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Hector Berlioz; romantic, opium addict and composer of some truly sublime music, was in many ways all that a Romantic artist should be. Passionate, untamed, single-minded and frequently absolutely wrecked in his persuit of beauty in music, he displayed the requisite enthusiasm for the literature so highly prized by the Romantic period; Byron, Goethe and Shakespeare amongst them. These writers had considerable influence on the music that Berlioz wrote. Harold in Italy itself relates the story of Byron's Childe Harold in, well, Italy.

Written in 1834, Harold in Italy was commissioned as a show piece by the legendary (read: best ever) Italian virtuoso violinist Paganini. Paganini had a Stradivarius viola (cue drool) and quite understandably wanted to show both it and himself off, simultaneously. Doubtless, the fiendish maestro eagerly anticipated some quite frankly big demon concerto of actual fuckingly bad difficultness with which his 5ki11z would be shown off to their greatest extent. Upon receiving the score for Harold in Italy, however, he scathingly dismissed the viola part as being 'too full of rests', and never played it. Berlioz's work is not, really, a concerto: it is a descriptive symphony in four movements. In it, the viola can be heard witnessing the events around it. It is certainly not a prima donna's show piece. Nonetheless, onward with the fun.

The movements are named thusly:

  • First Movement: Harold in the Mountains
  • Second Movement: March of the Pilgrims
  • Third Movement: Serenade
  • Fourth Movement: Orgy of the Brigands
    Running time approx: 45'00"

    Solo Viola

    Full Strings:
    Violin I
    Violin II
    Double Bass

    4 Horns
    4 Trumpets
    3 Trombones

    2 Flutes
    2 Oboes
    2 Clarinets
    4 Bassoons


    First Movement: Harold in the Mountains
    After a sinister and brooding opening, with excellent stuff from the cello and double bass sections, the first movement finds Harold in the Abruzzi mountains, witnessing scenes of happiness and joy. The viola simply and gently states Harold's theme, the melancholic timbre of the viola itself ideally suited to this slightly detached observer of gaiety. To be honest, you can see straight of why this ain't Paganini's kettle of fish: too much introspection, not enough real ostentation and fire. Little touches here like the Harp lend an Alpine tone. The theme is stated, developed, tossed about a bit, but undergoes relatively few alterations. The orchestra represents the joyous tumult, the viola the lone observer. Things take a darker turn, but overall it's a movement of gentle contrasts and catchy tunes.

    Second Movement: March of the Pilgrims
    Cheekily, Berlioz chooses to denote the March of the Pilgrims with off-beat pizzicato in the cello and double bass lines. Whilst the first movement is more of a scene-in-progress, with real musical dialogue between the revellers and the observer, this feels more like a single snapshot. This is darker in tone the either of the movements to its sides. The original theme recurs, and a new one is introduced- this we'll hear later too.

    Third Movement: Serenade
    Berlioz chooses to mimic mountain bagpipes here with an Cor Anglais. It is interesting that there is a Serenade here at all: it's a break with form not to have a Scherzo in the third movement. Anyway, the Alpine atmosphere is quickly resummoned as the Cor Anglais' tune wends its peaceful way through the movement, accompanied by traditional dotted Alpine rhythms from the strings throughout. This is a tranquil movement, with the viola returning close to the close in dialogue with the Cor Anglais as the movement comes to its calm and reflective conclusion.

    Fourth Movement: Orgy of the Brigands
    The final movement has a much darker tone than any of the preceding movements has had, although it's closest to the March of the Pilgrims, from which one particular theme is restated. This movement uses lots of syncopation and clever modulations through to minor keys you only half-expected. This gives quite an unsettling feeling to the music. The movement, I am told, owes a debt to Beethoven's Ninth, but that's not a piece with which I'm familiar. The Brigand's orgy continues in a wild and uncontained manner as the scurrilous vagabonds gives vent to their lust, until the principal Harold theme returns, evoking a wistful nostalgia.

    What for me nobody can deny about Berlioz, simplistic or nay, is that he is a master of orchestration. I'd honestly place him up there with Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy in this respect. He has an instinctive feel for the orchestra, as though he and it breathes as one. His music wears the orchestra like a well-tailored shirt, and the simple grace and elegance with which Berlioz shifts pedals, themes and motifs around his instruments is so polished in its presentation that it can slip by unnoticed, flawless in its natural feel. Whilst there are many valid criticisms one can hurl at Berlioz, and Harold in Italy in particular; naivete, sensibility, and so on, his sheer skill as a craftsman of sound here is astounding. I can't pretend that I don't really love this piece: I studied it as a piece of coursework for my music A level, and my mother bought me my (Israel Philharmonic!) recording when I was but ten years old and in the face of all 'sophisticated opposition' have I harboured a secret affection for it ever since. Part of its charm lies in its guilelessness.

    I always seem to end up saying this, and perhaps it'd be worse if I didn't care, but I really think you should go out and buy this record. It's just such fun: it's the musical equivalent of playing on the swings, only you suddenly notice how damn well made the swings are. Try it: I don't think you'll regret it.

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