Berlioz completed Harold en Italie in 1834, four years after his revolutionary Symphonie fantastique which turned the genre into a vehicle for a personal narrative of unrequited love. Harold en Italie was inspired by the long narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron. The poem, describing the travels of a world-weary young man, like Berlioz' narrative for the Symphonie fantastique, contains autobiographical elements. Berlioz subtitles his piece "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato". Quoting from Wikipedia the four movements are:
In each movement there are elements of what are often called "local color" when used in an opera--musical elements that give a characteristic flavor to the music. In the first movement Berlioz recalls his own youth growing up in the Rhône-Alps region in south-eastern France. In the second movement Berlioz creates a unique kind of musical positioning by having the pilgrims appear to march past the ear of the listener. Making of the listener a musical "subject" had never been done before in this way.The first movement ("Harold aux montagnes") refers to the scenes that Harold, the melancholic character, encounters in mountains. In the second movement ("Marche des pèlerins"), Harold accompanies a group of pilgrims.The third movement ("Sérénade") involves a love scene; someone plays a serenade for his mistress. In the fourth movement, ("Orgie de brigands"), spiritually tired and depressed, Harold seeks comfort among wild and dangerous company, perhaps in a tavern. Jacques Barzun reminds us that "The brigand of Berlioz’s time is the avenger of social injustice, the rebel against the City, who resorts to nature for healing the wounds of social man.
While each movement serves a narrative and dramatic purpose, the work is also based on the fundamental structure of the symphony with a quick first movement with a slow introduction, a march instead of a slow movement, a walz-like third movement and a furious finale. Uniting all the movements is a recurring theme in the viola that becomes more complete as the music progresses.
Berlioz, born in 1803, is a harbinger of the first generation of Romantic composers, all born in and around 1810. This generation includes Frédéric Chopin (b. 1810), Robert Schumann (b. 1810) and Franz Liszt (b. 1811). These three shaped the character of Romanticism in music and all three were pianists. But it was actually Berlioz, with his Symphonie Fantastique and Harold en Italie that got the ball rolling. Despite all the Romantic trappings of setting and mood ("orgy of brigands" indeed!) it is, as Charles Rosen points out, really the normality of Berlioz' work wherein lies his greatness. Ironically, he sets the Witches' sabbath in the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique to a perfectly correct academic fugue! And this irony was meant, of course.
Now let's listen to the whole of Harold en Italie one of the most colorful examples of a sinfonia concertante that attempts to unite the genres of symphony and concerto: