Symphony Saturday

In 1833, after a concert of his music, Berlioz was introduced to Niccolo Paganini, who was already one of the most famous figures in the musical world, owing to his unimaginable virtuosity with the violin. (Paganini is one of those figures whose performances would almost certainly be a destination were any classical musicians of today to find the keys to Doc Brown’s Delorean.) Paganini loved what he had heard at the concert, so he officially commissioned from Berlioz a work for solo viola and orchestra, so that he might have a worthy new work to perform on the Stradivarius viola he had just acquired. Berlioz set to work…but Paganini was ultimately disappointed, because he had expected a virtuoso showpiece in which he would be constantly playing, and Berlioz was simply not attuned to that style of thing.

Berlioz never wrote a proper concerto. The closest he ever got was this piece for Paganini, which turned out to be his second symphony. It’s also the only one of Berlioz’s four symphonies to follow the traditional four-movement model, but it has the extensive passages for solo viola, making it a kind-of symphony-and-concerto hybrid, and it is also deeply steeped in Berlioz’s love of literature. This time the object of literary interest is the poetry of Bryon, which led Berlioz to title the work Harold en Italie (“Harold in Italy”), after the hero of Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. The soloist “plays” the part of Harold as he tours Italy, witnessing such scenes as the treacherous paths in the mountains, a group of pilgrims marching to a shrine, a love-serenade, and in the final movement, a dance and revelry at a camp for outlaws. That fourth movement takes a page from Beethoven’s book by quoting the first three movements before getting down to business, but this is a literary allusion as well as a musical one: Harold, in the form of our violist, is remembering his previous journeys before the revelry begins.

Harold in Italy is, for me, a delightful listen. It’s loaded with Berliozian drama, his weirdly asymmetrical approach to melody is on full display, and his love of interesting orchestral effects shines through (the wonderful moment in the last movement when he sends some musicians offstage to quote the Pilgrim’s March, for one).

Here’s Harold in Italy, performed this time on original instruments by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, with Gerard Causse as the soloist and John Eliot Gardiner conducting.

By the way: the very Stradivarius viola that Paganini owned, inspiring him to commission Berlioz? That viola still exists, and is currently owned by the Nippon Music Foundation.

Next week: What is, for me, Berlioz’s greatest symphony and his greatest work, and by far the strangest symphony he wrote. Maybe. (They’re all pretty strange, you know.)

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