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Feature: Programme Music          Back to Features page

 Symphonic Stories - click to listen


Frederick (Theodore Albert) Delius
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard Cooke (Conductor)



Programme music is a term originally coined by Franz Liszt for largely instrumental music that narrates or illustrates a literary or pictorial scene.

Famous examples include Berlioz's Symphonie Phantastique and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but there are many other delightful programmatic works.

Rather than directly illustrating a story, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring tries to evoke the mood of a specific moment in time.

Frederick Delius was born in England and grew up in the northern city of Bradford at the end of the nineteenth century. While it is true to say that his music draws on his childhood experiences of the Yorkshire Dales, the inspiration for this work comes from a point later in his life when, after working on an orange plantation in Florida, he went to compose in France.

The music has a sort of dream-like quality about it, and although it is extremely English music, it also bears striking similarities Hollywood film scores of the 1940s.



(Louis-)Hector Berlioz

Harold in Italy

Orchestre Philharmonique regional Montpellier Languedoc Roussill

Bruno Pasquier (Viola)
Cyril Diederich (Conductor)


Berlioz and

Hector Berlioz was born 200 years ago this year, and he wrote Harold in Italy for Nicolo Paganini in 1834. The great violinist had just bought a viola made by Stradivari, and he wanted a piece to showcase his new instrument.

By this time, Paganini was probably the most famous violinist in the world. His reputation as a performer was such that there was even speculation that he had made a Faustian pact with the devil in return for his superior violin-playing skills.

Berlioz evidently wandered a little from his brief, because instead of writing a viola concerto, he wrote this symphony for orchestra and solo viola.

Paganini never actually played the piece, basically because he didn't think that the viola part was either difficult enough or prominent enough for a soloist of his standing.

Luckily for Berlioz, he still got paid, and the work went on to become one of the most the most significant works in the viola's solo repertoire.

The music loosely follows Byron's epic poem Childe Harold. It presents four scenes of Italian life, titled in Berlioz's customary colourful style: Harold in the Mountains, Pilgrims' March, Serenade of an Abruzzi-mountaineer to his sweetheart and The Brigand's Orgies.



Ludwig van Beethoven

Pastoral Symphony
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Mark Ermler (Conductor) 


Beethoven's sixth symphony is among the best known programmatic works, and is often regarded as the first symphony to use an extra-musical programme to such a great extent.

The work was something of a departure for Beethoven, whose previous five symphonies had expanded on the abstract and formal structures of Haydn and Mozart.

Each of the five movements presents a different scene of life in the countryside.

The last three movements are linked together by the central Thunderstorm, a magnificent and terrifying piece of pictorial writing that is generally cited as the inspiration behind the closing moments of the pastoral movement in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The piece received its first performance in the same concert as Beethoven's fifth symphony. While the concert lasted for more than four hours, the audience at the Theater an der Wien fell into rapturous applause at its close.



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