Harold in Italy, op. 16

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

        Of all of the major composers of the nineteenth century, Hector Berlioz is perhaps the most personally interesting. What a vivacious, unique individual he was, both in his life and in his music. And, perhaps most refreshing--for one who lived such an intense and varied existence--on the whole he suffered from few pathologies in his behavior and personality. He was intense and impassioned in his pursuit of the composition of music that reflected his literary interests, his interaction with his physical surroundings, and his deeply-felt emotions. He was not a virtuoso performer (playing the flute and the guitar only passably), his early musical training having been derived largely from the study of harmony books. However—and it is a major informing aspect of his intellect—he was a man of literature. He read widely and with sophistication from an early age, and later become one of the most important music critics and general authors in music of all time. Over a half dozen or more of his major works derive from some important connection with Shakespeare; he married the most important Shakespearian actress of the time, and composed his Symphonie fantastique as a response to his hopeless infatuation with her (the marriage didn’t last). Characteristically, he never actually set any of Shakespeare’s words to music—they were an inspiration, only. And the same should be said of his music, which is filled with local color and the expertly-crafted atmospherics that were inspired by nature and culture.

        His early career was driven to some degree by his frustrating quest to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which he finally won in 1830. Characteristically, having won, he dallied and resisted actually moving to Rome for the required residency there—he loathed Rome and Italian art and music. He did love the Italian countryside, the sunshine, and the evocative legends and characters. Hence, some of his most inspired music stemmed from his time there—including Harold in Italy.

        Paganini in the early 1830s had acquired a fine Stradivarius viola, and commissioned Berlioz to write a concerto for him that would serve as a springboard for his prodigious talents. Their respective values in musical composition were obviously so mutually exclusive that Paganini rejected the piece (it wasn’t showy enough). Berlioz, never to waste ideas, recast the work to suit himself, and something quite different emerged. It is a musical depiction of selected events from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, an evocation of Berlioz’s sojourn in Italy, and a display piece for viola solo –all in one! It is not a concerto, nor is it a symphony or a tone poem—the three most important genres for symphony orchestra. Rather, it is a perfect example of Berlioz’s individualistic approach to all of his compositions—it’s a bit of all three: he simply created his own unique vessel for his musical thoughts. Thus, Harold in Italy is sui generis, and typical Berlioz.

        Cast in four movements, it is a musical depiction of Byron’s poem (itself autobiographical) about a disillusioned and melancholy young man who wanders about Italy in search of the meaning of life—in other words, a Byronic hero. The first movement alludes to tramping around in the Abruzzi mountains that Berlioz, himself, loved, and in the second, Harold joins a procession of holy pilgrims. The third movement is simply a serenade to a beloved, and in the last the hero Harold—represented, as in all the movements, by the solo viola—joins in the riotous revelry of the local brigands. The opening notes of the solo viola are a major theme (it almost amusingly stutters into full form) and the attentive listener will hear it in all the movements as Harold’s theme. Paganini did not hear the piece that his abortive composition morphed into until a few years later. He was so impressed with it that he sent Berlioz 20,000 francs and a note: “Beethoven being dead only a Berlioz could reincarnate him.” That seems ample crow to eat.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan