A Grand Experiment: Childe Harolde’s Tenore and a 170th Anniversary Concert

On 27 January 2018, the Royal Orchestral Society celebrate the 170th anniversary of the London premiere of Harold in Italy, performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the Baton of Berlioz himself. Memoirs recalling the performance praised Henry Hill, one of the foremost viola players in Europe and brought attention to his Barak Norman viola which Berlioz himself praised as “incomparable”. A recent discovery sheds light on the 1848 performance, and the instrument that Hill played. Benjamin Hebbert and soloist, Peter Sheppard Skærved embarked on voyage of discovery culminating in the forthcoming full concert performance.

Watch the video documentary here: 


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The Royal Orchestral Society will be performing Harold in Italy with Peter Sheppard Skærved on the ‘gran viola’ on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets available here

Almost three years ago I received a message from a client who had an unusual instrument for sale and knew I would be interested. A ‘large’ inch viola made by the famous London maker, Barak Norman made around the period 1700-1710. When it arrived by parcel-force in a battered case it turned out to be much larger than I would have possibly imagined at a staggering 18 3/4 inch body length (a professional viola is rarely more than 16 1/2 inches). The overall size was consistent with the very rare Cremonese ‘tenore’ violas from the seventeenth century and earlier that survive, but just a little bigger. The ribs, however put it in a completely new sphere,  in proportion to a cello much like the viola da spalla that early music performers consider as an alternative for the Bach cello suites. Folds on the back, original to its making facilitated playing under the chin, though at such an enormous size it still proved a considerable challenge, and as an instrument provably played under the chin it may well take the world record as the largest proper viola. The instrument was a fabulous curiosity from the past with an enviable sound: The uniquely deep ribs and overall scale of this viola give it an almost vocal depth to the sound that comes purely from the physics of the instrument, providing an unusually ‘human’ sound that doesn’t exist in more conventional instruments of the violin family.

Berlioz famously praised Henry Hills Barak Norman viola as “incomparable” when he performed the London premiere of Harold in Italy. There are several ordinary-sized Norman violas and for every owner of such an instrument there is the tantalising possibility that they could own the very same one. Berlioz took no interest in the Stradivari and Guarneri violins that were played by the leading musicians in his circle. His only substantial commentary about violin family instruments centred on his rage against the small violas common in French orchestras for leaving a vacuum in the harmonic richness of the symphony orchestra. Instead, his use of the term “incomparable” is parallel to his excitement for the musical  possibilities offered by such innovations such as the Saxophone and Octobass that offered exciting new musical potential to the orchestra. This alone is enough to speculate that Berlioz was enraptured by an instrument that was physically different from the expected instruments of the symphony orchestra, enough in of itself to speculate on the nature of this enormous ‘tenor’ viola.

Harold in Italy was a celebration of Nicolo Paganini who had commissioned it back in 1834 from  Berlioz on his return to Paris from his final visit to London. It was here on 28 April 1834 that he had performed on the viola for the very first time in public having completed his Sonata per il gran viola, the culmination of his own obsession for a tenor-voiced instrument that fulfilled his requirements: In 1832 whilst in Italy completing his 24 Caprices, he had experimented with Francesco Borghi to create the instrument that he called a ‘Gran viola’, and it was his performance on this instrument in London that would have stuck in the minds of London musical society in the years after his departure from the city.    

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The enormous tenore viola made by Barak Norman around the period 1700-1710, conforming to Paganini’s ideas of the “Gran viola”.

Paganini’s own ‘gran viola’ made in 1832 by Francesco Borghi does not survive, but the concept and description of it is remarkably consistent to the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman tenor viola. This was already an antique instrument, having been made around 1700-1710, and at the time was probably just as unique and experimental. It seems that the similarities were entirely coincidental, but for Henry Hill, desiring to make a Paganiniesque gesture that followed the London memory of his Sonata per il gran viola the instrument was a perfect match. The London audience would not have known of Paganini’s purchase in 1834 of a Stradivari viola that had inspired the commission of Harold, nor would they have been concerned about it’s use by Chrétien Urhan at the Paris Premiere. Hill himself was not short of possibilities of instruments to play. Amongst his quartet partners were Henri Vieuxtemps, Prosper Sainton, Alfredo Piatti, all musicians associated with the greatest of all Cremonese instruments. Meanwhile as the brother of William Ebsworth Hill he belonged to one of the greatest families of violin dealers in nineteenth century London, giving him the cream of the crop of instruments coming through the London trade. Barak Norman’s more conventionally sized violas are sublime – some of the very best made outside of Italy – but they are not “incomparable”. If Henry Hill chose the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman to play under Berlioz’s baton, it was as a determined and uniquely Paganiniesque gesture that would have been as obvious to Berlioz as it was to the orchestra and audience. Berlioz’s special praise of the concert and the instrument would seem to come full circle, and perhaps Henry Hill’s performance on what was essentially a ‘gran viola’ fulfilled the concept of Harold in Italy in a manner that Urhan had been unable to achieve with his Paganini’s own Stradivari.

When we started to put the facts together the evidence seemed very strong to support this idea to the point that pursuing the idea of a full orchestral performance wasn’t a silly thing to do. It could inform us about the sound world of Paganini and Berlioz, even if questions remained. Curiously the setup including a new neck, varnished all over and still rather thick, the Romberg fingerboard and early form of tailpiece are all completely in keeping with an 1830s-1840s to suggest that it was worked on around the time of the London premier. The instrument is so radically experimental for its time that it is quite possibly unique. Short of another identical instrument by Barak Norman emerging, we are edging closer and closer to a certainty that this was the Henry Hill’s fabled viola. To me, at least, it’s become affectionately known as Childe Harold’s Tenore – and why not?

The Royal Orchestral Society… yours truly somewhere amongst the fiddles.

Any project had considerable risks. The instrument is so huge that a question mark hung over whether it would be possible to perform Harold in Italy on it. On the other hand, the project wouldn’t be much fun without aspiring to a full orchestral performance – a risk arguably too great for a professional orchestra, and even a conservatoire would have to find space in their scheduling to enable it, putting it back years. In late 2016 I approached the Royal Orchestral Society, a remarkable amateur orchestra founded in 1872, whose conductors have included Sir Arthur Sullivan, Henry Wood and latterly Orlando Jopling with the idea of mounting an experimental performance. (And my regular orchestra for years). Finding a viola player for the solo proved interesting, as it became difficult to tell artists that we weren’t particularly interested in ‘them’ so much as whether they could play instrument itself. I can’t think of another time such an odd request has been asked of a soloist, and even asking someone to specifically play a Strad or something of that ilk doesn’t require asking them to revise their entire musical approach. In the end though, having explored the possibility with a number of established top-rate viola players we got nowhere, the instrument proved too large and quirky for standard viola technique: The skills that made these musicians outstanding artists were the reasons why the challenge proved impossible, and potentially dangerous to every single one of them.

Fortunately I had been working with Peter Sheppard Skærved at violinist and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music on a series of other projects on period performance, and the viola was at the centre of his mind. After some weeks of trialling, he figured out a way to approach the virtuosic leaps required for Harold in Italy, allowing the hand to arc from note to note much like cello technique rather than the violin or the viola. We had over a year to go, and could always go to Plan B if need be: Even if we were one-hundred-percent on the right track, it was possible in the end that Henry Hill’s performance was so extravagant a Paganiniesque gesture that it may have lacked the absolute soloist integrity expected of a modern concerto performance. Everything was in the air.

Peter Sheppard Skærved and Barak Norman’s “Gran viola” in practice.

Peter tells me that he has had to take up rock climbing to strengthen his hands for the work. Writing as I am today, the concert is on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets can be bought here. I’ll update this blog after the concert, hopefully with a full recording… To be continued…


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My 2016 blog giving a fuller story of the instrument can be read here. 


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