In the company of pilgrims and bandits

Italian impressions from Luxembourg. © Charles Thibo
Italian impressions from Luxembourg. © Charles Thibo

In February this year, I wrote about Liszt’s “Années de pélerinage” and how the titles of the different pieces partly derive from Lord Byron’s novel “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. Well, Lord Byron has inspired more than one Romantic composer. That novel impressed the French composer Hector Berlioz enough to write in 1834 the symphony “Harold en Italie”, Op. 16.

Paganini was not pleased

What makes this piece stand out, is the importance it gives to the solo viola player who symbolizes Harold. As a matter of fact, Berlioz started out to write a solo piece for viola upon the insistence of Niccolo Paganini. Apparently Berlioz was the only composer that Paganini trusted to write a suitable piece. The Italian virtuoso had the intention to perform it on the Stradivarius viola he had just bought, Berlioz recalls in his memoirs. The composer expanded the idea and wrote the score for a symphony, much to the dismay of Paganini who expected to perform continuously.

The piece is interesting for another reason: It ingeniously blends different styles and features some daring harmonic experiments involving the viola. Berlioz saw the symphony as a sequence of different scenes linked by the viola and inspired by a trip through the Abruzzo mountains east of Rome as well as by Lord Byron’s novel.

Traditions of la bella Italia

The first movement starts on a sombre tone, not unlike Strauss’ “Symphony of the Alps”: It is dark, Harold is in a mountainous area, and slowly the sun rises behind the summits. The development of the story line rests on the first 40 bars, ripe with fugal structures.

But then, an almost impressionist style takes over: The viola comes up with a sweet melody, almost like a lullaby, while the harp evokes a source flowing peacefully downhill. That melody evolves into a kind of slow dance…  Harold experiences melancholy, bliss and joy, just as the title of the movement suggests. Wow! Berlioz had moved to Italy in 1831 and was amazed both by its different landscapes and the rich musical traditions and casts his admiration into music in this first part.

Prayers from the Gaul era

In the second movement, Berlioz depicts the march of chanting pilgrims singing their evening prayer, something he experienced when he was young. In some rural areas of France, people make a pilgrimage in May or June to pray for a good harvest. These go back to the 4th century when farmers in Gaul followed an initiative of the bishop of Vienne (Dauphiné region) to pray in public spaces. Berlioz captures the spirit of those prayers, half sung, half spoken, by having the viola playing a repeated figure at the extreme end of the viola’s gamut. Audacious! Brilliant! I have never heard anything like that in a classical piece!

Berlioz writes that it took him merely two hours to compose the third movement, but considerably longer – six years – to modify certain details until he was satisfied. He also recalls that when the piece was performed for the first time in 1834 in Paris, the harpist lost himself in the score and missed the moment where he was to play two notes imitating the abbey’s bells. Berlioz was furious – not at the harpist, but at the conductor Narcisse Girard as the latter decided to skip 50 bars and to proceed immediately to the end of the movement.

Step dance, a waltz and melancholy

The third movement is called “Serenade of a Montagnard for his beloved one”. It starts with a fast-paced Baroque step dance that leads to a waltz. Note the prominent part played by the flutes and the viola taking up the high-pitched figure of the second movement. The melodies are very graceful, but Berlioz lets the rural or folklorist atmosphere of the symphony shine through.

The final movement evokes an orgy of outlaws! Well then! The strings and the timpani – the outlaws – make for a energetic start, but then the viola come in with a melancholic melody illustrating the fact that a depressed Harold seeks the company of men living a dangerous but heroic life. Towards the end of the movement however, Harold panics and flees. A disentchanted Romantic!

Berlioz never liked to be qualified as a Romantic composer, he saw himself as a direct heir to the Vienna classics. Nevertheless, “Harold in Italy” is directly derived from an oh so Romantic novel and its many Romantic aspects – the glorification of nature’s splendor, the wanderer aspect, the longing for a heroic life – qualify it for that tag. It is a wonderful symphonic poem and even after having listened to the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra and the violist Antoine Tamestit many, many times, I still discover new nuances.

© Charles Thibo

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