Berlioz’s Harold en Italie (Harold in Italy) is an orchestral composition that exhibits a curious mixture of symphony and solo concerto. From a structural perspective, the piece is by no means a concerto. It consists of four movements; this is a highly unusual element in solo concertos of the early nineteenth century. Neither does it utilize the musical form commonly found in concertos. Moreover, each of the movements is described explicitly by the composer himself about what he wished to depict. Here Berlioz’s intention is clear — he wanted to write a symphony in a style that would later be classified as a tone poem. The work, on the other hand, does show some concerto-like quality. Berlioz writes extensive solo passages for viola in every movement of the work. Furthermore, the composer instructs in the score of the work the position of the solo viola player in the orchestra as if Berlioz regards the violist as a soloist of a concerto. He writes, “The player [solo viola] must stand in the fore-ground, near to the public and isolated from the orchestra.”
In his Mémoires Berlioz mentions how he came to compose Harold en Italie. According to him, Niccolò Paganini asked the composer to write a solo viola piece with orchestral accompaniment so that he could play in a concert a Stradivarius viola he had just acquired. Apparently, Paganini did not own music suitable for his new instrument. When the violinist saw the sketch of the first movement, he was disappointed because there were many silent moments in the solo viola part. He wanted the viola to continuously play passages in a manner similar to that in the solo part of his violin concertos. Berlioz, on the other hand, had an entirely different vision. He says, “My idea was to write a series of scenes for the orchestra in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active character, always retaining its own individuality.” It is clear here that Berlioz never had an intention of composing a typical concerto.
Berlioz wrote Harold en Italie in 1834. The first performance of it took place in Paris on November 23, 1834 (Paganini did not play the solo viola). The composition was inspired by Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, combined with Berlioz’s personal experience in Italy. Each of the four movements carries a descriptive title: The first movement, “Harold in the mountains. Scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy;” the second, “Procession of pilgrims singing the evening hymn;” the third, “Serenade of an Abruzzi-mountaineer to his sweetheart,” and the fourth, “The brigand’s orgies. Reminiscences of the preceding scenes.” From these words alone it is easy to picturize “Harold,” represented by the solo viola, wandering around in Italy and encountering a variety of situations there.