The year was 1833. Hector Berlioz, aged 30, was developing into a famous composer. The world-renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini approached him with a commission for a new work. It was to be a concerto for viola and orchestra, fit for the Stradivarius viola the virtuoso had recently acquired.
The following year Berlioz wrote Harold en Italie - not so much a viola concerto as a "Symphony with Viola obbligato," and showed the score to Paganini. The latter refused to have anything to do with it. He had expected a piece full of transcendently difficult passagework, in which the viola played nonstop against an unobtrusive orchestral background. Instead, Berlioz had written a piece of programme music, based on episodes from Byron's long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with the orchestra and viola of equal importance, and the soloist often resting for dozens of measures.
Eventually, Paganini came around. After hearing the piece played in concert, he fell down on his knees before Berlioz and kissed his hand. He later sent the composer a handsome check. So all's well that ends well.
The story of Childe Harold is a medieval fantasy involving the original "Byronic Hero." Brooding, mysterious, sophisticated, yet restless, the young hero seeks solace from his disgust with life in his wanderings abroad. Parts of this poem have been captured in paint, as in the example by J. M. W. Turner at left. Berlioz uses music to paint his picture. His palette includes varying textures, instrumental colors, the use of the viola solo to represent the hero, and the repetition of a motto theme, repeated throughout all four movements. The movements have titles relating to this "Harold" programme: "Harold in the Mountains"..."March of the Pilgrims"..."Serenade"..."Orgy of the Brigands." What Berlioz symphony would be complete without an orgy? I ask you.
Movement I opens in the deepest, darkest register of the orchestra, layer being added upon layer in somewhat the manner of a fugue. The subject is somber and anxious. Harold's "motto theme" first appears about a minute in, intoned by the woodwinds: moody and listless, yet gracefully so. The orchestra backs off and lets the viola repeat the motto theme, backed by little more than the harp. Then the orchestra and viola work out this theme together. About halfway into the movement, a page turns - rather as if from a slow introduction to a sonata allegro - and we discover an exciting new theme, which the viola announces in a famously hesitant manner. Together with a second brisk theme and remembrances of the melancholy motto from the slow intro, this characteristic theme builds up an allegro of brilliant energy and varied effects, including some loud chord progressions that seem to shake the tonal foundations of the earth.
Movement II begins with a brief, quiet bit of scene painting. Then the characters (pilgrims) enter, chanting their strange melody, accompanied by bell-like effects that frequently seem to have no particular key-relationship to the pilgrims' theme. Harold enters in the person of the solo viola, represented by the motto theme from the first half of Movement I. From the way Harold's theme is woven into the pilgrims' theme, we may gather that he has joined the pilgrimage. In a central episode, the viola subsides to bare passagework while the music piously conveys a sense of the passage of time and the crossing of great distances. The march theme resumes, still decorated by viola arpeggios. The dissonant bell sound comes to the foreground, dying away in a long, written-out ritard. The piece ends with a gentle passage for the viola.
Movement III opens with a skipping oboe-flute melody over a dronelike accompaniment. Then the English horn takes up a soulful romance, one of those melodies that no one but Berlioz could write (It reminds me vaguely of the "King of Thule" song in The Damnation of Faust). The viola joins the texture about two minutes in, once again starting with the motto theme from early in Movement I. Here Berlioz again displays his knack for combining multiple themes simultaneously. Soon the viola part becomes merely one line in the overall texture. The skipping tune and its drone return around the 4-minute mark. Then, while the harp and piccolo take Harold's motto theme, the viola adopts the romance melody and seemingly improvises on it. The movement comes to a low-key ending hinting at all these ideas.
Thus, the crash at the beginning of Movement IV comes as quite a surprise. Berlioz immediately introduces a brusque, dangerous sounding theme. Then - surprise! - he brings back the brooding opening of Movement I, only with the viola soloist taking more of a front-seat role. The dangerous theme breaks in, builds up to a small climax, then yields the floor to a brief reminiscence of Movement II. More danger, then a touch of the romance from Movement III.
We've seen this kind of finale-opening before, the kind that reviews themes from past movements; we've heard it already in symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, and Berlioz himself. It's not going to surprise us, though in 1834 it may have raised eyebrows. What may surprise us, though, is how - after covering a bit of each of the preceding movements - Berlioz touches briefly on his "orgy of the brigands" theme, before sending us back to Movement I again. This time we hear the viola play the first theme of the allegro, complete with its initial hesitancy. And then, after a little more danger, he finally brings back the motto theme.
So we're a good three minutes into the finale before Berlioz allows it to be what it is. By this point, you're probably getting a little impatient for it. It's worth the wait, though. It's as wild and rough an heroic debauch as you could ask for. Around 5:00 it quiets down for a bit, as it were for a contrasting second group. The wild ride resumes, about as subtle as a fireworks display, and at times given to an almost demonic intensity. Again with the quieter second group - but this time the jubilant allegro theme from Movement I breaks in. Gradually this theme builds up to a climactic return of the wild-and-rough music, which now sounds like good material for a symphonic coda. This time, however, it breaks off for another reprise of the pilgrims' march. The viola peels out of the marching column in a last statement of individual character. Then comes the triumphant and extroverted coda, complete with cymbal crashes.
Even without taking the "Harold" programme into account, this is a very satisfying symphony to listen to. It has unforgettable themes, a unique structure, a richness of harmony, and huge contrasts of mood and dynamics. It expands the instrumental palette of the classical orchestra to include lots more brass and percussion instruments, including cornets as well as trumpets, trombones and tuba, cymbals, triangle, and tambourine; to say nothing of the harp. It has a real play of character in it, and it has a colorful story draped around it, just to make us smile. For who, while hearing this work of genius, would not smile to think of Paganini counting bars of rest in the viola part?
Sorry, the video below is the best I can find of a complete movement of this symphony. It comes from a playlist of the entire work in which the orchestra and conductor seem to be meeting each other for the first time - alas, in front of a paying audience. The sound is crummy and the communication between the musicians leaves something to be desired, but it may give you a rough idea.