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Overture: Waverley (H 26)

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    Note: there is a detailed discussion of this overture by Diana Bickley elsewhere on this site.

    The overture to Waverley was written probably in 1827, some time after that to the opera Les Francs-Juges. It was first performed together with the Francs-Juges overture and other pieces by Berlioz at a concert at the Conservatoire on 26 May 1828, the first orchestral concert to be given by Berlioz (but not conducted by himself), and one devoted wholly to his own music, a novelty at the time. According to Berlioz the Waverley overture, which came first in the programme, was very well received (on the concert see Memoirs chapters 18 and 19; CG nos. 91, 93). But whereas Berlioz retained an affection for the Francs-Juges overture and performed it frequently in subsequent years, he obviously came to regard the Waverley overture less highly, and there are remarkably few references to it in his correspondence and in his other writings. He eventually published it in 1839 (together with the overtures to King Lear and Benvenuto Cellini), later than that to the Francs-Juges, which appeared in 1836. There are few known performances of the work in Berlioz’s career. After its first hearing in 1828 it received a few more performances in Paris in the following years, in 1829 (twice), 1833, 1834, 1835 and 1838, but not apparently thereafter. It seems that Berlioz may never have conducted the work himself, apart from a single performance at a concert in Hanover on 6 May 1843, though the evidence for that performance may be inconclusive. He did not include it in any of his other concerts in Germany in 1843 or in later tours, whereas his other overtures received repeated performances. A letter written when Berlioz was in London in 1848 refers to the projected performance of an overture which is probably that to Waverley (CG no. 1196, 7 May); Berlioz is dismissive:

[…] It is over 15 years since I have last heard it [probably 10 in fact, in 1838] and I do not think it worthy of inclusion in your programme. It would make no impact and could be damaging for me, especially at a time when I am barely beginning to make myself known in London. Please therefore replace it at the next concert with a piece that the orchestra already knows […]

(CG III p. 541 n. 1 suggests improbably that the overture in question was Rob Roy rather than Waverley, but Berlioz had discarded the Rob Roy overture and it remained unpublished)

    Years later, in a letter to Estelle Fornier (CG no. 2970, 20 January 1865), Berlioz writes:

I have been sent the programme of a concert in Montpellier where they performed my overture to Waverley (what a joke this must have been!).

    A few other performances of the work in Berlioz’s lifetime are known: it was played in London in 1839, in Germany before Berlioz’s first visit there (Leipzig, 1839; Potsdam, 1840), and in the United States (New York in 1851, Boston in 1856).

    The young Berlioz was in the 1820s an avid reader of Walter Scott’s novels, but the overture does not attempt to illustrate the story of Waverley. The score is prefaced with a quotation from the novel which clearly refers to the musical contrast between the slow and lyrical introduction, with its broad theme for the cellos, and the brilliant allegro which follows (Dreams of love and Lady’s charms / Give place to honour and to arms).

    Stylistically this early overture has a somewhat hybrid character. There are numerous features in rhythm, harmony and orchestration that are characteristic of Berlioz’s developed style, but there is also some surprisingly Italian-sounding music, notably in the second subject of the allegro (bar 197 and following, then again bar 293 and following), and in the conclusion (bar 401 and following), the final bars of which are, for Berlioz, surprisingly conventional. Yet these passages do not suggest mechanical imitation: the overture is notable rather for its self-assured manner, especially in the carefree exuberance of the allegro.

    Berlioz gives no metronome mark for the allegro vivace, which in this version has been set at minim = 126.

    Waverley (duration 10'6")
    — Score in large format
   (file created on 11.12.2000; revised 23.12.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page

This page revised and enlarged on 1 October 2021.

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