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Harold in Italy

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Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz is another of my favourite works, I discovered

it in this way. I first heard only one movement of it, from a music encyclopedia with recordings that we had at home and was immediately impressed by it. Then I asked for it as a birthday present (I was 17) and having received my gift it I spent a lot of time listening to it over and over again for days and days...

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 background

In 1830 Berlioz had written his most famous composition, the Symphonie
Fantastique. Then, after winning the Prix de Rome, a composition award given by the Paris Conservatoire, he spent fifteen months in Italy, between 1831 and 1832. And this stay had a long lasting influence on Berlioz, especially evident in Harold in Italy. More than the environment at the Academy of France in Rome and more than attending concerts and operas, Berlioz enjoyed wandering in the wild Abruzzi mountains, meeting people in the villages there, listening to their songs while playing with them on his chitarra francese.

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.


In 1833 Paganini heard the Symphonie Fantastique in a concert in Paris and congratulated Berlioz about it. After this concert Paganini told Berlioz

about a big Stradivari viola he had and asked Berlioz to write a concerto for him, he said he was too ill to compose.

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 attended 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 this message:

Berlioz and Paganini

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 movements

Berlioz's Harold in Italy played by William PrimroseHarold 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:

Harold in the Mountains Scenes of sadness, of happiness and of joy
March of the pilgrims singing their Evening Prayer
Serenade of a mountaineer of the Abruzzes to his Mistress
Orgie des Brigands, memories of past scenes.

There is an idée fixe played by the viola, recurring throughout the movements. It represents Harold, the artist, and his feelings...

Harold in Italy, CD
Berlioz: Harold in Italy
  Mp3 files

Berlioz posters
Berlioz's Harold in Italy, sheet music
Printed sheet music

An interesting transcription

Berlioz-Liszt: Harold in Italy, CDHarold 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 ofSee Berlioz's Harold in Italy transcribed by Franz Liszt 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.

...and more about this is coming soon...

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Encyclopaedia Britannica - Hector BerliozThe page Harold in Italy is recommended by the Encyclopaedia Britannica under its External WebSites section.

...and more music is coming all the time, come and visit again for more free classical music download, more free viola music.

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