In the late 1820s/early 1830s, the biggest star in the musical firmament was Niccolò Paganini, best known for his mastery of the violin but who was equally accomplished on viola and guitar. Paganini, like Liszt, had come to Paris for an extended tour and had attended a concert of the Symphonie Fantastique in 1833. Paganini, a decent composer in his own right, recognized Berlioz as someone new and important. Ever the egoist, Paganini determined to have Berlioz write something for him to perform.
As it turned out, the request wasn’t for the violin. Paganini had just acquired a new viola (a Strad that came to be known as the Paganini-Mendelssohn) and, like any man with a new toy, he wanted to put it through its paces. Paganini claimed that he would trust no one other than Berlioz for that task; he would come to regret that decision. When Berlioz shared an early draft of the score with Paganini, the great virtuoso was appalled to see that there were long rests in the viola part. Paganini demanded that Berlioz redraft the composition so that his viola would constantly be playing. Berlioz demurred and relations between the two men became strained. Paganini declined to play at a benefit that Berlioz had organized for his muse Harriet Smithson and Berlioz stayed away from Paganini’s performances. Indeed, to his regret, Berlioz never heard the great man play.
Berlioz, however, persisted with the composition. Intended to be a grand work for symphony, chorus and solo viola that recounted the final days of Mary Queen of Scots, what Berlioz ultimately produced was Harold in Italy (inspired by Lord Byron’s Childe Harold). Harold is best described as a symphony scored for solo viola and orchestra—with the viola playing the part of Byron’s Harold, the melancholy wanderer. Wildly popular in its day, Harold in Italy is often ignored on today’s concert stages–which is unfortunate. The work is a significant milestone in Berlioz’s development. Like he did in his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz uses an idée fixe–a repeating theme. But where the idée fixe had represented the Beloved in first symphony and had changed as the narrative evolved (most spectacularly in the final movement, the Witches’ Sabbath); in Harold, Berlioz used the idée fixe as the source of nearly every other melody. Moreover, the idée fixe does not evolve, but merely changed coloration to more subtly convey Harold’s impressions and feelings.
Berlioz’s orchestrations, a highlight of his early work, continued to progress. Simply put, Berlioz was the most innovative orchestrator of his time. So many of his innovations became standard fare during the Romantic Period that it is easy to forget that these complex orchestrations, which dramatically changed the very timbre of the instruments themselves, began with Berlioz. No one did more to expand the expressive properties of instruments than Berlioz.
Rhythm is also central to all Berlioz’s compositions. At various times, Berlioz moves from monotony to edgy, combining syncopated rhythms with unexpected accents to send jolts of excitement through his music. He was also a fan of what can be described as “persistent repetitions”, melding melody with rhythm, and thus is a precursor of minimalists such as Philip Glass.
These various innovations culminate in a remarkable final movement which flips the script on Beethoven. In the finale of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven has the cellos fight with the orchestra, rejecting theme after theme and finally offering the Ode to Joy instead. Berlioz rejects conflict for synthesis–the viola recalls the orchestra’s various themes from earlier in the work, leading the orchestra to support the viola to arrive at a jubilant finale.
Hector Berlioz, Harold in Italy, Op. 16:
The work proved to be a hit and Paganini finally heard it in 1838. After the performance, Paganini (ever the showman) knelt before Berlioz in front of the orchestra and proclaimed him to be the heir to Beethoven.
Beethoven spento non c’era che Berlioz che potesse farlo rivivere.
Beethoven is dead and Berlioz alone can revive him.Niccolo Paganini
The next day, Berlioz received a gift of 20,000 francs from Paganini—twice Berlioz’s annual income.
In gratitude, Berlioz offered to compose a work to dedicate to the great violinist. Paganini magnanimously told Berlioz to choose any subject he wanted for the piece and, true to form, Berlioz’s choice was intensely personal. Having been introduced to the works of William Shakespeare through his now-wife Smithson and with his ardor for his wife cooling after several years of marriage, Berlioz chose Romeo and Juliet. Although he had already seen an operatic production of the play (Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi), Berlioz elected to go another way. This was likely due to his great disappointment in the Bellini opera (which dispensed with most of Shakespeare’s plot) and his own disastrous first operatic effort (Benvenuto Cellini).
Instead of opera, Berlioz chose to present the play as a choral symphony. Largely abandoning plotting altogether, Berlioz excerpted his favorite parts of the play and presented his own personal reaction to them. From a musical point of view, Romeo and Juliet transcends everything that came before it. Classical composers had been obsessed with order, structure and predictability—but Berlioz’s new symphony was all about emotion. There is no logical chronology here. There is no formal structure. Cue Berlioz: The symphony is the “sum of passion that is in the play.” Music is no longer confined to structure, it takes Berlioz where it will.
Berlioz frequently cited the third movement—the Love Scene (i.e., what happens directly after “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”)—as his favorite work. The great early 20th century conductor Arturo Toscanini called it “the most beautiful music in the world.” Ever the modest man, Berlioz claimed he had been “floating into a halcyon sea of poetry, wafted onward by the sweet, soft breeze of imagination, warmed by the golden sun of love unveiled by Shakespeare . . . [and] confident of my power to reach the magic isle where stands the temple of pure art.” A young Richard Wagner attended the premiere and was profoundly influenced by Berlioz’s composition. He later sent Berlioz a copy of his Tristan und Isolde score, inscribing:
To the dear and great composer of Romeo and Juliet, the grateful composer of Tristan and Isolde.Richard Wagner
What had so impressed Wagner? The idée fixe for sure, as well as Berlioz’s masterful orchestrations. I hear so much of Wagner in this third movement—the connection of sound to specific emotion has never before been more precisely rendered. We will return to this important Conversation later.
For me, Berlioz is music’s great romantic soul, looking back at how he felt about his wife in the heady days of their courtship—casting himself in the role of Romeo—and perfectly capturing the spirit and emotion of the play in sound. This is the proto-Romantic opera. Forget the bel canto composers. They are a dead end in the history of music. As always, start with Berlioz.
Paganini, by the way, died before premiere and never heard it.
Hector Berlioz, Romeo and Juliette, Op. 17:
A few notes about the recordings. As ever, my devotion to Gardiner and his historically informed recordings continues into the early Romantic period. Benefitting from an excellent production, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s sensitive performance allows you to get deep into Berlioz’s score, marveling in his orchestrations, changes in timbre, coloration, and rhythms. What you give up in oomph is more than made up for by nuance (and, naturally, Gardiner’s peerless direction). While it remains my favorite Harold in Italy, I suspect that there is even more to be wrenched from the score. Underappreciated on its own merits, setting aside its importance in Berlioz’s development, this is one major work deserving of contemporary attention.
for Romeo and Juliette, I was pleased to find this excellent recording by the Cleveland Orchestra, long America’s best, under the baton of Pierre Boulez. As this is the first, but certainly not the last, mention of the great Maestro in these pages, I want to say a few words about him here. Boulez was a, and perhaps the, firebrand of the 20th century. Equally famous for leading the boos when Stravinsky reverted to more tonal compositions, Boulez’s own works continue to divide audiences to this day (with the majority siding against him). That discussion, however, will have to wait its turn. For now, I will simply say that Boulez was one of the great conductors of my lifetime, particularly in the French repertorie and specifically for Berlioz. His recording of the Symphonie Fantastique, also with the Cleveland Orchestra, had been my reference until I more recently discovered Rattle’s version with Berlin (which benefits from a decade’s development in recording technology and a superior orchrestra). His peerless command and control are on full display in his Romeo, bringing structure out of the chaos.