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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Harold en Italie
1. Harold in the mountains. Scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy: Adagio – Allegro
2. March of pilgrims singing the evening prayer: Allegretto
3. Abruzzian mountain-dweller’s serenade to his mistress: Allegro assai – Allegretto
4. Brigands’ Orgy. Reminiscences of earlier scenes: Allegro frenetico
The differences between Berlioz’s music and that of his German contemporaries and predecessors are much more striking than the affinities. Except occasionally, when it recalls Weber or Beethoven, it doesn’t sound anything like them. Its separation of timbres and clarity of texture are far removed from the piano-suffused sonorities of Wagner and Schumann. Berlioz’s formal procedures, too, are different. His symphonic movements rarely follow Viennese sonata practice. Their roots in French music become more obvious the more we get to know the work of Méhul, Cherubini and the rest.
Yet his music – if not its sound or structure, then its ideals, its ethos, its poetic assumptions – would be unthinkable without Beethoven’s Fifth, Sixth and Ninth and Weber’s Der Freischütz. His discovery of these works opened up a new world which he must at all costs enter and inhabit. Beethoven, in particular, revealed the symphony as an undreamed of medium for personal drama: music, by means of the modern orchestra, was free to say what it liked how it liked; musical form was a living thing, no longer rule-bound but created afresh in response to the needs of the work in question.
The influence of Beethoven, however, could only be general. It was a matter of inspiration, not imitation. Though Berlioz is deeply concerned with issues of musical architecture, and will learn from Beethoven’s technique of thematic transformation, he will not use him as a model – he works out his own salvation. The Berliozian dramatic symphony comes out of Beethoven’s but doesn’t copy it. And there is, each time, a new approach. His second symphony, Harold in Italy, has movement titles like the Symphonie fantastique but no written programme. This time, too, the recurring melody is used differently.
The work’s Byronic title is more than just a gesture to fashion. Byron is one of the presiding geniuses of Berlioz’s Italian journey. Harold originated in a request from Paganini for a piece that would feature the Stradivari viola he had recently acquired. But when that idea had been abandoned and replaced by a symphonic work inspired by Berlioz’s wanderings in the Abruzzi mountains, the solo viola, cast in a less soloistic role, became (in Berlioz’s words) ‘a kind of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold’ – an observer standing apart. The ‘Harold’ theme preserves its identity unchanged, throughout (in this it differs from the idée fixe in the Fantastique). At the same time it is through the consciousness of this observer that the scenes of Italian nature and life are presented. The theme, as well as recurring constantly, is the source from which much of the work’s melodic material is derived.
The first movement (‘Harold in the mountains’) opens with a darkly chromatic fugato. Woodwind add a melancholy tune which will be revealed as a minor-key version of the ‘Harold’ theme. The music rises to a grand, cloudy fortissimo, after which the fugato resumes, culminating in a flourish. Then the texture clears, G minor becomes G major with the effect of sunshine breaking through, and harp arpeggios introduce the soloist and the main theme, a long, open-hearted melody with a touch of melancholy. It leads to an Allegro, in 6/8 time and with an easy, swinging gait (speed is reserved for the coda). The sprightly second theme only feints at the orthodox dominant key, and soon the formal elements – development, recapitulation, coda – merge in a continuous process, in which the cross-rhythms and superimposed metres that are a feature of the work are prominently displayed.
The Pilgrims’ March moves in a single arc – pppp to f, then back to f – containing three musically developed ideas: the procession’s approach across the evening landscape and its disappearance into the dusk, the gradual change from day to night, and the curve of feeling in the solitary observer of the scene, from contentment to angst and isolation. The musical materials are a broad E major theme, variously harmonised above a trudging bass, two repeated bell-like sonorities, a fragment of chorale, and the comments of the solo viola, first with the ‘Harold’ theme, then as a series of arpeggios played on the bridge of the instrument. In a long final diminuendo the bell-notes and the march theme (pizzicato strings) grow fainter and fainter till only the viola is left.
The idea for the third movement came from the pifferari, strolling wind players whom Berlioz encountered during his stay. A rapid, skirling tune on oboe and piccolo above a drone bass gives way to an allegretto half the speed, whose cor anglais melody is embellished by other woodwind and then combined with the (thematically related) ‘Harold’ theme. The allegro is then briefly repeated, after which the music and tempos of the two sections are combined, while, high above, the ‘Harold’ theme rings out on flute and harp.
The finale begins with a brusque call to order, full of vigorous syncopations. Then the themes of the previous movement are reviewed in turn and rejected, after the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth, though for opposite reasons: Beethoven’s is to introduce a new element, the voice, Berlioz’s to get rid of the soloist. Harold’s theme is the last to go, becoming gradually more indistinct before the gathering onslaught of the brigands. Rhythm, with the percussion unleashed, is now dominant, and brilliant orchestral colour. Towards the end the orchestral momentum breaks off, and we hear in the distance (two violins and one cello offstage) an echo of the Pilgrims’ March. The solo viola is stirred to momentary response. Then its nostalgic comments merge in the tumult of the orchestra, and the orgy resumes and carries the movement con fuoco to its headlong conclusion.
© David Cairns