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Harold in Italy (H 68)

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

    See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    Berlioz wrote little music during his stay in Italy in 1831-2 as winner of the Prix de Rome of 1830, and formed a poor impression of music-making in Rome and Italy at the time (cf. his Memoirs, chapter 39). In his subsequent concert tours of Europe he never returned to Italy. But in other ways his Italian stay had a deep and lasting impact on his musical output. The impressions he derived from his wanderings in the country were to permeate many of his subsequent compositions down to his last major work Beatrice and Benedict.

    The first large-scale reflection of his Italian experiences is the symphony Harold in Italy, composed in 1834 at the suggestion of Paganini, completed at Montmartre and first performed later that year at the Conservatoire. It is one of Berlioz’s most relaxed and poetic works, very different in atmosphere from the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. Harold’s melancholy is free from anguish, and even the concluding Orgy of Brigands has none of the nightmarish quality of the Witches Sabbath in the earlier symphony. Berlioz’s brigands are human beings, not supernatural monsters, and the grinding dissonances and dislocated rhythms of this energetic movement are counterbalanced by passages of great delicacy (bars 231-268, 394-440), as well as by the quiet reminiscences from the earlier movements at the start (bars 12-98) and near the end of the movement (bars 464-500), a device he adapted from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

    Berlioz himself gives an account of the origins of the work (Memoirs chapter 45), from which the following may be excerpted (the full text may be found in Texts and Documents):

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.

    In addition to the general atmosphere of the work the 3rd movement, entitled ‘Serenade of a mountaineer of the Abruzzi to his mistress’ contains a direct echo of Berlioz’s Italian experiences: it imitates the music-making of the ‘pifferari’ which Berlioz had admired in Rome and in the mountains (cf. also the first of the three pieces for Alexander’s melodium).

    The use of a solo instrument to represent a person was an innovation on the part of Berlioz, though it may have been suggested by the frequent use of a solo instrument in Weber’s operas (Der Freischütz, Euryanthe) to accompany a characteristic aria by one of the protagonists. The idea was later followed by Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade) and Richard Strauss (Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben). Berlioz had a special fondness for the viola and made frequent use of its special tonal qualities in many of his works – he had already used a solo viola to accompany Marguerite’s ballad on the King of Thule in his Huit Scènes de Faust of 1828-9, in the same key of G major (H 33, later incorporated in the Damnation of Faust, but transposed down to F major).

    Harold in Italy is not a viola concerto – hence the initial dismay of Paganini when Berlioz showed him the work. The viola part is in fact free from any element of technical display for its own sake, which Berlioz always avoided in his instrumental writing, even in such a work as his Rêverie et caprice for violin and orchestra. The work is thus hardly a fusion of concerto and symphony, but rather one of chamber and symphonic music. This can be seen in a number of very lightly scored passages throughout the work, notably in the slow introduction to the first movement (bar 38 and following) and near the end of the finale (bar 473 and following).

    The very opening of the work – the theme in the cellos and basses – carries a probable echo of the start of the Symphonie Fantastique (bar 3). The alternating semitone interval with the lower or upper note, one of Berlioz’s musical fingerprints, is found throughout the work (for example bars 112-14, 135-6, 205 and following in the first movement; bars 18-20 in the second; bars 4-6, 51, in the third; bars 83, 87, 91, 129 and following, 167-9, 207 and following in the fourth).

    The theme of Harold – re-used by Berlioz together with other music from his discarded overture Rob-Roy – is foreshadowed in the minor key in the first movement (bar 14 and following) before its statement in the major by the solo viola (bar 38 and following). The melody is, for Berlioz, unusually regular in shape – two symmetrical four bar phrases, each of which consists of two bars of a falling interval followed by two bars of a rising then falling arpeggio. It will be seen that much of the thematic material of the symphony is derived from the Harold theme – the first and second subjects of the first movement, the serenade of the third movement, and the main theme of the last.

    A few technical points:
    First movement: Berlioz’s metronome mark for the slow introduction is quaver = 76. As pointed out by Hugh Macdonald (Berlioz Studies, ed. Peter Bloom [Cambridge University Press 1992], p. 23-4) this speed works for the opening pages but seems slow with the entry of the solo viola in bar 38. In this version the tempo has been very gradually increased from bar 13 to reach quaver = 80 at bar 38.
    Second movement: the arpeggios in the solo viola part in the middle section of the movement (bars 169-247) have been written out in full, to produce the required effect. No attempt has been made to reproduce the special sul ponticello sound of the viola in this passage.
    Third movement: this movement is written throughout in 6/8 time, but with two different tempi, the first of which (Allegro assai, dotted crotchet = 138) is double of the second (Allegretto, dotted crotchet = 69). At the end of the movement Berlioz superimposes the two. The tempi given by Berlioz are somewhat faster than what is often heard in performance. To enable the listener to judge, the movement is presented here in two versions, the first with Berlioz’s original tempi, the second with somewhat slower tempi (dotted crotchet = 126 and dotted crotchet = 63).
    Fourth movement: (1) To obtain the correct note values on playback it has been necessary to notate several passages in full and not in abbreviated form (triplets or sextuplets in bars 38-40 [violas], 107-9 [violins 1 & 2], 175-6 [strings], 278-9 [strings], 338-9 [strings], 449-52 [1st violins]). (2) Berlioz gives no tempo indications or metronome marks for the concluding part of the movement after bar 449. The present version follows current performing practice in slowing down for the return of the pilgrims’ march and then returning to the original tempo of the orgy (bars 464-505). A slight quickening of the tempo is also applied from bar 514 onwards up to minim = 112, without which the music risks dragging.

    Harold in Italy: 1st movement (duration 15'14")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 28.05.2000; revised 5.12.2001)

    Harold in Italy: 2nd movement (duration 7'2")
    — Score in large format
     (file created on 27.07.2000; revised 23.12.2001)

    Harold in Italy: 3rd movement (duration 5'17" and 5'46"):
        (a) Version with Berlioz’s original tempi
        — Score in large format
        (b) Version with slower tempi
        — Score in large format
    (files created on 12.11.2000)

   Harold in Italy: 4th movement (duration 11'54")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 1.1.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page

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