Berlioz – Harold in Italy, Symphony with Viola Solo, Op. 16

by Max Derrickson

Hector Berlioz     (Born in La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France, 1803; died in Paris, France, 1869)

Harold in Italy, Symphony with Viola Solo, Op. 16
1. Adagio – Harold in the Mountains.  Scenes of Melancholy, Happiness and Joy
2. Allegretto – March of the Pilgrims Singing the Evening Prayer
3. Allegro assai – Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountain-Dweller to His Mistress
4. Allegro frenetico – Orgy of the Brigands. Memories of Scenes Past

Berlioz’s Second Symphony, Harold in Italy, is not only one of his greatest works but was the result of one of the Romantic Era’s most curious stories – a tale of convoluted inspirations and a fabled instrument.  It begins with the greatest violin virtuoso the music world has ever known being determined to champion the viola.

After hearing a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in 1832, Paganini commissioned Berlioz to write a viola concerto for him.  Paganini also played the viola and he had been composing for it for several decades himself.  He also owned a particularly large and exquisite viola (referred to as a Grand Viola) made by the famous Stradivari clan of Italy, and wanted to show off both the instrument and his techniques with it.  So this was the extraordinary instrument and the world famous virtuoso that Berlioz was being asked to create a piece to showcase.  Berlioz was at first reluctant, after all, these were high stakes.  But Paganini was persistent and Berlioz was persuaded.  Thus began his masterpiece Harold in Italy.  Paganini, however, was so unimpressed that after seeing an early draft, he paid Berlioz’s fee, abandoned the commission, and instead wrote a piece for himself.


Berlioz’s early inspirations were clearly not Paganini’s, it seemed, and so after the piece was “de-commissioned,” Berlioz reworked his ideas and settled on a symphony with the underlying inspirations of his own wanderings in Italy, specifically in the Abruzzi mountains during the year 1830, when he had won the prestigious Prix di Rome for composing.  His delight in the works of Byron, especially his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, (1818) inspired Berlioz to imagine the viola soloist as Harold, Byron’s world-weary observer, and it all settled out musically, Berlioz said, as “a series of orchestral scenes in which the solo viola would be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, like an actual person, retaining the same character throughout.”  But although Byron’s literature played some inspirational part in Harold, in fact the listener will not find any reference to the Childe Harold except in title only, and as annotator Richard Freed inferred, the piece should justly be called “Hector Berlioz inItaly.”


The four real life vignettes that inspire the four movements of Harold in Italy can all be read about in Berlioz’s own classic book he called his Memoirs, and for this Symphony Berlioz supplies descriptive subtitles for each movement.  But there are a few musical moments that capture more than our imaginations.  Specifically,
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The third movement belies how Berlioz wrestled with the scope of his would-be commission from the start.  Several ideas played their part: reworking a theme from an earlier Overture for an opera about Rob Roy, then rethinking the piece as a musical portrait of the last days of the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots.  These Scottish invocations curiously remain in the work, most noticeably in this lovely third movement song.

Lastly, Berlioz starts off his finale movement in the fashion that Beethoven did with his Ninth Symphony with each of the themes from the previous movements being recalled one by one, and cast aside.  But Berlioz, as musicologist David Cairns astutely observed, had a different aim –
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And then, as Berlioz said, the Brigands carry on,
“. . . where wine, blood, joy, and rage mingle in mutual intoxication and make music together . . . and [the brigands] laugh and swill and strike, smash, kill, rape, and generally enjoy themselves.”
[. . .]

But what of Paganini?  Harold in Italy was premiered to acclaim in 1834 and Paganini eventually heard it in 1838.  He was dumbstruck.  He publicly kissed Berlioz’s hand on stage, and soon thereafter sent him the hefty sum of 20,000 francs.  The Stradivarius Grand Viola, for which Harold was initially composed, had its own wanderings for the past two centuries
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