Saturday, July 15, 2006

Harold en Italie

So I'm driving home from Target earlier today, before the picnic, and I tune into WNED (our local classical station) to hear the final movement of Berlioz's second symphony, Harold en Italie. This movement, called the "Dance of the Brigands", is one of my favorite movements from any symphony.

It begins with a device straight out of Beethoven's Ninth: brief quotations from the previous three movements are interrupted by orchestral bursts before we go into the main part of the movement, the Dance. What struck me today, even though I've heard this piece any number of times, is something that I've always known about Berlioz but never really commented on: his rhythms. Berlioz had a way with rhythm that was occasionally a seventy to a hundred years ahead of his time, and that aspect of his composing really stands out in this movement.

His melodies don't always line up in the typical "symmetrical" fashion we expect from melodies of an arch-Romanticist, and he's always willing to put the rhythmic emphasis on an off-beat. Those things I knew, but what I really heard for the first time today was that there are times in Berlioz when the bar line completely disappears, and the listener is totally at sea with respect to the "one-two-three-four" aspect of the music before the tempo reasserts itself. His rhythms are always non-standard, but sometimes they are so unusual that they approach the kind of rhythmic writing of a Stravinsky or an Aaron Copland. That's part of what makes Berlioz always sound fresh in my ears, even though there's barely a note of his that I haven't heard many times.

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