Harold en Italie
Program note © by D. Kern Holoman for a concert by the UCD (University of California, Davis) Symphony Orchestra, 2 June 1996.
At first glance Harold en Italie seems the least progressive of Berlioz's symphonies, to be numbered among the relatively few conservative works of the fertile decade from 1830 that saw the breathtaking advances of the Requiem, Cellini, and the Nuits d'été as well as the third and fourth symphonies. The four-movement scheme—with Adagio and sonata Allegro, a slow march, scherzo, and finale with thematic recall of the previous movements—seems almost routinely Beethovenian. But with Harold Berlioz makes his next great aesthetic strides: in the domains of rhythm and the use of performance space.
The viola soloist—Harold—is instructed to stand well apart from the rest of the orchestra, in a splendid instance of the Romantic paradigm. The violist's motive as presented in the opening Adagio, almost an idée fixe, is a tender but also rather brooding phrase in two halves, square and simple enough that it tends to fit effortlessly into the diverse contexts of the movements which follow. Much of the Adagio, including the great canon with ornamental surges up and back through the orchestra was adopted from the comparable position in Rob-Roy and retouched with a kind of decorative filigree at which Berlioz was becoming increasingly expert. The fugal opening is newly composed; possibly this passage served as a model for the beginning of Mendelssohn's Elijah, in D minor and along similar melodic lines.
The unusual visual and acoustic effect of the violist's placement represents a step beyond the offstage oboe in the Fantastique in Berlioz's continuing investigation of performance space as compositional opportunity. A high spot of spatial control in Harold is the center section of the Pilgrim's March, the canto religioso exchanged in long note values between winds and strings—from back to front of the orchestra—as the viola figuration in sixteenths moves in two-octave arpeggiations sul ponticello across a wide pitch ambitus, while the march rhythms, quarters and eighths, continue in contrabass pizzicati. Here Berlioz has engaged musical space in virtually all its defining paramenters. Yet another spatial component is in play near the very end, with an offstage reminiscence of the Pilgrim's march from three solo strings with the viola soloist, still onstage, completing the quartet. From these passages it is but a step to the apocalyptic, in-the-round style of the Requiem on the one hand, and, on the other, such delicacies as the offstage angel chorus-with-closing-door of L'Enfance du Christ.
The rough model for the Pilgrim's March is the funeral cortège from the "Eroica," a movement that incited rapturous prose from Berlioz's pen owing to the poignancy of its dissolution. As in Beethoven the march passes by in a crescendo/decrescendo, and the chanting of the monks and monastery bell are roughly equivalent to Beethoven's tattoos and fanfares. Particular to Berlioz is the manipulation of the march melody to conclude each phrase at a higher pitch level.
Berlioz surely found the source of his conspicuous new rhythmic vitality—most apparent, perhaps, in the Roman Carnival scene of Benvenuto Cellini, which comes just after Harold—in the naive yet riotous musical behavior of the peasant bands he encountered in the streets of Rome and in his sojourns in the Abruzzi. The rhythmic fabric of Harold reaches one of its peaks in the three-way réunion des thèmes of the Abruzzi serenade, movement III , a passage of which the composer was proud enough to cite it in his Grand Traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes of 1843. Another comes in the roaring, brigandly low brass work at the center and climax of the fourth-movement "Orgie de brigands." In fact the finale has only one truly thematic subject, which we know to have been sketched for the abandoned Napoleonic Sinfonie militaire of 1832. If the Brigand's Orgy veers uncomfortably close, tactically, to the digressive style of the Fantastique's first movement, that is at least in part a function of the phantasmagoria being sought by the composer. At issue is the catalogue of souvenirs, Beethoven's Ninth-style, swept away in Bacchic revelry. (The suggestion, from the viola's silence, is that the narrator abandons up his watch to join in the excitement.) The sudden rise to a major-mode peroration, completing the overall key-scheme G minor/major – E major (flavored with C major) – C major – G minor/major, begins the process of closure, with the offstage reminiscence, drunken semi-collapse, and momentum regained in a charge to the final bars. In these surroundings elegance of form would have amounted to a contradiction of purpose.
Harold en Italie was composed during the relatively brief period of domestic bliss that he was ever to enjoy: the first months of his marriage to Harriet Smithson. The ripening of his spirit is palpable: Harold is by turns exuberant and introspective, but always it has an inner warmth and perhaps even betrays hints of rare self- satisfaction. The experience of composing it, and the fond memories it evoked, were a major springboard to the glories of Cellini. Little matter that Paganini declined to play it: Chrétien Urhan, who did play it in 1834, was also a virtuoso, and his temperament was rather more suited to the role. Little matter, either, that the fastidious Narcisse Girard proved incapable of conducting Harold's rhythmic and metric ploys, for that failure is precisely what prompted Berlioz's decision to become a conductor and in due course to develop a comprehensive theory of the conductor's role in symphonic performance. Both circumstances —that Paganini did not play Harold, and that Berlioz determined thenceforth to conduct his own works himself—set the stage for his symphonic masterpiece, Roméo et Juliette.