Composers Datebook for November 23, 2011



Produced in association with the American Composers Forum

Wednesday, November 23

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Berlioz gets paid (eventually)

In the year 1834, the great violin virtuoso, Niccolo Paganini, had acquired a new Stradivarius viola. He approached the 30-year old French composer, Hector Berlioz, and commissioned him to write a viola concerto. "Why don't you write one yourself?" asked Berlioz. "Oh, I'm not up to it," Paganini replied, "You will succeed, I insist."

What Berlioz came up with, however, was a Romantic program symphony inspired by Byron's narrative poem, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," with a prominent part for solo viola. Berlioz entitled his symphony, "Harold in Italy." Paganini was disappointed. "That is not what I want," he said. "I am silent a great deal too long. I must be playing the whole time."

And so, when "Harold in Italy" was first performed, at the Paris Conservatory on today's date in 1834, it was an old classmate of Berlioz's, Chrétien Urhan, who was the soloist, not the superstar Paganini. The audience seemed to like the "Pilgrims' March" movement of the symphony, which was encored, but otherwise the performance was one train wreck after another. Berlioz even received an anonymous letter the next day, suggesting if he had a gun, he should promptly blow his brains out.

Four years later, however, Berlioz had the last laugh. At a concert that included his "Harold in Italy" symphony, Paganini, after actually hearing the music he commissioned, rose from the audience, mounted the stage and publicly declared Berlioz a genius, and two days letter presented the stunned Berlioz with a check for 20,000 francs.

Music Played on Today's Program:

Hector Berlioz
(1803 - 1869):
Harold in Italy
Nobuko Imai, viola;
London Symphony;
Sir Colin Davis, cond.
Philips 416 431

Additional Information:

On Berlioz
On Byron's "Childe Harold"
On Paganini

About the Program
Composers Datebook is a daily program about composers of the past and present, hosted by John Zech.

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