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Overture: Rob Roy (H 54)

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    See also Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    In the 1820s Berlioz was an avid reader of the novels of Walter Scott. An early by-product of his enthusiasm was the overture Waverley of 1827; a few years later came the overture Rob Roy, or Intrata di Rob-Roy MacGregor to give it its full title. Berlioz started composing it in May 1831 in Nice, which at the time was part of Italy; he had travelled to Italy as winner of the Prix de Rome of 1830 which required him to spend two years in that country. The circumstances which brought him to Nice in April 1831 are outlined in the page on the overture King Lear. References in Berlioz’s correspondence of that period provide the few known facts about the chronology of the composition of the overture Rob Roy. They are as follows:

To his father Louis Berlioz, from Nice (CG no. 228; 16 May 1831):

I have just started working on a new piece, after revising and touching up carefully my score of King Lear; it is also an instrumental piece; while waiting for my return to France to allow me to carry out a large-scale operatic project, I am building up my repertoire of concert music.

To Thomas Gounet, from Rome (CG no. 231; 14 June 1831):

This trip [to Nice] has enriched me with three new compositions: the overture King Lear, that of Rob Roy and the Melologue. I am not quite sure what they are worth, but I know that my excursion to Nice has cost me one thousand and fifty francs.

To Ferdinand Hiller, from Rome (CG no. 256; 1 January 1832):

You want to know what I have done since I arrived in Italy: first, the overture King Lear (in Nice), second, the overture Rob Roy Mac Gregor (sketched in Nice, and which I foolishly showed to Mendelssohn, against my will, when less than one tenth of it was fixed). I completed and orchestrated it in the mountains of Subiaco. (Berlioz goes on to mention the Melologue)

    Berlioz’s first extended stay in Subiaco came in July 1831, and it may be that it was then that he completed the Rob Roy overture, though subsequently he returned to Subiaco several times during his stay in Italy.

    On returning to France Berlioz’s priority was the performance of the Symphonie fantastique which he had extensively revised during his stay in Italy, together with its new sequel, the Melologue entitled Le Retour à la vie (The Return to Life). This took place at the celebrated concert on 9 December 1832 (repeated on 30 December) which changed Berlioz’s life by leading to his marriage with Harriet Smithson. But Berlioz was anxious to have his other Italian compositions performed as well. A letter of his addressed to the comittee of the Conservatoire concert society and dated 13 March 1833 is extant, in which he requests they include the Rob Roy overture in one of their programmes (CG no. 328), and it was duly performed at the Conservatoire on 14 April 1833 (the King Lear overture was first performed on 22 December of that year).

    This concert is referred to in the only passage of the Memoirs where Berlioz mentions the Rob Roy overture. In chapter 39, in a context where he comments on the un-musical atmosphere of Rome, he states that he was only able to compose a handful of pieces at the Villa Medici during his stay in Italy, and among them he lists the ‘Rob Roy overture, a long and diffuse piece, which was performed in Paris a year later [two years, in fact], very badly received by the public, and which I burnt that same day after leaving the concert’. A brief mention in two letters of 1838 confirms that Berlioz destroyed the work (CG no. 549, 31 March, to Ludwig Rellstab: ‘The Rob Roy overture mentioned by M. d’Ortigue [in a biographical article on Berlioz] no longer exists; I burnt it after hearing it at the Conservatoire’; similarly CG no. 570; 20 September, to Humbert Ferrand).

    Berlioz’s verdict must be respected: the work does indeed lack a convincing structure and is uncharacteristically rambling and repetitive. But nothing by Berlioz can fail to be interesting, and Rob Roy contains some fine music. But rather than rewrite the overture (as he did later with La Tour de Nice which eventually became the overture Le Corsaire), Berlioz discarded the work completely and reused the best music elsewhere, in the first movement of his symphony Harold in Italy. The interest of the discarded overture thus lies in allowing a glimpse into Berlioz’s workshop and making possible comparisons between different versions of the same material. Compare in particular bars 275-321 of Rob Roy with bars 38-94 of Harold in Italy, and the different treatment of the second subject of the overture (bars 170-210, 472-90) with that in the symphony’s first movement (bars 167-92, 265-76, 335-57, 448-71). There are also differences in orchestration: the cor anglais, prominent in the overture, is replaced by a solo viola in the symphony’s first movement, and the harp, active through much of the overture, is restricted in the symphony’s first movement to the slow introduction.

    Berlioz claimed that he had destroyed (‘burnt’) the overture. But a copy did survive, which Berlioz had forwarded to the Conservatoire as one of the compositions he was required to send as evidence of his work in Italy. That copy was resurrected and published many years later, in volume 4 of the Breitkopf and Härtel edition of Berlioz’s works which appeared between 1900 and 1907 to coincide with the centenary of Berlioz’s birth in 1903. It thus had novelty value at the time and received a number of performances, among them one in Berlin conducted by Richard Strauss in April 1900, one in Paris conducted by Felix Weingartner on 24 February 1901 (with reviews in Le Ménestrel and the Journal des Débats), and two at the Conservatoire in December 1903 (with a review in Le Ménestrel). There were other performances elsewhere. Nowadays the overture receives occasional performances and has been recorded (see the Discography), but not surprisingly it has never gained the same place in the repertoire as several of Berlioz’s other overtures.

    The score does not include any metronome marks. In this version the main allegro non troppo has been set at dotted crotchet = 104 (the tempo of the first movement of Harold in Italy),  the larghetto espressivo assai at quaver = 80 (slightly faster than the opening adagio of Harold in Italy which is marked quaver = 76), and the concluding presto starts at dotted crotchet = 152 and speeds up later.

    Overture: Rob Roy (duration 14'9")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 3.08.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

This page revised and enlarged on 1 December 2021.

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