Harold in Italy

Memoirs, chapter 45

Translated by Michel Austin

© Michel Austin

Harold in Italy

Memoirs chapter 45

    […] A few weeks after this concert which vindicated me [on 22 December 1833 at the Conservatoire] 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? You are the only one I can trust for this task." "Certainly, I replied, I am flattered more than I can say, but to rise to your expectations and to show off in a work of this kind a virtuoso such as yourself, one needs to be a viola player, which I am not. In my view you alone can solve this problem." "No, I insist, said Paganini, you will do a fine job; for my part I am too unwell at the moment to compose music and cannot think of it."

    I tried therefore to please the celebrated virtuoso by writing a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution. I was sure that Paganini, with his incomparable powers as a performer, would know how to keep the viola in the forefront. The challenge seemed to me novel; I soon worked out an attractive plan and became very keen to carry it out. Hardly was the first movement completed that Paganini wanted to see it. But when he saw all the rests in the viola part in the allegro he exclaimed: "This will not do; I am silent for too much of the time; I need to be playing continuously." "I knew it, I replied. What you want is a viola concerto, in which case you are the only one who can write well for yourself." Paganini did not answer; he seemed disappointed and left me without saying any more about my symphonic sketch. A few days later he left for Nice, already suffering from the throat infection from which he later died, and only came back after three years.

    Realising that my projected scheme was not suitable for him I concentrated on carrying it out with a different purpose in mind and without worrying about how to show off the solo viola. 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. As in the Fantastic Symphony, a principal theme (the viola’s opening melody), is reproduced throughout the work. The difference is that whereas in the Fantastic Symphony the "idée fixe" keeps obtruding like an impassioned obsession on scenes that are alien to it and deflects their course, Harold’s melody is superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development. Despite the harmonic complexity of the work, I composed this symphony as rapidly as the majority of my other works; but I spent a great deal of time touching it up. Even in the Pilgrim’s March, which I had improvised in a couple of hours while musing at the fireside, I made changes of detail over a period of six years, and these have, I believe, substantially improved the piece. In its existing form the symphony scored a complete success at the concert I gave on 23 November 1834 at the Conservatoire.

    The first movement alone received no more than tepid applause: this was the fault of Girard, who was conducting the orchestra, and who never managed to work it up sufficiently in the coda, where the tempo must gradually be increased to twice the original speed. Without this gradual accelerando the end of the allegro is languid and cold. I suffered agony to hear it drag like this… The Pilgrim’s March was encored. At the second play-through, towards the middle of the second part of the movement, where after a brief pause the sound of the convent’s bells is heard again, played by two notes on the harp doubled by flutes, oboes and horns, the harp player miscounted his rests and lost his place. Instead of putting him back on track, as I have done a dozen times in similar cases (three quarters of the players make the same mistake at that point), Girard shouted to the orchestra: "the last chord!" which was then played, the preceding fifty or so bars being skipped in the process. It was sheer murder. Fortunately the march had been correctly played the first time and the public was in no doubt as to the cause of the disaster at the second play-through. Had the mistake happened first time round, the cacophony would certainly have been attributed to the composer. All the same, ever since my setback at the Théâtre Italien [an allusion to the concert on 24 November 1833 which was a fiasco], I had so little faith in my abilities as a conductor that for a long time I let Girard conduct my concerts. But at the fourth performance of Harold I saw him make a bad mistake at the end of the serenade, where if the tempo for part of the orchestra is not slowed down by exactly half, the other part cannot work, since each full bar of one part corresponds to half a bar of the other. I also realised that he was incapable of working up the orchestra at the end of the first allegro. I therefore resolved to conduct myself in future and not to rely on anyone else to convey my intentions to the performers. Only once did I fail to keep the promise I made myself then, and it will be seen what consequences nearly followed [an allusion to the first performance of the Requiem under Habeneck on 5 December 1837].

    After the first hearing of this symphony, an article appeared in a Paris musical paper where I was subjected to abuse; the article started in this witty manner: "Ha! ha! ha! – haro! haro! Harold!" Also, the day after the article was published I received an anonymous letter in which, after a torrent of even ruder insults, I was accused of not having enough courage to blow out my brains.

Harold in Italy (commentary and score)

Texts and Documents

© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.