About this work
Though the work was originally intended as a vehicle for the virtuoso violinist Nicolo Paganini to exhibit his considerable skill on the viola, Berlioz's Harold in Italy (1834) eventually became a four-movement symphony which Paganini, who wanted to be "playing all the time," eventually declined to perform. Somewhat akin to the Symphonie fantastique (1830) in its quasi-autobiographical cast and employment of a unifying idée fixe, Harold finds Berlioz imagining himself in the role of Byron's Harold for the purpose of recounting his own experiences in Italy.
The first movement, entitled "Harold in the Mountains," outlines a progression from melancholy into happiness and ultimately, into joy. The sobering fugato which opens the movement soon gives way to an uncertain melody in the woodwinds, which blossoms until the viola presents it in full as Harold's theme, the idée fixe. The movement continues its ascent into joy with an effervescent, unrelenting allegro which eases up only to allow the viola to restate the idée fixe, now fitted into another fugato, before the accelerating momentum brings the movement to an end.
Like Mendelssohn, Berlioz made the second movement of his "Italian" symphony a "Pilgrim's March." Essentially restricted to a strophic march structure, the movement is notable for its daring modulations, each marked by the tolling of two bells. The viola enters again in the middle section, lyrically presenting the idée fixe in the periphery of the passing march before taking on an accompanying role as the procession moves off into the distance.
The third movement, "Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountaineer," begins with an accurate replication of Italian bagpipes, or piferari. The rustic affect is made complete with the introduction of the serenade's main melody by the English horn. The viola restates the melody in conjunction with the idée fixe, and the movement develops as Berlioz expounds upon the counterpoint between the two melodies. A somewhat resigned coda, comprising all three elements, ends the movement on a misleadingly peaceful tone.
"The Orgy of Brigands," as the finale is titled, opens with the viola revisiting several thematic ideas from prior movements before it is unceremoniously interrupted by the brash, rhythmic power of the orgy itself. Following this brass-fueled, slightly demented fury, the viola briefly returns with the "Pilgrim's March" and a final statement of Harold's theme as the composer's nostalgic reminiscence comes to a close.