his teacher Lesueur, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Fétis – but in vain.

    At one level, the visit was musically unproductive. There was little stimulus to be had from music-making in Italy, which was from Berlioz’s point of view at a very low level in comparison with what he was used to in Paris. There were no orchestras or orchestral concerts, opera houses were often flimsy, and the minimal provision of music at St Peter’s was in sorry contrast to the grandeur of the building itself. The only music which stimulated him was folk music from the Italian countryside and in Rome, which left echoes and reminiscences in later works, notably Harold in Italy and Benvenuto Cellini. Berlioz did not even try to give a single concert in Italy. Despite having ample leisure time, more than he would ever have subsequently, he wrote relatively little original music during his stay, as he notes himself in the Memoirs (chapter 39) – the overtures King Lear and Rob Roy (the latter was subsequently discarded by him), the Méditation religieuse for chorus and orchestra, the Quartetto e coro dei maggi, the song La Captive. He also reworked several movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. His Melologue (which later became Lélio) hardly contained any original music but was adapted from various pieces he had written earlier.

    Yet at another level the trip to Italy was very significant, in that it provided him a period of unfettered freedom when he was able to roam the Italian countryside and absorb impressions that left a permanent mark on his music. He also visited several major cities on his way to or from Rome (Genoa, Florence, Nice, Milan, Turin, but not Venice), and from his base in Rome he excursioned widely in the surrounding area and as far south as Campania and Naples, though he was unable to visit Sicily (Memoirs, chapter 41; Correspondance générale no. 269, hereafter CG for short). Though often bored during his stay in Rome he did remember fondly in later years his time in Italy – it is no accident that the chapters on Italy in the Memoirs are the most expansive in the work (chapters 32-43). The Mediterranean atmosphere and colouring which pervade much of the music he wrote later – Harold in Italy, Benvenuto Cellini and the Roman Carnival overture, Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Benedict evidently reflect his Italian experiences. The trip to Italy also gave him the opportunity to visit the setting of part of Virgil’s Aeneid, the reading of which had stimulated his imagination as a child. It was thus one of the stages in the long process which led eventually to the composition of Les Troyens in 1856-8. On his return journey to France other more recent events also stirred his mind: as he was travelling through northern Italy he conceived the idea of a symphony for military band inspired by Napoleon’s campaign in Italy, notes for which survive in a sketchbook of 1832-1836. The work was never written, but may have provided some of the inspiration for the Symphonie funèbre of 1840 and the Te Deum of 1848-1855.

    The trip to Italy was also beneficial in other respects. It was in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Rome and the Villa Medici that he met two other composers, Mendelssohn and Glinka, whose music he appreciated and whom he saw again years later – Mendelssohn during his first trip to Germany in 1843, and Glinka in 1844 when the Russian composer came to stay in Paris for a year, then again during his first trip to Russia in 1847.

    Italy also provided Berlioz scope for literary creation. Despite his reluctance to go and his anxiety to return to Paris as soon as possible, Italy stimulated him as a writer. The letters he wrote from Italy give a foretaste of what was to come; over fifty have survived, many of them to his family but a number also to a few close friends, and they are among the most striking in his whole correspondence. They provide first hand impressions of his stay, and help to establish a more precise chronology of his travels in the country than would be possible from his Memoirs. In December 1831 Berlioz received a commission to write about his experiences of music in Italy, and this resulted in an article soon published in the Revue européene (15 March 1832; Critique Musicale I, pp. 69-83 [hereafter CM]). Once back in Paris Berlioz embarked on a long series of articles about his trip and his impressions of Italy, which appeared in various journals in Paris between 1833 and 1836 (CM I pp. 91-112, 153-70, 211-19, 239-44; II pp. 263-70, 477-82, 521-9, 567-81; see also V pp. 509-15.). These provided the material for the connected account of his trip to Italy which he published in 1844 in the second volume of his Voyage musical en Allemagne et en Italie, and this in turn was substantially reproduced in the Italian chapters of his Memoirs (chapters 22-23, 25, 29-43).

    Berlioz never returned to Italy subsequently – with the exception of Nice – though the possibility presented to himself on at least one occasion. In 1843 and early 1844, after the success of his pioneering first trip to Germany, Berlioz was encouraged to expand his musical horizons to other countries. Among other projects (Holland, Denmark, England) he considered the possibility of a trip to Italy. Letters of his to Alberto Mazzucato, professor of singing at the Milan Conservatoire, discuss the possibility of a visit to Milan to give concerts at La Scala theatre, but in the end the project fell through: Berlioz was advised by Liszt and others that the orchestral resources available were inadequate and public interest would be slight (CG nos. 861, 872, 901; cf. also 842, 902). It appears that the idea was not raised again. On the other hand Berlioz did maintain contacts from 1843 onwards with the publishing firm of Ricordi in Milan, of which he thought highly – a number of letters of Berlioz are extant, first to Giovanni Ricordi (1785-1853), the founder of the firm, then to his son Tito (1811-1888), the publisher of Verdi’s operas. Ricordi published in 1843 an Italian edition of the Treatise on Orchestration, translated by Alberto Mazzucato, which was reprinted in 1864. He also published in 1853 the second edition of the Requiem, then in 1867 a third edition which prompted Berlioz to say to his friend Humbert Ferrand: ‘If I was threatened with the destruction of all my works, less one score, it is for the Messe des morts that I would beg for mercy’ (CG no. 3209).

    For Berlioz the abiding memories of Italy were not primarily musical. Never again was he to experience the care-free existence that he enjoyed during his time in Italy as a Prix de Rome laureate, as he writes in the Memoirs (chapter 37):

Cruel memory of the days of liberty that are no more! To be free in mind, spirit, soul, and everything. To be free not to act, even not to think. To be free to forget time, to despise ambition, to mock glory, not to believe in love any more. To be free to go north, south, east, or west, to sleep in an open field, to live off very little, to wander without aim, to dream, to lie down and drowse for days on end, to the gentle breeze of the warm Scirocco! True freedom, absolute and immense! Great and mighty Italy! Wild Italy, which does not care for your sister, the Italy of art,

The fair Juliet stretched on her coffin.

    Note: All excerpts from Berlioz’s writings and from other sources in French have been translated by Michel Austin specifically for this site.


Note: for Berlioz’s stay in Italy the Memoirs give few precise dates; the chronology below is based on the composer’s correspondence, which leaves a number of uncertainties in detail.


30 December: Berlioz leaves Paris for La Côte


8 February: Berlioz leaves La Côte on his way to Italy, going via Lyon then Marseille
16-27 February: Berlioz sails from Marseille to Livourne
1-5 March: Berlioz in Florence, where he sees Bellini’s I Capuletti e I Montecchi, probably also Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, and walks out after the first act of Pacini’s La Vestale
ca 10 March: Berlioz arrives in Rome
ca 10 March to beginning of April: Berlioz stays at the Villa Medici, where he meets Mendelssohn
1 April: Berlioz leaves Rome for Florence, where he stays till about 15 April. He reads King Lear and forms the plan for an oratorio on The Last Day of the World; he attends the funeral of a nephew of Napoleon
ca 15 April: on hearing from Camille Moke’s mother that Camille is engaged to Camille Pleyel, Berlioz decides to return to Paris to kill all three
17 April: Berlioz tries to drown himself at Genoa but is rescued
18 April: before reaching San Remo Berlioz gives up his trip to Paris
ca 19-20 April: Berlioz spends nearly a month in Nice, where he writes the overture King Lear, and starts work on the overture Rob Roy and the Melologue (later renamed Lélio)
21 May: Berlioz leaves Nice
ca 23-25 May: Berlioz stays in Genoa, where he sees Paër’s Agnese di Fitzhenry
ca 28-30 May: Berlioz stays in Florence
ca 31 May-2 June: Berlioz travels from Florence to Rome, and completes the journey on foot while writing the text of the Melologue
3 June: Berlioz arrives in Rome
June: Berlioz revises the Melologue in Rome
18 June: first visit to Tivoli
ca 3 July: Berlioz goes to spend 6 days in Tivoli
9 July: Berlioz goes to Subiaco and spends a fortnight walking in the Apennines
ca 25 July: Berlioz returns to Rome
August-September: Berlioz in Rome
August: Berlioz composes his Méditation religieuse on a poem by Thomas Moore
Early September: another visit to Subiaco
End of September: Berlioz leaves for Naples with several friends
1 October: Berlioz arrives in Naples where he sees Mercadante’s Zaira and Donizetti’s Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali
2 October: Berlioz visits Posilippo
4-5 October: Berlioz climbs Mt Vesuvius
7 October: Berlioz visits the Bay of Baia, reminisces on Virgil’s Aeneid
Between 8-12 October: Berlioz visits Pompei and Castellamare di Stabia; he abandons the idea of going to Sicily
14 October: Berlioz leaves Naples to return to Rome on foot
21 October: Berlioz reaches Subiaco where he spends 3 days and eventually returns to Rome in the last week of October
ca 20 November: excursion to Tivoli and Subiaco
28 November: Berlioz is asked to write an article for Le Correspondant on the state of music in Italy
2nd  half of December: Berlioz writes the article for Le Correspondant, which he sends around mid-January 1832; it is published in the Revue européenne in March 1832, and also in the Revue musicale in March and April. Substantial parts of this are later re-used by Berlioz in his Memoirs


January-April: Berlioz meets the Russian composer Glinka; he composes the Quartetto e coro dei maggi and conceives the project of a work inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Between 1-15 February: during an excursion in the mountains Berlioz composes La Captive on a poem by Victor Hugo
Ca 15 February: another excursion in the mountains
March: excursions in the countryside around Rome
April: excursions to Tivoli, Subiaco, Palestrina and Albano
Late April: completion of Signol’s portrait of Berlioz
2 May: Berlioz leaves Rome and starts the return journey to Paris (which he did not reach till November)
12 May to 14 May or later: stop in Florence
20 May: stop in Milan till ca. 23 May
25 May: in Turin Berlioz conceives the idea of a military symphony for wind instruments inspired by memories of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy
End of May: Berlioz leaves Italy for good


September: Berlioz stays for the second time in Nice


Early March: final visit of Berlioz to Nice (now part of France since 1860)

Major locations visited by Berlioz


    The Villa Medici  
    St Peter’s Basilica  
    The Sistine Chapel  
    The Caffè Greco  
    The Piazza di Spagna and steps of Trinità dei Monti  
    The Piazza del Popolo  
    The Piazza Navona  
    The Colosseum  
    The Baths of Caracalla  
    Benvenuto Cellini in Rome  



    Temple of Vesta  
    The Villa Gregoriana  
    The Villa d’Este  
    The Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa)  

The Abruzzi mountains and the pifferari  
Naples and Campania 
Posilippo Cave and ‘Virgil’s tomb’ 
Mantua and the Mons Albanus

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997;
The Berlioz in Italy pages were created on 7 December 2003; reorganised on 1 October 2004 and 11 December 2007; substantially enlarged on 12 February 2005, 11 December 2007 and 1 August 2012.

© (unless otherwise stated) Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for all the photos, engravings and information on Berlioz in Italy page. 

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