Nature, a source of inspiration - 1. Berlioz, Turner and Byron
Not only is nature a limitless source of inspiration for botanists and apothecaries for their creams, balms and soaps but also for artists. Since the dawn of time, they have freely drawn on its smells, colours, sounds and textures as well as on the emotions it generates through its infinite complex connections to our brains via all of our senses.
In his symphony “Harold en Italie” (Harold in Italy), Hector Berlioz uses the French horn - and as a soloist instrument viola to express his disillusionment and a profound melancholy inspired by his trip to Italy in search of “vast woods of dusky-leaved chestnut trees”, the “sad tinkling of the distant convent bell”, the “pine forests that resound with the wild refrain of the song of the pifferari” (wandering musicians), and the sound of tambourines.
Berlioz made the unusual choice of the viola for the solo instrument, with its anxious, velvety tone and vast range, to reflect the feelings he experienced as a result of the Abruzzo countryside. Its use with the French horn, which has an equally unusual and languid sound, and the strong presence of the harp accompaniment – itself an instrument associated with nature, evoking the wind and rivers – creates this extraordinary natural atmosphere that is sometimes uncertain yet always steeped in nostalgia.
“Harold en Italie” has quite naturally been associated with the painting “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy” (Tate Britain collection) by the English painter William Turner due to the subject matter and its incredibly melancholic portrayal of nature (no bright colours, hazy effect and softened light) and nostalgia for a better time (ruins). The people in the painting seem marginal and almost anecdotal, or at least surrounded by a dominant natural setting. The central tree stands out against the ruins and forest, alone against the sky. Due to its size it is an ordinary but pivotal object in the painting, its main vertical line.
The eponymous poem by Lord Byron, inspired by his travels in southern Europe, also served as inspiration for Berlioz. Although Byron’s melancholy is more generally linked to the post-Napoleonic political situation, his allusion to nature could not be more explicit, particularly in the extract displayed next to Turner’s painting:
“… and now, fair Italy!
Thou are the garden of the world…
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.”
Like the natural Abruzzo countryside, this combination of painting, poem and symphony strikes us as simply perfect.