Sunday, May 27, 2018

History of the Symphony - Class 5 1/3 Rebellion Against the Symphony - A Beginning

Q: What's the world's longest viola joke?
A: Harold in Italy

It seems a little pathetic to attribute such earth-shaking world-importance as I'm about to to that piece by Berlioz that everybody regards as somewhere between an enigma and a joke; a symphony for viola and orchestra. But Harold in Italy is a seminal work in the history of music, because it is the moment when classical form truly came undone for good, and there was no putting it back together.

Harold in Italy, Berlioz's Symphony no. 2, which was supposed to be a viola concerto that began as a commission for Paganini, who had just acquired a viola and was looking to show his prowess on the deeper string instrument, is neither symphony nor concerto in any meaningful way. Berlioz memorably recounts their first meeting after an early performance of the Symphonie Fantastique in his memoirs. He noticed that a man had stayed behind after the enormous ovation had ended:

...a man with long hair and piercing eyes and a strange, ravaged countenance, a creature haunted by genius, a Titan among giants, whom I had never seen before, the first sight of whom stirred me to the depths. 
About the Symphonie Fantastique the man.

...uttered glowing eulogies that thrilled me and moved me to the depths. It was Paganini.
I would imagine that Paganini, said to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for his violin prowess, wanted a demonic concerto in the manner of the last movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, but Berlioz was too true an artist to ever repeat himself. The two of them announced to the Parisian public a massive partnership so ambitious that there was no way it could succeed: a work for orchestra, chorus, and viola, called The Last Moments of Mary Stuart - the Queen of Scots who was executed by her sister, Elizabeth the First of England.

But Berlioz would not follow anything but his own inner voice, and the voice that called to him was Byron. When Paganini looked at the viola part with all its rests, he abandoned the commission. Paganini wanted a part in which he was playing continuously - this may have not just been ego on Paganini's part; his business model was to go from town to town with his orchestral parts in tow. could ever have been feasible The orchestral parts of his many works for violin and orchestra had to be easy enough to sightread because Paganini was often in any town for no more than one night and there would be no time for rehearsal. Harold in Italy is almost precisely the opposite of the kind of work Paganini wanted. How either could have ever thought a feasible partnership could work between two titanically egoed geniuses with such different working methods is impossible to know. 

We already spoke of Byron's probable influence on the waltz in the Symphonie Fantastique.

What this class lacked, because I didn't have enough classes, was a fulcrum point. We didn't have time to investigate what the symphony, at least in its turn of the century guise, was reacting against. To really understand what was happening, we need to show how great composers moved away from the symphony before they moved back towards it.

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