Hector Berlioz (1803-69)

Grande Ouverture de Waverley

H. 26

Program note © by D. Kern Holoman for the Orchestre de Paris, 1999200 season.

For Fl. I-II (P. fl.), Hb. I-II, Cl. I-II, Bns I-IV, Cors I-IV, Tromp. I-II, Tromp. à p., Tromb. I-III, Oph., Timb., Cordes (15-15-10-12-9).

Composed between October 1826 and February 1828.

First performed 26 May 1828 (Paris: Salle du Conservatoire, Nathan Bloc, conducting).

Published by S. Richault (Paris, 1839) as op. 1; dedicated "[à son oncle, le] Colonel F. Marmion."

Duration: about 10 minutes.
     Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), friend of Wordsworth and Byron, poet and novelist, was as much a pioneer of Romanticism in English literature as Berlioz was in French music. Scott's Waverley is a novel set in the Scottish highlands during the Jacobite (i.e., supporters of the Stuart claim to the English throne) rebellion of 1745. It was written in the summer of 1814, published anonymously, and an immediate success. Not until February 1827, just as Berlioz was absorbing them, was Scott publically identified as the author of "the Waverley novels"--some two dozen books including Rob-Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor (source of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor), Ivanhoe, and The Talisman.
     In 1826 Berlioz had undertaken and by early 1827 abandoned a Richard en Palestine (H. II) for the Opéra-Comique to a libretto based on The Talisman. It was probably during this same period that the Waverley overture emerged, "soon after Les Francs-Juges" (1826), according to the Mémoires. It can be from no earlier than 1825, when Berlioz discovered the Waverley novels, and it was clearly done by February 1828, when Le Sueur asks a correspondent to consider it for performance. Waverley was premiered at Berlioz's first concert at the Conservatoire, on 26 May 1828, subsequently heard at the Opéra-Comique benefit for Harriet Smithson on 25 February 1829, and heard about a dozen more times during Berlioz's life. Berlioz himself appears to have conducted it only once, in Hanover in May 1843.
     Both manuscript and printed scores includes a citation from Scott's Waverley:

                    Dreams of love and Lady's charms
                    Give place to honour and to arms.

                    Rêves amoureux et féminins charmes
                    S'effacent devant l'honneur et les armes.

The manuscript carries a deleted subtitle "grande ouverture caractéristique" after its dedication to the composer's beloved uncle, the dashing, saber-scarred Colonel Félix Marmion. Berlioz doubtless associated his uncle's military exploits with those of Scott's highlanders. The published score carries the note: "La Partition des huit Scènes de Faust, intitulée uvre 1er, ayant été détruite par l'Auteur, il l'a remplacée par celle-ci."
     Waverley is almost certainly the last major work Berlioz composed before discovering Beethoven, and thus tends more toward the conventions of French and Italian opera overtures that the arguments of Viennese sonata form. It is in the standard two parts favored by Berlioz for his overtures, with a slow introduction and lyric tenor-register theme, followed by a spirited allegro--perhaps meant in this case to suggest the first and second lines of the epigraph.
     The opening gambit, where the D-major tonality is unveiled through the ambiguous entry of the second oboe, piano with decrescendo, shows remarkable sophistication of spatial and registral effects in so young a composer; and the long, Rossini-like cello solo begins to hint at the audacious melodic shapes of the Fantastique. Woodwind filigree over pianissimo trumpet and timpani gradually enriches the texture.
     One would not term Berlioz's melodic control, in the Allegro vivace, advanced: the superb five-bar flourish at the start, for instance, has more than a little trouble finding its subsequent direction. The big tutti just afterward, and especially its recapitulation with trombones later in the work, have certain affinities with the corresponding passage in the finale of Harold en Italie. Much of the rest is devoted to working out the second theme, presented over three octaves by flute, clarinet and bassoon, then in two "Rossini crescendos."
     Berlioz has yet to discover the "vast and fecund" vocabulary of rhythm and meter he would return with from Italy, nor the breadth of orchestral device he would find as early as the Fantastique. But with Waverley (and its companion, the Francs-Juges overture), the style begins to take real shape, notably with the several dazzling excursions into forbidden realms of tonality.