Harold in Italy is not a viola concerto, it is a symphony with solo viola. It was composed thanks to Paganini, who asked Berlioz to write some music for him to play on a big Stradivari viola he had.
The backgroundIn 1830 Berlioz had written his most famous composition, the Symphonie
The only type of music that struck him in Rome was that of the pifferari, a group of folk musicians playing bagpipes and a sort of oboe, who around Christmas come down from the mountains to play before the statues of the Madonna, wearing large woollen coats and pointed hats. (By the way, you can still meet these pifferari around Christmas in cities like Milan, playing the same instruments and tunes, wearing the same clothes).
His memoirs are so lively in the description of his adventurous wandering and all the encounters… sometimes they made me really laugh a lot... very useful to me to better understand Harold in Italy and his music in general.
PaganiniIn 1833 Paganini heard the Symphonie Fantastique in a concert in Paris and congratulated Berlioz about it. After this concert Paganini told Berlioz
Berlioz was a bit hesitant because, he said, to write a concerto for such a great virtuoso a composer should be able to play the viola and he wasn’t. But Paganini insisted that he trusted him. Berlioz started writing and when the first movement was complete Paganini wanted to see it. He was a bit disappointed because there were too many rests, he said "there is not enough for me to do, I should be playing all the time".
Paganini didn’t like it and never played it. Anyway Berlioz went on writing without worrying about having to write for a virtuoso and ended up with writing a symphony based on his memories of Italy. Eventually Harold in Italy was performed at the Paris Conservatoire in 1834 by Chrétien Urhan, the principal viola of Paris Opéra, and several times in the following years always with great success.
A few years later, Paganini was in Paris again and
a concert including the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy
conducted by Berlioz. After the concert Paganini went to see Berlioz
and told him he had never been as touched as by Harold,
then kneeled and kissed Berlioz’s hand. A few days later Paganini sent
his son to Berlioz’s home with a letter. When Berlioz opened it he read
My dear friend, Beethoven being dead only Berlioz could make him live again; and I who have heard your divine compositions, so worthy of the genius you are, humbly beg you to accept, as a token of my hommage, twenty thousand francs...
Can you imagine what a pleasant shock for Berlioz! considering that for the composition of the Requiem one year earlier he was paid 3,000 francs.
The movementsHarold in Italy is in four movements, and since I am a rave fan of William Primrose I'd recommend one of his performances, but there are many more. Here you can taste a bit of each movement:
in the Mountains
Scenes of sadness, of happiness and of joy
There is an idée fixe played
by the viola, recurring throughout the movements. It represents Harold,
the artist, and his feelings...
An interesting transcriptionHarold in Italy became quite popular and Berlioz's friend Franz Liszt made a transcription of it for viola and piano which greatly impressed Berlioz, he said he would have never thought the piano capable of such sort of 'orchestral' sonorities. This was due to Liszt's extraordinarily ability as a pianist, first of all, and as a composer.
Indeed I like this work a lot, I think the pianist who plays it has to imagine he is the orchestra or conducts it, he should listen to the original orchestral version many times and try to put all those different sonorities into the piano (or rather draw them out of it?). Challenging task, yet rewarding!Being by a great composer like Liszt, it's more interesting than other existing piano reductions, and I think it is also a wonderful opportunity for a viola player to add another concert piece to his/her repertoire without having an orchestra at hand, and the pianist cannot complain about having to 'just accompany'. For the Berlioz-Liszt version, click here or on the picture if you wish to buy it to perform it with piano, or here for full score and orchestra parts of Harold in Italy.
Go from Harold in Italy to Treatise on instrumentation and orchestration
The page Harold in Italy is recommended by the Encyclopaedia Britannica under its External WebSites section.
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