Berlioz: "Harold in Italy", Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato, op.16

Duration : 41 minutes

The Orchestre National de France, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, performs "Harold en Italie - Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato" by Hector Berlioz. Excerpt from the concert recorded live on 6 June 2019 at the Radio France Auditorium.

Harold aux montagnes, scènes de mélancolie, de bonheur et de joie

Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir

Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abruzzes à sa maîtresse

Orgie de brigands. Souvenirs des scènes précédentes

Saint-Petersburg, 8 February 1868: Berlioz mounted the podium for the very last time to conduct, amongst other works, Harold en Italie. The work created such an effect that Balakirev, several months later, submitted to the composer the idea of a new symphony influenced by Byron's Manfred. However, the idea was finally taken up and completed by Tchaikovsky in 1885. Harold en Italie is the second of Berlioz's four symphonies. Composed and premiered in 1834, it was written at a time when the composer's imagination was heavily imbued with memories of Italy. Though he initially viewed his obligatory relocation to the Villa Médicis for the Prix de Rome as a form of exile to the "Eternal City" he viewed as a musical desert to live under the crushing heat, he ultimately spent many a day travelling through Italy's wilderness, a guitar in one hand, a hunting rifle in the other, meeting brigands and pifferari (wandering musicians) along the way, rediscovering the processions and folk songs of his childhood in the Dauphiné, and discovering the mount Vesuvius and the Tomb of Virgil at Mount Pausilippe.

When Paganini asked the composer for a new work that would highlight the Stradivarius viola in his possession, Berlioz seized the opportunity without hesitation: he first considered a choral work entitled Les Derniers Instants de Marie Stuart before deciding to unite the winds of the North and the sun of southern France by allowing to wander through the Italian countryside his instrumental character, drawn from Byron's Childe-Harold: the passionately forlorn timbre of the viola was perfectly suited to the hero's temperament, alone against the forces of nature, alone against society, increasingly saddened as the story progresses. "In a sense, the symphony is a supplement to the poem (rather than a continuation and conclusion as is Lamartine’s Le dernier chant du pèlerinage d’Harold)", writes the musicologist Paul Banks. He adds: "The all-pervasive theme of Byron’s poem is the alienated Romantic hero as embodied in Childe Harold himself. The poem is not concerned with the presentation of a character portrait of Harold as an individual [...] but rather with the presentation of a generalized portrait of this Romantic phenomenon. The failure to be precise about Childe Harold’s particular psychological state imbues him with an aura of mystery [...]. At the root of Harold’s condition is his failure to establish any human relationships."

The initial project thus turned into a symphony in four parts with a principal viola, though this was not a concerto, despite the Allegro of the first movement expressing at times a concertante character. An innovator in each of his works, Berlioz did not use the idea of the idée fixe in Harold en Italie: used throughout the Symphonie fantastique, this idea "reproduces itself throughout the entire work; but with the difference that the theme for the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe, obstinately interposes itself as an episodic passionate idea in the midst of scenes which are strange to it and makes a diversion to them, while the song of Harold superposes itself over other songs of the orchestra, with which it contrasts by its movement and its character, without interrupting the development".

After a sombre introduction full of wild accents comes a thematic exposition by the viola of the radiant theme of Harold, followed by the aforementioned Allegro. The musical material of the first movement is largely drawn from Berlioz's previous Intrata di Rob Roy Macgregor (Rob Roy Overture), a work quickly rejected by the composer following its creation in 1833. The following Allegretto (Allegretto like Beethoven's Symphony no.7, and not Adagio or Andante) is a vast and very cinematographic crescendo-decrescendo depicting the approach of the pilgrims from the distant horizon, gradually disappearing amidst a flurry of arpeggios sul ponticello from the solo viola (played on the bridge) and bells (by the horn and the harp).

The third movement is not a scherzo, nor an intermezzo, nor a rhapsody, but rather a work conceived as a scene without words, imitating the dashing and perky music of the pifferari, the serenade performed by the horn (an instrument favoured by Berlioz), and a rising frivolity mixing all the rhythms and timbres before a splendidly segmented conclusion. The finale first recapitulates the previous themes similar to Beethoven's Symphony no.9 (much like the first movement referencing the finale of Beethoven's Symphony no.1, with Harold's theme feigning hesitation, note by note, before finally taking off), then throwing itself into a frenetic whirlwind of wild songs, cries, laughter, supplications, until the subtle re-appearance offstage of the pilgrims' theme, followed by a coda best described by Berlioz himself discussing the opening of his Corsair overture: "it is a work that isn’t without a sort of swagger of its own."

Considering the viola part insufficiently present and spectacular in the work, Paganini never performed Berlioz's creation. Yet, he was nonetheless blinded by the work upon hearing it for the first time. 

With its melancholic and ardent solo voice, its austere landscapes and its sometimes tender, sometimes ferocious joy, and the constant rhythmic invention typical of the composer, Harold en Italie is the first step in the musical conquest of the Mediterranean, described by Berlioz in his Traité d’instrumentation as long and exhilarating to penetrate.

The Orchestre National de France performs Brahms and Berlioz
Full concert
The Orchestre National de France performs Brahms and Berlioz
Maison de la Radio, Paris
Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz
All artists
  • Emmanuel Krivine
    Emmanuel KrivineConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra