Masterclass: Berlioz’s Harold in Italy


Violist Donald McInnes provides practical tips on performing the solo viola part of this Romantic work, in this article from 2012

The first thing to keep in mind about Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is that it is not a viola concerto but a tone poem, or – as the composer called it – a ‘symphony with a principal viola’. Paganini, who commissioned the piece, was the first to recognise this fact, and indeed gave it back to the composer, famously complaining that there were too many rests in the solo part. Unfortunately, even today there are players who think like Paganini and steer clear of the piece, finding that it doesn’t offer enough scope for their virtuosity. And most conductors would rather do the Symphonie fantastique anyway, so Harold in Italy can be a hard piece to programme. I was lucky to give the first of my many performances of it in 1976 with Leonard Bernstein and the French National Orchestra. (The fingerings in the examples are taken from that performance.)…

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