I have never been an enthusiast of the music of Hector Berlioz, however since first hearing his two overtures, Waverley and Rob Roy played by Sir Alexander Gibson and (as it was then) the Scottish National Orchestra, I have been impressed by these two Walter Scott inspired works.
Waverley was the composer’s official Op.1 (now numbered H.26 in his catalogue) and was written between October 1826 and February 1828. The first performance was at the Berlioz debut concert at the Paris Conservatoire on 26 May 1828 conducted by Nathan Bloc. Waverley was eventually published by S. Richault of Paris in 1839. Berlioz inscribed his score with a quotation from the novel ‘While dreams of love and lady’s charms/Give place to honour and arms.’ The work was dedicated to ‘the dashing, sabre-scarred Colonel Félix Marmion’ who was a well-loved uncle of the composer. Scott enthusiasts will recognize this name as being the title of one of his great historical poems.
Hector Berlioz had acquired a copy of Walter Scott’s first Waverley novel during the early 1820s: it had been published anonymously in 1814. This was the writer’s first foray into historical fiction. It has been claimed for ‘Waverley’ that it was the first example of the genre. However, there are other contenders for that honour, including works by Greek and Roman classical authors. What made Scott’s writing unique was his attempt to present the narrative against a historically accurate background. The succeeding books became known as the ‘Waverley Novels’ as they were advertised as being ‘by the author of Waverley’. In 1827 Walter Scott was identified as the author of the series.
The story of the eponymous book involves the adventures of a young and romantic English soldier Edward Waverley who is posted with the Hanoverian army to Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite uprising. The aim of this rebellion was Charles Edward Stuart’s (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ultimately unsuccessful attempt to re-establish the Stuart dynasty in Great Britain. Scott’s novel traces the adventures of Edward Waverley from the family home in the south of England to the Lowlands of Scotland and then to the Highlands. Naturally he falls in love. Edward was to change sides to the Jacobite cause which led to a series of near escapes.
D. Kern Holoman has written that the Waverley Overture is probably the last of Berlioz’s works to be composed before his discovery of Beethoven, so it has more of the ‘conventions’ of French and Italian opera overtures than of Viennese sonata form. The work is in two parts – a slow introduction followed by a powerful and thrilling allegro that has a certain ‘Caledonian’ wildness about it. It is no accident that this has been deemed to musically represent the quotation from the novel at the head of the score. It is safe to say that the music is not an attempt at portraying the progress of the novel’s plot.
At the present time there are 16 versions of Hector Berlioz’s Waverley Overture in the Arkiv Catalogue. These include British performances by Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Alexander Gibson.The work is widely available in YouTube. The version I link to is by Beecham.