MASTERWORKS PROGRAM NOTES BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16 Scored for solo viola, two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbal, triangle, percussion, harp, and strings. Duration is 38 minutes. Last performance by the Colorado Symphony was on May 6 & 8, 1982, with Robert Vernon playing the solo viola part and Gaetano Delogu conducting. Harold in Italy is the product of a musical partnership between two of the most startling personalities of the 19th century, or indeed, of almost any century: Hector Berlioz (1803-1868), a young and radical composer who had scandalized Paris with his opium-inspired Symphonie fantastique, and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), an astoundingly talented violinist whose career took flight on rumors that he had sold his soul to the devil. Neither artist cared much for propriety; both viewed music as an avenue for deep emotional expression. In Harold in Italy, those shared concerns are perpetuated. In 1833, after hearing a performance of Symphonie fantastique, Paganini asked Berlioz to compose a viola concerto. The great violinist had recently acquired a Stradivarius viola, and wanted a new work to perform on the instrument. Years later, in his memoirs, Berlioz asserted that his concept for the piece was of a melancholy wanderer, like Childe Harold in the Byron poem; the “Italy” was due to Berlioz imagining that forlorn Harold is trekking south of the Alps. The composition that resulted had less to do with Byron than with Berlioz himself, and very little to do with Paganini, who apparently had envisioned a showpiece for his virtuosity. Harold in Italy he dismissed as having “too many rests” for the soloist, and never did perform it, though he confessed to bearing it admiration and paid the promised fee. After hearing another violist perform it, he offered his sincere appreciation to Berlioz. Harold in Italy is structured in four spacious movements. The first, titled “Harold in the Mountains,” carries the subtitle “scenes of sadness, happiness and joy.” It is an introspective introduction to our protagonist whose subtle theme, first played by the solo viola, echoes throughout the work. The second movement, “The March of the Pilgrims Singing Their Evening Prayer,” contrasts Harold’s lush romantic perspective with the pilgrim’s gentle religious fervor. The “Serenade” of the third movement depicts a mountaineer of the rugged Abruzzi region singing to his beloved. Here, Berlioz lets the English horn serve as the voice of the singer, yet Harold is there, too, in the solo viola, observing the intimate scene. For the final movement, Berlioz turns to a more animated episode, “The Orgy of the Brigands,” but even amidst the tumultuous action, he recalls the earlier scenes, with musical echoes of the pilgrim’s march, the serenade, and Harold’s theme.
All program notes © Betsy Schwarm, author of “Classical Music Insights”
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