Les Francs-Juges: Overture, Op. 3
Rêverie et Caprice: Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8
Harold in Italy: Symphony for Viola and Orchestra, Op. 16
At his best, Berlioz illuminated virtually every element of the Romantic Century: its national pulse and revolutionary ardour; the power of literature and its transformation in music and programme; industry, invention, new instruments and sounds of every sort; vivid colour and bold harmonic design tinged with melancholy; and, above all, a sense of the obligations of Genius.
The sculptor Benvenuto Cellini had attracted Berlioz' dramatic attentions. Settling on the subject of this sixteenth century Florentine, Berlioz announced a new opera named for its subject. By the summer of 1834, work was well under way. He wrote an Act I cavatine for Teresa, Ah, que l'amour une fois dans le coeur. In time, however, its uses diminished and the aria was cut. Five years later, its composer, never one to waste material, reconceived it as a Romance for solo violin and orchestra, a Rêverie et Caprice. It rapidly became a vehicle for visiting soloists. Although not technically difficult in the virtuosic sense, its abrupt mood changes are challenge enough.
Les Francs-Juges is one of Berlioz' apparent failures. Conceived as an opera in his student days under Le Sueur, by the autumn of 1826 its third act was finished; by October, its overture was complete. Ultimately, Berlioz destroyed much of its music, and today the overture alone survives, but even as a student work, it bears many of the marks of Berlioz' greatest gifts.
The story of the opera is elaborate and confusing. In the revised libretto of 1829 we find a medieval German kingdom, Breisgau, under the despotic rule of self-appointed judges who control the realm through murder, usurpation, and the wicked tricks of their leader Olmerik. The true king is the young Lenor, secretly in love with Amélie, Olmerik's bride-to-be. Lenor's ordeal by trial begins at Act III in a cave. Black-hooded judges are menacingly perched on vast granite chairs around a dim table. To no effect, Lenor denounces the tyrannical misrule of the judges. Luckily, he is rescued by good citizens and enlightened peasants. Olmerik is consumed by flames, the monarchy is restored, and so is love. (There appear to be several good reasons for the failure of the opera.)
The Overture is scored for the vast forces of the Romantic orchestra, including the contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets (with the new tromba à piston), timpani, suspended and crash cymbals, bass drum, and two bass ophicleides. These hybrid brass instruments were keyed like woodwind, strangely raspy and dark, and are today replaced by the tuba. The music of the Overture creates a powerful sense of time and dark place. It opens in a moody and atmospheric F minor, prisoners transported by the dotted rhythms of violin and viola, bassoons and basses. Listen for the sudden arrival of the Judges, grandiose and forbidding in the low brass and woodwinds. Their four-bar procession will be heard across the entire overture. With a change in tempo to allegro assai comes a change in texture to fugato: as in a relay race, the runners take turns carrying the tune, corridor by corridor. The runners enter a new world, however, when a simple syncopation prefaces a rustic and pastoral tune in the violins. This tune itself may be heard to represent the good citizens of Breisgau. Here too is early evidence of Berlioz the brilliant innovator in orchestration. Consider his specific instructions: The orchestra assumes a double character. The strings must, without covering the flutes, play with a rude and wild accent, the flutes and clarinets playing with a soft and melancholy expression. Consider as well a thrilling and remarkable use of the timpani and bass drum after the fugato has ended. Not only does Berlioz give exceedingly exact descriptions of the sound effect he wants, but he re-meters the timpani part and places it in 3/4 against the orchestra's 2/2, an exercise in rhythmic displacement and tension briefly given to the bass drum as well. Thus does Berlioz powerfully draw us into the conflicting characters of the world he has conjured.
Commissioned by Paganini as a viola concerto, written as a symphony in four movements with solo viola, purportedly drawn from elements of Lord Byron's Childe Harold, and thematically much-derived from his own overture Rob Roy, Harold in Italy is among Berlioz' most successful in the genre of programme music.
Much has been made of an alleged connection between Byron's long Spenserian poem and Berlioz' own Harold. These bonds were acidly dismissed by the English critic Donald Tovey: ... no definite elements of Byron's poem have penetrated the impregnable fortress of Berlioz' encyclopaedic inattention... [however] there is a B in Byron and a B in Berlioz... First performed on 23rd November 1834, it was another of Berlioz' famous disasters. Neither conductor Girard nor soloist Urhan had mastered his part. Even so, it survived this incompetence and has passed into mainstream repertoire. It is easy to see why. Each of its four movements shares the device of the idée fixe, a recurrent theme binding together a whole work on a vast scale, but a concerto it is not. The viola is more commentator than participant, an observer standing once removed and aloof perhaps like Berlioz himself.
In Harold in the Mountains. Scenes of Melancholy, Happiness, and Joy, Berlioz lifts liberally from his own overture Rob Roy (Naxos 8.550999). Two of its tunes form the melodic basis of this movement. One of them is the idée fixe of the entire symphony.
With March of the Pilgrims Singing the Evening Prayer Berlioz displays one of his most famous touches. During the 'religious chant', a prolonged march is drawn in the steady pizzicato of the strings, with the relentless semiquaver arpeggiation of the viola (played sul ponticello, or 'at the bridge') giving an eerie and metallic timbre to the proceedings.
In the Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountain-Dweller to his Mistress Berlioz is witness to the folk-rhythms and tunes of a rugged land. Its most remarkable moments lie in a conflation of three themes, including the ever-present idée fixe in one Allegretto. So concerned is Berlioz about precision that he provides the conductor with some forty words of instruction about how to assert the interrelated tempi.
As Beethoven in the fourth movement of the Ninth, so Berlioz in the fourth of Harold in Italy provided a musical Table of Contents for the whole work, albeit at the back of the book. In Orgy of Brigands. Memories of Scenes Past Berlioz reminisces upon the primary themes of the preceding three movements, and in the order of their original appearance. All that is missing is the solo viola. It plays barely sixty measures. Now in the r6le of silent bystander, Harold leaves the stage of action altogether, joining us as witness to his own legend. It was a bold and telling gesture, one among many in Harold in Italy which prophesied the astounding compositional career to come.
© 1996 Dr. Charles Barber
Concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra since 1986, Igor Gruppman works closely with Music Director Yoav Talmi and is a frequent soloist with the orchestra. He also has an active concert career as a soloist and mem