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I’ve always loved Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie (“Harold in Italy”), even though critics tend to slight it compared to his other great symphonies — the ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique that precedes it and the massive choral fantasy Romeo et Juliet that follows. Perhaps it’s the title — both my late father and older son are named Harold. The tale of the creation of “Harold in Italy” is a fascinating confluence of celebrity, musical roots, literary sources, and the composer’s own quixotic personality. In his M�moires, Berlioz wrote that after a 1834 performance of his Symphonie Fantastique, “a man with long hair, piercing eyes and a strange and haggard face” introduced himself and asked Berlioz to write a concerto to introduce a new Stradivarius viola he had acquired. It was Niccol� Paganini, the cult violinist of his era, who was hysterically worshipped by public and critics alike for his phenomenal virtuosity. Serious composers and even rivals respected the expanded musical resources revealed by his unprecedented skills and techniques. FELLOW VISIONARY Why in the world did Paganini seek Berlioz for a solo display piece? Berlioz was known for his restless orchestration, shifting textures, and formal experimentation. Perhaps, to his lasting credit, Paganini recognized a fellow visionary who could take his artistry to new heights. Berlioz recalled that he tried to combine solo lines with the orchestral music, confident that Paganini’s incomparable execution would give his viola due prominence. Yet, when presented with the first movement, Paganini rejected it as having too many rests, insisting that he wanted to be playing all the time. But Paganini’s connection with “Harold” did not end with his disavowal of the work, which Berlioz proceeded to complete anyway. After attending a December 1838 performance, sapped by the illness that already had taken his voice and before long would take his life, Paganini dragged the composer on stage, knelt down, and kissed his hand. The next day, Paganini sent him an ecstatically flattering letter that began: “Beethoven is dead and Berlioz alone can revive him.” Included was a draft for 20,000 francs (about twice Berlioz’s annual earnings) to be presented to Baron de Rothschild for payment. When Berlioz went to give thanks, Paganini said that hearing “Harold” was the greatest pleasure of his life: “You will never know how your music affected me. It is many years since I had felt anything like it.” In gratitude, Berlioz embarked on the composition of a work worthy of dedication to Paganini — his astounding Romeo et Juliet (which Paganini would not live to hear). Although in the traditional four movements (as compared to the five of the Symphonie Fantastique and the seven of Romeo et Juliet), “Harold” shares with the Fantastique an id�e fixe — a main theme that pervades the entire work. As critic David Cairns has noted, the id�e fixe is heard not only in its original form but also more subtly as the generator of most of the other tunes, which spring from its component phrases and rhythms. Yet, Cairns observes, unlike the id�e fixe of the Fantastique, the “Harold” theme doesn’t transform its character but remains a fixed point of reference for the changing scenes through which the hero passes, coloring them with his poetic awareness, exuberance, introspection, and anxiety. STYLE OF LORD BYRON Berlioz claimed that “Harold” was written in the style of Lord Byron’s immensely popular 1812-18 epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Berlioz closely identified with Byron’s title character, a melancholy dreamer who visits and comments upon sites of classical antiquity in search of meaning to counter his own world-weary disillusionment. Berlioz may also have been attracted to the Byron poem as an extraordinary technical feat. Despite its extreme length, each stanza is written in a strict form consisting of eight lines of iambic pentameter and a final line of iambic hexameter in a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBCC. Berlioz’s “Harold,” too, is an uneasy alliance of classical form and free-thinking attitude. Indeed, despite its lesser status in the Berlioz canon, “Harold” displays all of his most important hallmarks. Many historians regard the most significant formal innovation in Berlioz’s three great symphonies as ushering in an era in which music followed a narrative program. Berlioz begins each movement of “Harold” with a descriptive title. The first is entitled: “Harold in the mountains. Scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy.” While often described as a modified sonata form, over half its length is a slow introduction launched with a sinuous fugue, as if to suggest the academic doldrums from which Harold (and Berlioz) sought escape in nature. While commentators often debate the success of his experiments in musical forms, there can be no dispute as to the two technical areas in which Berlioz transformed music. The foremost is orchestration. Berlioz was the first great composer who had not risen from the ranks of virtuoso performers. He also had little interest in most music of the past. As a result, he was able to investigate the properties of each instrument without preconception in order to grasp their intrinsic properties, suggest fresh techniques (woodwind mutes, string harmonics, bowing textures), imagine new expressive combinations, and demand players with the expertise to realize the effects he envisioned. The second movement of “Harold” (“March of pilgrims singing the evening prayer.”) is an extraordinary display of Berlioz’s skill as an orchestrator. It begins with 16 repetitions of a gentle march theme over a walking bass that sustains interest through subtle variation of the timbre as it wends its way through various instrumental combinations. It ends with a thoroughly modern harbinger of minimalism in which sustained conflicting notes of B (horns) and C (harp, oboe and flute) alternate 11 times before relaxing into a concluding E major chord. Berlioz’s other undisputed realm of mastery is rhythm. “Harold” has an edgy, natural feel that defies bar lines and strict timing with syncopation, dropped beats, and unexpected accents. Once we know the piece, following the score can be both frustrating and exhilarating — we can feel a great tension as Berlioz forced his free-wheeling conception into the rigid conventions of notation. The third movement of “Harold” (“Serenade of an Abruzzian mountaineer to his sweetheart.”) proudly displays Berlioz’s rhythmic prowess with a coda in which a jaunty rustic oboe and piccolo theme, a slow, plaintive English horn melody, and a lazily augmented version of the original theme are overlaid as three independent events occupy the same sonic space, a thoroughly baffling complexity in the context of its era yet a harbinger of the independent events of 20th century “chance” music. The fourth movement (“Brigands’ orgy.”) culminates the work with a flight of pure fantasy that deliriously displays all the hallmarks of Berlioz’s style. It begins, though, with a conscious throwback to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as the solo viola recalls the themes of each prior movement, only to have the full orchestra reject them with a scowling phrase. VIOLA CHAMPION Perhaps the greatest challenge Berlioz set for himself in “Harold” was to develop the long-neglected viola into a featured instrument. String historian Tully Potter has noted the instrument’s inherent instability — treacherous to play at both ends of its range, which lies a fifth below the brilliance of the violin yet an octave above the richness of a cello, imparting a nasal, throaty tone to its middle register. Indeed, in his M�moires Berlioz deplored the “antique, absurd and deplorable prejudice that had handed over the performance of the viola parts to second or third-rate violinists. Whenever a violinist is mediocre, it is said, �He would make a capital violist.’” Berlioz seized upon the viola’s status as an outsider in the world of 19th century music (with which he undoubtedly identified) to fashion a fascinating, highly personalized role for it throughout “Harold.” Like Berlioz himself, the solo viola finds itself increasingly isolated from the orchestral mainstream as the work progresses. In the first movement, the two strands stimulate each other in a unified concerted blend of rising excitement and driving momentum. The relationship unravels in the second movement, though — at first an augmented “Harold” theme blends harmoniously with the pilgrim song, but then becomes disruptive with a gratingly nasal, whiny tone that sours the peaceful meditation of the solemn prayer. The third movement finds the solo viola marginalized, emerging as a distant observer to the activity of the serenade. After the finale leaves reminiscences of the earlier movements behind, the viola is silent as the orchestra excludes it from its revelry, perhaps reflecting Berlioz’s recognition of his isolation from the musical mainstream of his time.
Peter Gutmann is a member of the telecommunications practice group of the Washington, D.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Reviews of a dozen recommended recordings are posted on the author’s Web site.

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