Posted in Project 1: Orchestras and Virtuosos, Uncategorized

Research point 2.1: Harold en Italie, Part 1 – Impression

The main task of this research point is to write around 400 words about my impression on listening to Berlioz’s Harold en Italie with the score, considering several points outlined in the course-book. I haven’t addressed each of these separately, since I believe the points overlap quite a bit in relation to the things I found specifically engaging in the music. Also, despite trying to limit myself to the suggested word count, the composition was so thrilling to me that the shortest I could confine myself to write was almost twice more, around 800 words. In any case, here is my impression on the piece:

Impression on Harold en Italie by Hector Berlioz

Reading the short background information on the history of Harold en Italie provided by the brief, my curiosity was sparked by its unique and puzzling origin, and with some further research, I was even more enticed by the complexities surrounding its genre classification, the enigmatic relationship with its literary inspiration, and its intriguing musical roots among other things. While I might lightly touch upon some of these contextual circumstances, what seized my attention the most were the two elements that can be heard and discovered within the music itself, which will be the main focus of this short article.

Firstly, in illustrating its programme, what I found utmost striking is how the narrative of the piece is musically sketched through the orchestration and instrumental positioning that form a distinct physical spacing for the story. In terms of the orchestration, it was very interesting for me to see how in the first movement, the scenery of the mountains is formed by the orchestral echoes of Harold’s idée fixe theme (Fig. 1), and culminates in the rhythmical displacement when the theme is played tutti (Fig. 2), and other similar points in the movement, representing the delay and reverberation of sounds that is characteristic in such an environment. In combination to this effect, Berlioz also utilizes the different dynamics, registers, timber and other qualities of the orchestra to further show the scale of the landscape.

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Fig. 1. Example of the orchestral echoes of idée fixe theme (bars 42-49)

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Fig. 2. Rhythmical displacement of the idée fixe theme (bars 73-76)

What I thought was even more exciting is the second movement, and the way the ascending keys in the repetition of the themes and the shifting dynamics of the orchestra, manifest in the characterization of the pilgrims in a religious procession that are moving through space – pianissimo to forte and fading back to pianissimo, as if the pilgrims march pass us in their ascent up the mountain. In addition, together with the rhythm, melodic and harmonic manipulation, Berlioz also utilizes the different properties of specific orchestral members to create extra-musical associations such as the bells (Fig. 3) and the murmuring of the crowd or prayer (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 3. Orchestral illustration of the bells, bars 1-15

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Fig. 4. Orchestral illustration of the murmuring of the crowd or prayer, bars 33-36

In terms of placing the instruments in the performance venue, Berlioz gave specific instructions for the solo viola to be at the front and separated from the orchestra, with the harp close to it. While the justification of the intended genre or the better projection of the solo instrument could have influenced this decision, I would propose that the main intention was to physically create the acoustic environment of Harold’s isolation, where the melancholic observer in a contemplative state, personified as the viola accompanied by the harp, is surrounded by the unknown foreign land, depicted by the orchestra. In the final movement, Berlioz further widens the dramatic space of the musical narrative by utilizing off-stage acoustical space, with the appearance of the concealed string trio, situated behind the scenes.  (In the video below, the off-stage trio appears around 45:13-45:39, however not too concealed, but behind the orchestra, as can be seen at 45:20)

While the on-stage music depicts the orgy of the brigands, the off-stage trio creates a spatial conflict by recounting the earlier march of the pilgrims, physically dramatizing Harold’s spiritual divide. To me, the silence of the viola at this point of conclusion is completely absorbing, in fact, as gripping as a film with open-ending, since the listener is removed from the chance to learn the outcome of Harold’s crucial moral decision about his life. This proves how, contrary to what one might assume, the silence, even of the soloist itself, can provide extremely powerful moments to the musical dramatization. While I hoped to find the recorded video of the performances to depict this more clearly, I find the staging not as satisfactory as I imagined when I only listened to the audio recording with the score.

Finally, beside the physical spacing, there was another element that caught my attention, and that is how the portrait of the Italian countryside has been largely musically exoticized. As van Rij (2015: 102) points out, influenced by the French attitude towards Italy as the subject of Napoloenic military conquest, Berlioz didn’t enter the creative dialogue with the techniques and styles from the modern Italian musical tradition he encountered at the Academy in Rome, which he perceived as uninspiring and constraining. As such, the gloomy double fugue that opens the composition, might be a representation of his perception of the Academy from which Berlioz sought the escape in the countryside. Indeed, the only instance where he interacts with the Italian musical tradition is through folk music in the third Serenade movement, where the ritornello imitates the pifferari tradition of the wondering Italian musicians. (Monelle: 2006: 230) However, what dominates the piece is the Italian landscape as showcased through the lens of musical exoticism – Italian country as Berlioz has conquered it with his own artistic visions and impressions, in other words, as he had experienced and wants the listeners to experience it. Lastly, many of the sections, including Harold’s idée fixe theme, are rather Scottish in tone, with quite a few parts borrowed from his Rob Roy overture, and the piece was even initially conceptualized as the Mary Stuart piece (van Rij, 2015: 100), all of which brings further considerations surrounding this peculiar symphony.

In conclusion, although surrounded by the fragrance of exoticism, I was truly charmed by this eccentric composition, which raises many questions regarding complex musical ideas, including genre, the role of the soloist, musical adaptations of literary works, and so on. What I found most beneficial for my own practice and future compositions is definitely the role of physical spacing in the construction of the musical narrative. With Harold in Italie, I have discovered that the instrument placement and orchestration can acoustically transform the performance venue, by which they physically bring the listener into a certain narrative space – an idea I have not yet explored in any of my pieces, despite the fact that I have written several narrative-based scores. There was also an interesting way the silence in the solo part was utilized. I hope to examine many of these ideas I’ve noticed learned here in my future pieces, and perhaps write a longer blog post regarding Harold in Italie.

In the next part, I will list the French instrument names from the score for my instrument glossary.


Monelle, R. (2006) THe Musical Topic: Hunt, Military and Pastoral. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Van Rij, I. (2015) The Other Worlds of Hector Berlioz: Travels with the Orchestra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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