Friday, November 25, 2011

Berlioz - Harold In Italy

After a performance 1833 of his Symphonie Fantastique and other works, Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)  was approached by Nicolo Paganini with a request to write a piece for viola and orchestra for him.  Paganini had just obtained a  Stradivarius viola and wanted to show it off in a concerto.  Berlioz began the concerto, but when Paganini saw the first movement he complained that there were far too many rests for the viola, that he needed to be playing constantly throughout the concerto.

Paganini lost interest in the work, and Berlioz didn't have much interest in writing a piece for Paganini to show off with. Berlioz continued in the direction the music was taking him. It became a set of scenes for orchestra and viola obbligato that were based on Lord Byron's popular poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  Byron's work is a long poem that describes the travels of a world-weary young man. Much of the poem is thought to be autobiographical as Byron himself wandered Europe and the Mediterranean area also. Berlioz used the poem very loosely as inspiration for his piece. He used his travels in Italy in 1830 in combination with the general feeling of the poem  to devise the four orchestral scenes.
The four scenes are :
  • Harold in the mountains -A portrait of the hero, against a background of extraordinarily evocative and varied nature-painting.
  • Pilgrims' March
  • Serenade - An Abruzzi mountaineer plays a serenade to his mistress.
  • Orgy of the Brigands -A furious orgy wherein wine, blood, joy, all combined, parade their intoxication-where the rhythm sometimes seems to stumble along, sometimes to rush on in fury, and the brass seems to vomit forth curses and to answer prayer with blasphemies; where they laugh, drink, fight, destroy, violate, and utterly run riot.
Berlioz ended up with nothing like a concerto for viola, but one of his most poetic and lyrical pieces, which is in keeping with Berlioz's reported fondness for the viola. The viola in one sense is an instrument that has attracted some composers over the years because it usually helps to flesh out the harmony whenever it is used. I've heard Bach and Mozart both enjoyed playing the instrument in ensemble for this reason. Composers are inspired and gifted individuals, and the great ones are also great craftsmen. So it makes sense that they would like getting 'inside' the music this way.

The viola is also much more than just a 'bigger violin'. Theoretically it should fall between the violin and cello in size and string length, but if it were made true to this scale it would be unplayable on the arm and be very awkward to play like a cello. To compensate for the fact that the strings are not as long as they need be, they are of a thicker diameter and the body is smaller. This gives the viola a more nasal and distinctive tone than the violin, while still being able to blend with the other string instruments The very fact that the viola is a 'compromise' is what makes it unique, and no doubt was the reason for Berlioz being fond of it.

The solo viola wanders through the scenes for orchestra, commenting on the happenings and stating its own special theme called an idee fixe by Berlioz.  
The first performance of the work was a disaster that Berlioz blamed on shoddy conducting by the conductor Girard.. After this fiasco, Berlioz himself conducted most of his own music.  And what of Paganini?  He never did get his viola concerto from Berlioz, never played the work, and he didn't hear Harold In Italy until 1838. When he did hear it, he was overwhelmed, heaped praise upon Berlioz and gave him a gift of 20,000 francs!

Read what Berlioz said about Harold In Italy in this chapter from his Memoirs

Berlioz's Harold In Italy:

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