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The last time we met Hector Berlioz in this series, he was an impetuous obsessed composer in the process of creating his own musical language to explain his obsession to the musical world. It worked. This time, we find him infatuated again, just not with a woman. This time, it's Italy.


(View of the Colosseum by Night, Carl Gustav Karus, Early 1830s, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Italy. Composers from further north love Italy. Think of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Berlioz loved it there, PLUS he had a commission from the violist to end all violists, Niccolo Paganini, for something Paganini could play in concert, impressed as he was with the Symphonie Fantastique.

There were other issues, though. Harold in Italy, Symphony for solo viola and orchestra, opus 16, is absolutely a tribute to the work of one of the great romantic poets, George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron, known to history as Lord Byron.


(Portrait of George Gordon (1788-1824) 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale in Albanian Dress,Thomas Phillips, 1813, National Portrait Gallery, London)

Tribute, because at the time Lord Byron was best known for a long expository poem (not really about himself at the beginning, increasingly about himself toward the end), Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818). The poem describes Byron's wanderings through the countries of the Mediterranean in four cantos. Canto #4 is about Italy, and here is Byron discussing the Colosseum in Rome:

'While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls -- the World.'  From our own land
Thus spake the pilgrims o'er this mighty wall               
In Saxon times, which we are wont to call
Ancient; and these three mortal things are still
On their foundations, and unalter'd all;
Rome and her Ruin past Redemption's skill,
The world, the same wide den -- of thieves, or what ye will.
Berlioz composed the four parts of the symphony with his own wanderings through Italy, particularly Abruzzi, in mind. In a grand foreshadowing of the ethno-musicological work Bartok and Kodaly would do in Hungary a century later, he listened to what he was hearing in his travels and tried to recreate it using his own musical language. As in Symphonie Fantastique, there's a main theme that runs through this symphony, but here it's superimposed on other orchestral voices so as to contrast with them as a tourist would, with Byronic detachment. We can even call this theme "Harold."

Four good versions are available online, and the first features the violist from Harold's first recorded performance, with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The second is the favorite of many critics, and the third and fourth involve passion.

Note: I really don't know much about music theory, but I do know how to read a score, so my guide will be more impressionistic than Dumbo's. Since I know how useful his are, I figured it was worth a try.

First Movement, "Harold in the Mountains: Scenes of sadness, happiness and joy": Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, William Primrose, viola.

We open with typical Berlioz lyricism, with massed winds and lower string instruments dominating.
(2:55) Solo viola enters as Harold, accompanied by harp, then joined by strings, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons and 2 flutes (This is Berlioz: in his Requiem, the Hostias section's orchestration consists of the tenors and basses of the chorus, 3 flutes, 8 trombones, and the cellos and basses)
(5:26) Theme recapped with violin counterpoint and winds, very placid.
(7:15) Full orchestra works a variation on the theme, very Berliozian cadence.
(7:44) Viola back with theme, but more jaunty (happiness), orchestra more boisterous
(9:43) Viola repeats theme while leaving space for massed string and brass interruptions, as the orchestra gets louder and louder
(11:15) Winds and brass repeat the theme, viola joins.
(12:35) Theme again, even more uptempo, and, as you remember from Symphonie Fantastique, a typical Berlioz whiz-bang ending.

Second Movement, "March of the Pilgrims singing their evening prayer": Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, Nobuko Imai, viola

It's a stately march, introduced by celli, bassoons, and French horns, joined by violins and the harp. No Harold in this section.
(1:38) The viola enters, along with clarinets, joined by the oboe.
(2:40) The whole orchestra plays the march theme.
(3:41) As the orchestra continues with the march, the viola enters over it
(4:19) The viola continues, accompanied by flutes and plucked celli, then joined by bassoons and French horns
(6:15) The winds repeat the march theme with the viola, accompanied by violins and the harp, diminuendo, diminuendo, and the winds drop out except for the flute as the march continues.
(8:13) The movement ends with the viola, solo.
This movement was encored at the first performance,and it's not really surprising.

Third Movement "Serenade of a Mountaineer of the Abruzzi to his Beloved": Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Gandelsman, viola (recorded live in Tel Aviv)

Here, the flute and the oboe initiate a dance-like melody, which is then developed by the English horn and the bassoon, and then by the flutes and the clarinet.
(2:02) The French horns take up the melody as a slower serenade as the viola enters playing a slower serenade-like version of the Harold theme.
(2:57) This is then taken up by the flutes again with more ornamentation, and then by the viola.
(4:49) The dance tune comes back with the orchestration from the beginning of the movement, aided by the viola.
(5:23) The Harold theme again, in a flute/viola duet.
(6:20) The string section raps it up in another diminuendo passage; the viola has the last word.
Berlioz, in his memoirs, notes that the serenade was repeated in concert almost as much as the preceding march was.

Fourth Movement (in two parts) "Orgy of the Brigands; Memories of preceding scenes": David Oistrakh, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Rudolph Barshai, viola.

Symphonie Fantastique had a Witches' Sabbath, this piece has an orgy. According to one critic, the model for this was the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony because  he repeats material from the previous three movements. But that's the only similarity.
The Brigands have a theme too, introduced by the violins and the violas, joined by the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the bassoon, the french horns, the trombones and the trumpets. It starts with the marking allegretto frenetico and whenever you hear the Brigands theme after that, it's still at the same pace.
(1:10) The solo viola plays the march theme, then the serenade theme, and starts into Harold
(1:51) and is interrupted by the Brigands
(2:19) The flutes and violins continue into a second theme which is also interrupted by the Brigands at (3:08) and we have two repetitions of the Brigands theme, the second introduced by a flute and violin version of it.
(5:07) Ominous operatic brasses.
(5:30) The orchestra takes up the March of the Pilgrims theme and starts to veer toward the Harold theme.
(B 0:22) The Brigands theme again, with some very strident violin and viola playing.
(B 2:37) The wind section takes up the Harold theme.
(B 3:15) The solo viola comes back with the Harold theme, but at the allegretto tempo.
(B 3:38) And is interrupted by the Brigands yet again.
(B 3:56) Then all is quiet as two violins and a cello offstage play the March of the Pilgrims theme, leading to the solo viola onstage playing the Harold theme. (The offstage instruments are an operatic effect.  In the Requiem, the brasses are divided into four groups placed at the four corners of the concert hall.)
(B 4:47) The final iteration of the Brigands theme, leading to a serious Berliozian coda.

So that's Berlioz's second symphony. Thank you for your patience.

Originally posted to DKOMA on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 04:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by An Ear for Music.

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