In 1831, at the age of twenty-seven, Hector Berlioz wrote the “Intrata di Rob-Roy MacGregor”. He began composing the overture in May at Nice, and completed the orchestration in June when he was in Italy.
Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy was first published in 1817. Scott’s metrical romances and novels were a phenomenal success in Europe and America; Berlioz was an avid reader of Scott’s work. In May 1828 his Waverley Overture had been performed in Paris.
At the nucleus of the Rob Roy Overture are two melodies, one of which is immediately recognisable. It is borrowed from “Scots Wha Hae”, a famous song associated with Scotland’s national hero Robert the Bruce. The other melody, romantic and delicate, is introduced by harp and cor anglais. An Australian listening to the tune for the first time may find in it something familiar, as a well-known refrain starts to form in their mind: “Waltz-ing / Waltz-ing / Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me? / Waltz-ing / Waltz-ing / Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me? / You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”
“Waltzing Matilda” has its roots in another Scottish melody, “Thou Bonnie Wood o’ Craigie Lee”, composed by James Barr (1781–1860) to words by his friend Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and first published around the time at which Scott’s “Waverley” novels came before the public. The famous Scottish tenor Kenneth Mackellar recorded a version in the 1960s.
In the clip below, shot at the Spirit of the Bush Muster in 2009, John Colville
and flautist Primrose Henderson make the comparison and draw out the link
The first link between the James Barr melody and “Waltzing Matilda” is “The Craigielee March”, an adaptation of “Thou Bonnie Wood o’ Craigie Lee” by an Englishman, Thomas Bulch (1860–1940). Tom Bulch was born in Shildon, Durham, from a family steeped in the British brass band tradition; he emigrated to Australia in 1884. A prolific arranger, he published his scores under various names, to avoid any sense of ennui arising in the public. In this case, he used the name “Godfrey Parker”. A wonderful performance of “The Craigielee March” by the Felling Brass Band of Gateshead at Durham University in 2018 can be seen and heard online; a bonny march indeed, played with pin-sharp zip and a “Rule Britannia” flourish at the outset.
In April 1894, eight months before meeting Banjo Paterson in Queensland, Christina Macpherson attended the Warrnambool races in Victoria. It was there that she heard the town band playing “The Craigielee March”; it was the first time the march had been performed. The tune stayed in Christina Macpherson’s memory and it was her recollection of it that forms the second link to “Waltzing Matilda”. As Paterson said much later, it was “a little Scottish tune” that he heard her humming and playing on an autoharp during his visit to her brothers’ property near Winton in early 1895. He sought to preserve the tune by providing it with lyrics so as to turn it into a song. In 1903, a further arrangement of tune and lyrics was made by Marie Cowan to advertise Billy Tea. It was her arrangement that became the national song and it is the chorus of that arrangement which the Berlioz tune resembles. (Banjo’s refrain was in the form of a question with the exception of one verse. In Marie Cowan’s adaptation the refrain is in the form of a statement: “You’ll come a-waltzing …”)
I told the story of Banjo and Christina in “Capturing Gossamer: A Waltz with Matilda” in the January-February 2020 issue of Quadrant. A letter from Mr Ned Overton published in the March issue on the subject of my essay has encouraged me to write this article as a follow-up.
Within a concert overture of just over thirteen minutes, the young Frenchman Hector Berlioz managed to incorporate a melody drawn from a Scottish national song, and another melody that to an Australian ear carries within it a reminder of Australia’s national song, which, in turn, also has as its source a well-known song from Scotland.
A Scottish heart encircled by a French composition: to some extent, the Rob Roy Overture is emblematic of the bond that for centuries existed between France and Scotland, and in more recent times, between Scotland and Australia, and between France and Australia—the Saltire and the Southern Cross in the warm embrace of the Tricolore.
The Auld Alliance
The novel Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott was first published in May 1823. By June that year, Quentin and his uncle, Ludovic Lesly, were treading the boards at the Caledonian Theatre in Edinburgh. A French translation of the novel first appeared in 1823 and was sensationally successful in France.
The story takes place in 1468 during the reign of King Louis XI of France. Leaving behind him a life of poverty in Scotland, Quentin travels to France to meet his uncle, Ludovic le Balafré (“the Scarred”) who is a member of the Garde Écossaise, an elite personal bodyguard of Scottish archers established by the King’s father, Charles VII, in about 1420. Quentin too is admitted to their ranks.
The Garde Écossaise ratified the Auld Alliance signed in 1295 between France and Scotland against English aggression. The treaty had proved no protection for the Scots from Edward I when in 1299 the French and English settled their differences for the time being. Edward continued to attack the Scots but in 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn, his son and successor Edward II was roundly defeated by the Scots under Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland from 1306 to 1329. Tradition had it that one of the airs played by the Scottish bagpipers at Bannockburn as a rallying cry was a tune known as “Hey Tuttie Tatie”. In 1793, in accordance with that tradition, Robbie Burns wrote lyrics for the tune, which were in the nature of an imaginary address by Bruce to his troops at Bannockburn, and since then it has been known to all as “Scots Wha Hae”.
In 1337, the Hundred Years’ War between France and England began, and in October 1419 the largest army that medieval Scotland had ever sent abroad arrived at La Rochelle—7000 to 8000 men. Above the din on the French battlefields, the skirl of Scottish bagpipes rang out. In 1420, 4000 to 5000 more Scottish troops arrived. At the Battle of Verneuil in 1424, the Scots lost 6000 men. In October 1428, at the beginning of the Siege of Orléans, Scottish soldiers helped to defend the city; the siege ended with the arrival of Joan of Arc and her forces in April 1429.
In 1912, Léonce Chomel (1861–1935), a French army Chef de Musique, published a collection of “Marches historiques, chants et chansons des soldats de France”. Among them was his arrangement of “Scots Wha Hae”, titled “Marche des soldats de Robert Bruce”.
In May 2019, in the huge courtyard of Les Invalides military complex in Paris, “Marche des soldats de Robert Bruce” was played at a memorial service for two French soldiers killed during the rescue of hostages in Burkina Faso. The mourners were led by President Macron, and the Bagad de Lann-Bihoué, the Breton bagpipers of the French navy, played the air as a heart-rending lament, while to a slow march soldiers bore the two coffins, each draped in the Tricolore, into the centre of the square.
“Scots Wha Hae” had appeared in a collection of Scottish songs compiled by George Thomson and published in Edinburgh in 1826. The title given there was “Bruce’s Address”. Whether “Hey Tuttie Tatie” had already been absorbed into French military music centuries before via the Scottish archers; whether in France the tune was given a title connecting it with Bruce well before Chomel’s collection; whether the French title had emerged when scores of the tune appeared with Burns’s lyrics early in the nineteenth century: these are interesting questions beyond the scope of this essay. The title of Chomel’s collection may provide some clues. It includes the words chants and chansons, the former more suggestive of vocals without accompaniment, and in very broad translation might read: “Historical marches, choruses and songs of the soldiers of France”.
Banjo and the French connection
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1939, Banjo Paterson said: “My father was a Lowland Scot, a son of a captain in the old East India Company, though his family had for generations farmed their own properties in Lanarkshire.” In “Illalong Children”, an account of his boyhood on a property near Binalong in New South Wales, he reminisced about the days when he and his cousin Jack “were just learning to ride on quiet station ponies, and we had, like our Scottish forebears, to contend with raiders. Not armed raiders, be it understood”, but shearers, footslogging it out to the western sheds, and with “a habit of helping themselves to any quiet horse which they could catch in the paddock at night”. At the top of one of the hilly paddocks at Illalong lived “an eagle hawk which we children called the ‘MacPherson’ because he had a hooked beak and a pair of fierce eyes like the picture of a Scottish chieftain in one of our books. Also, like the old time Scottish chieftains, he had a nasty knack of living upon other people.”
Books were plentiful at Illalong: in the Sydney Morning Herald interview, Banjo recalled that his father Andrew Bogle Paterson (1833–1893) was a keen reader. On one occasion his father brought home for his children a complete set of the novels of Scott and Dickens. Banjo’s mother Rose felt that this was extravagance but her husband replied: “My dear, I have given them an education.”
It was from his mother’s side of the family that the French connection derived, though she too had Scottish roots, and to explain the way that connection arose requires some more general observations. A benefit to Scotland of the Auld Alliance was that for hundreds of years, it gave Scottish merchants first choice of Bordeaux’s finest wines, to the annoyance of English wine drinkers. The wines were brought to Wine Quay at Leith, the port area north of Edinburgh, and it has been said that claret was the life blood of the alliance.
Rose Isabella née Barton (1844–1893, at left) was a descendant of Thomas “French Tom” Barton (1694–1780). The Barton family were Norfolk Protestants who established themselves in Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century. In the early eighteenth century, Tom Barton set up a successful wine business in Bordeaux. In 1798, one of his grandsons, Charles Barton (1760–1819) married Susannah Johnston (1775–1847). Her family was of Scottish origin, long settled at Bordeaux, and also prominent in the wine trade. Charles and Susannah were the parents of Robert Johnston Barton (1809–1863) who in 1840, in Australia, married Banjo’s grandmother, Emily neé Darvall (1817–1909), Rose’s mother.
Susannah had a brother, William Johnston (1770–1821) whose daughter Anna-Eliza married Pierre-François Guestier (1793–1874) in 1818. Their son Daniel (1820–1900) became the head of Barton & Guestier, which remains a thriving Bordeaux wine business to this day.
In Rose’s maternal lineage, though her mother Emily Darvall’s father was born in Ireland and Emily’s mother was born in London, that side of the family also had a link with France. When Emily was five, her family had left Yorkshire to live in Brussels, where she and her siblings were schooled, and where they became fluent in French. By 1825, the family had moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, where, in 1831, her father bought the Château de Capécure, and later, on the adjoining land, built a villa, the Château du Vert-Pré. The Darvalls lived there till December 1838 when they moved back to London to get ready for emigration to Australia. In September 1839, the family headed off from Gravesend on the Alfred, bound for Sydney. On the voyage out, Emily, aged twenty-two, met the man who became her husband, Robert Johnston Barton.
The Darvall family were living in France at the time that Berlioz’s future wife, the Anglo-Irish actor Harriet Smithson, became the toast of Paris with her performances of Ophelia, Desdemona and Juliet. And during the same period, from March 1828, performances of Beethoven’s symphonies at the Conservatoire concerts were also creating much excitement in Paris. Berlioz’s biographer D. Kern Holoman has described the years 1830 to 1840 as “the sparkling decade” of Berlioz’s compositions and concerts. Harold in Italy, the Requiem and Benvenuto Cellini all premièred in Paris while the Darvalls were residents of Boulogne. By 1836, Berlioz’s end-of-year concerts at the Salle du Conservatoire were a highlight of Parisian life.
Boulogne was in some respects the Brighton of France. There were annual horse races and in 1826, a Philharmonic Society was established, one of the first successful amateur music associations set up after the Paris equivalent founded in 1822. Because it was by the sea, Boulogne attracted renowned artists, among them Liszt in 1827, and Paganini in 1832 and 1834. In July 1834, something of a scandal erupted in Boulogne when Paganini found himself accused of luring an English girl to run away with him after his tour of England. In a letter to the Annotateur, a Boulogne newspaper, he ably defended himself, and the brouhaha subsided.
The English diarist Anne Lister recorded that on October 11, 1826, Emily’s mother, referred to in the diary as Mrs Darvall, had invited Anne and a female companion to dinner at her home. The entry is brief but includes this comment: “Mrs Darvall played a little on the piano before dinner—played and sang prettily.”
Emily Darvall and Robert Barton married in Sydney in 1840 and moved to the central west of New South Wales, where they lived on a property of some 30,000 hectares called “Boree Nyrang”. They had eight children and were to remain there until Robert’s death in 1863, the year before Banjo was born. Robert’s death brought Emily’s life in the bush to an end, and in 1867 she became the owner of “Rockend” stone cottage at Gladesville in Sydney, where she lived for the rest of her long life.
Our image of Banjo is of the balladeer horse-rider and sportsman. And certainly his grandmother’s tales of her life in the bush as a pioneer wife made a deep impression on him. But in the decade he lived with her, the tastes she had developed from her formative years in Europe also played a role in his creative development.
In 1906, Banjo published An Outback Marriage, a novel he had worked on for over eight years. In Chapter Eleven, the central character Gavan Blake, a young lawyer who is in dire financial straits, heads off one evening for a visit to Kuryong, a station owned by one “Bully” Grant in the high country of New South Wales. A widow, Mrs Gordon, has been living at Kuryong with her children. Also staying there is the squatter’s daughter Mary, out from England:
After a time Mrs Gordon said, “Won’t you sing something?” and Mary sat down to the piano and sang to them. Such singing no one there had ever heard before. Her deep contralto voice was powerful, flexible, and obviously well-trained; besides which she had the natural gift of putting “feeling” into her singing. The children sat spellbound. The station-hands and house-servants, who had been playing the concertina and yarning on the wood-heap at the back of the kitchen, stole down to the corner of the house to listen; in the stillness that wonderful voice floated out into the night. So it chanced that Gavan Blake, arriving, heard the singing, stole softly to the door and looked in … He saw the quiet comfort … of the station drawing-room; caught the scent of the flowers and the glorious tones of that beautiful voice; and, as he watched the sweet face of the singer, and listened to the words of the song, a sudden fierce determination rose in his mind. He would devote all his energies to winning Mary Grant for his wife …
In a bush setting appears a passage reminiscent of one in a European tale from 1819, “Rat Krespel”, where its author, E.T.A. Hoffmann, describes “a surpassingly beautiful female voice singing to the accompaniment of a piano” heard emanating from Krespel’s house, the voice of the doomed Antonia. Venal though Gavan Blake’s motives may be, his susceptibility to the power of music is genuine. And in the heat of a Queensland summer in 1895, the novelist himself showed a similar sensitivity when he responded to a delicate song without words, played on an autoharp at Dagworth station by Christina Macpherson.
Seventy-six years after Emily Darvall left Boulogne, her grandson Banjo, by then aged fifty, served for several months as an ambulance driver for the Australian Voluntary Hospital, set up in a large chateau at Wimereaux, a few miles north of Boulogne. He arrived there in late December 1914; the wounded had started to pour into the hospital as a result of the fighting at Mons. His task was to meet the hospital trains at Boulogne railway station and to ferry the stretcher cases over the rough cobbled roads to the chateau. He was back in Sydney by July 1915, preparatory to service in Egypt with the combined Remount Unit, charged with the care and training of horses for the fighting men.
The Rob Roy Overture
I have considered how an Australian might respond on first hearing the melody which the cor anglais and harp introduce into the “Rob Roy Overture”. How might a French person, without much English and with some knowledge of Berlioz’s oeuvre, react on hearing Australians singing Marie Cowan’s arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda”? It seems to me that in the last line of the verse melody and the last line of the chorus—“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me”—that person might discover an affinity with the Berlioz melody.
But if that hypothetical music lover were asked, “What springs to mind when you listen to those lines of the song?” it is more likely that they would draw a parallel with Harold en Italie, le premier mouvement than with the Rob Roy Overture. An explanation for a greater familiarity with the former work requires an examination of events in the life of Hector Berlioz (left) between 1830 and 1834. What were the forces that called into being the Rob Roy Overture?
Each year since 1803, the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France had sponsored a competition for composers and other artists leading to a Prix de Rome. Berlioz won the prize in August 1830 at his fourth attempt. The prize consisted of a cash stipend for five years, a two-year stay at the French Academy in Rome, and a sojourn in Germany. The Académie de Rome was housed in the magnificent Villa Medici at the top of the Spanish Steps, but for Berlioz the incentive was the stipend. By 1830, after some lean years, his career was gaining momentum. He was keen to capitalise on the growing interest in his music, including the resounding success of a concert on December 5, 1830. He petitioned to have his Prix de Rome grant made Paris-based, but the plea was refused. It was under protest, therefore, that on December 30, 1830, he left Paris to begin his journey to Rome.
Perhaps propitiously, on the same date, a weekly journal with the fastidious title Gazette Littéraire, revue française et étrangère, de la littérature, des sciences et des beaux-arts etc carried a long article about a real-life Scotsman who had been the inspiration for the character—and the name—“most often remembered” in the “Waverley” novels, Robert Macgregor Campbell (1660–1736). Mention was also made of the novel’s heroine, the “extraordinary” Diana Vernon, a purely fictional character.
The novel Rob Roy had been published on the last day of 1817. Three months later, Rob Roy MacGregor, or Auld Lang Syne, an operatic adaptation by Isaac Pocock with old Scottish songs arranged by John Davy, premiered in London at Covent Garden. In the following year, the opera made the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh a handsome profit. George IV’s visit to Scotland in August 1822, substantially stage-managed by Walter Scott, was the apotheosis of the tartan resurgence. The final public event of the King’s stay was a performance of Pocock’s Rob Roy.
Scott, the Wizard of the North, was the most popular European author of his day. In 1818, the French snapped up translations such as Robert le Rouge MacGregor ou les montagnards écossais. It is speculation, but at some stage, Berlioz may have heard that his friend Victor Bohain was planning to stage a performance of Macgregor, ou les montagnards écossais, a play by Joseph Morel, at the Nouveautés Theatre in Paris on May 31, 1831.
Three months before Berlioz left Paris for Rome, his article “Aperçu sur la musique classique et la musique romantique” had been published in the review Le Correspondant of October 22, 1830. In his survey, Berlioz wrote:
Swiss airs all bear a stamp of artless and tender simplicity perfectly in keeping with the folkways of the Helvetian shepherds. Many Scottish airs, on the contrary, are infused with a kind of savage pride and virile energy. The Macgregor clan anthem “We are Scots”, among others, is admirable: there is no need to hear the words of the mountain song to recognise the highland native revelling in his strength and freedom.
The score of the “Scots Wha Hae” tune which appeared in George Thomson’s Edinburgh edition of 1826 was marked with the instruction “maestoso e ben marcato” (majestic and well-accented). No information that I know of supports a link between the Macgregor clan and the song, but it is interesting to note that during George IV’s stay in Edinburgh in 1822, a special ceremony was held on the morning of August 24 in which the Honours of Scotland were returned from Holyrood up the Royal Mile to the Castle. The Clan Macgregor was given the great honour of forming the guard for the oldest crown jewels—crown, sceptre and sword—in the British Isles: the Clan Macgregor Regalia Guard. Of some relevance to our story as well: before he left Scotland, George IV ordered that the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Holyrood were to be preserved and maintained for posterity.
Berlioz arrived in Rome on March 11, 1831, and settled in at the Villa Medici. On March 12 he was introduced to Felix Mendelssohn, who had been staying in Rome since November 1830, and whose quarters were in the Piazza di Spagna. Mendelssohn was aged twenty-one, five years younger than Berlioz.
In 1829, Mendelssohn, on a tour of Scotland, had travelled to the Hebrides, and from there had written his family a note one evening which included twenty-one bars of what became the Hebrides Overture, in order, he wrote, “to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me”. That day, he had been by steamer from Fort William to Oban, and by ferry to Mull, where he and a travel companion stayed at the main town, Tobermory. The next day they travelled to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, which he was to remember as “that vast cathedral of the seas”. Earlier in the same trip, Mendelssohn had visited “Queen Mary’s tragic palace at Holyrood”, and in the ruined chapel he had jotted down a musical theme which would develop into another composition, known as “the Scottish Symphony”.
He completed the early drafts of the Hebrides Overture in Rome in December 1830. From the diary he kept and some of his correspondence, it is plain that he and Berlioz spent a lot of time together in March 1831. Mendelssohn showed Berlioz the sights, they went horse-riding together, Mendelssohn visited the Villa Medici and Berlioz the Piazza di Spagna, where Mendelssohn would play the piano, they would sing, and discuss each other’s work. In his memoirs, Berlioz was to record that Mendelssohn played him the Hebrides Overture draft, and wrote: “he gave me a remarkably exact idea of it, such was his amazing capacity for rendering the most elaborate scores on the piano”. To a Scott enthusiast, the name Fingal’s Cave would have had a familiar ring to it. Scott had described the cave in Canto IV of his metrical romance Lord of the Isles, published in 1815. The poem deals with the return of Robert the Bruce to Scotland in 1307 and his struggles with the English, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn. Woven into these events is the story of Edith of Lorn and her love for Ronald, Lord of the Isles. In his memoirs, Berlioz refers to the Mendelssohn work as “the Overture Fingal’s Cave”, and describes it, in its final, concert form, as “that finely spun and richly coloured work”.
The days he spent with Mendelssohn, the discussions that took place between them, must have provided much artistic stimulation for Berlioz. But they had met at a time when he was in emotional turmoil because he had received no correspondence from his fiancée Camille in Paris. On April 1, Berlioz left Rome and on reaching Florence, he received word that Camille was marrying another. He headed for Paris with murder in his heart. But by the time he reached Nice, about April 19, his anger was spent, and he stayed there till May 21, enjoying an idyll by the sea. During that time, from the vantage point of the Ponchettes rocks overlooking the sea, he composed the King Lear Overture. He then went to work sketching the Rob Roy Overture. He got back to Rome on June 2. Mendelssohn too had been travelling, and returned to Rome from Naples on June 5. Mendelssohn’s diary entries record that they met again on June 6 in the evening. Berlioz spent six days away from Rome at Tivoli, in the mountains east of Rome from about June 13, and returned to the city on the day Mendelssohn had left to continue his travels into Switzerland. Judging from Mendelssohn’s diary entry, it seems he may have left farewell letters to friends, including Berlioz. He and Berlioz were not to meet again for fourteen years.
In a footnote in his memoirs, Berlioz wrote: “it was not until a few days before he left Rome that I showed him [Mendelssohn] the overture ‘King Lear’, which I had just completed”. In a letter to his friend Ferdinand Hiller in Paris, he wrote that since arriving in Italy, he had composed “(1) overture to ‘King Lear’ (at Nice); (2) overture to ‘Rob Roy, Macgregor’ (sketched at Nice), and I was so foolish as to show it to Mendelssohn, but reluctantly, before the tenth part of it was determined. I completed and orchestrated it in the mountains of Subiaco.”
In Correspondance Générale d’Hector Berlioz, VIII Suppléments, a fragment of a letter is included; written at the top of the letter is “Paris, 4 March 1839”. In the French edition, the letter is given the heading “A un destinataire inconnu”. A footnote concludes with the words: “Mais l’authenticité de cette lettre reste incertaine.” I quote from this letter, even though its authenticity remains unverified, on the basis it has been included in this important collection and its subject is the Rob Roy Overture. In raw translation, the letter, addressed to an unknown correspondent, reads in part:
I wrote at Nice the theme of “Harold” and a part of the introduction, but for orchestra and without principal viola. It was two years later that, the idea having been suggested to me by Paganini of calling attention to this instrument, I changed the arrangement of my score to give to the solo viola that which was formerly given to the cor anglais …
The key phrase is “le thème d’Harold”; the French word thème in a musical context describes the main melody of a composition, especially one that is the source of variations. If Berlioz was indeed the author of this letter, then he is saying that the cor anglais theme was devised at a time when Nice, rather than Italy and the mountains of the Abruzzi, was the setting for his inspiration.
On about July 10, 1831, Berlioz arrived in the village of Subiaco in the Abruzzi. His trip to Tivoli in June had been with a companion; this time he travelled alone. He had loved the majestic panorama of his childhood in the mountains not far from Grenoble, and he thrived in these surroundings, covering large tracts of countryside on foot, bathing in the Anio River, putting up in caves in places without inns, and entertaining the locals by singing to his guitar. In Rome, he had been charmed by the music and appearance of the “pifferari” and, as he wrote in his memoirs: “it may be imagined what I felt when I encountered them, wandering where my fancy led me in the untamed mountains of the Abruzzi. Volcanic rocks and dark pine forests are the natural setting and complement of such primordial music.”
He described the pifferari as “generally dressed in large brown woollen coats and the pointed hats the brigands sport, and their whole appearance is instinct with a kind of mystic savagery that is most striking”. The musicians played the piffero, a kind of oboe, to the accompaniment of bagpipes:
The bagpipe sustains a harmony of two or three notes, supported by a large piffero doubling the lowest; above it, a medium-sized piffero gives out the melody, and above that two very small pifferi played by children of from twelve to fifteen years of age execute a series of delicate trills and rhythmic figures, drenching the rustic tune in a shower of outlandish ornamentation. The music consists mostly of lively cheerful tunes, which they repeat over and over again, but the performance always concludes with a slow and dignified piece, a kind of prayer …
If I were to select a painting to describe Berlioz’s experiences in the Abruzzi, I would choose a work done by a Swiss artist who spent much of his life in Italy, Arnold Böcklin. It was painted in about 1860 and it is called The Bagpiper (below), depicting the solitary figure standing on a rock as the light is fading.
In the mountains of the Abruzzi, Berlioz completed the orchestration of the Rob Roy Overture; it must have been finished by about July 23, 1831. He was to enjoy further vagabond travels in Italy, and indeed 1831 was his Wanderjahr, but it is his state of mind in this period, when he composed and orchestrated the cor anglais theme, with which we are concerned.
Berlioz had already given expression to his enjoyment of Scottish themes in the Waverley Overture three years previously. Now he was in a landscape which harmonised with aspects of his inner life. Steeped as he was in the drama and romance of Scott’s novels, his imagination would have been well stocked with vivid characters of “mystic savagery”, characters such as that Highland Achilles with the eagle’s feather in his bonnet, Allan McAulay of the Bloody Hand, avenger of his mother’s wrongs and a legend of Montrose. And there was the clan with whom the McAulays were feuding, named, from their houseless state and incessant wandering among the mountain glens, the Children of the Mist.
In April 1830, when Berlioz was still in Paris and had just finished composing the Symphonie Fantastique, he wrote about it to his friend Humbert Ferrand. Of the artist who is the central character in the symphony, he writes:
By a strange quirk, the image of his Beloved never appears in his mind’s eye without the accompaniment of a musical idea, in which he finds a quality of grace and nobility similar to that which he attributes to the Beloved. This double idée fixe pursues him unceasingly …
In his memoirs, in writing about the two great loves of his life, Estelle Duboeuf and Harriet Smithson, Berlioz says he associated the former with the incomparable landscape of his childhood, and the latter with Shakespeare: in Harriet, love of the artist and the art were interfused. He goes on to describe “the vague feeling of ideal romantic love” which came over him at the scent of a beautiful rose. “For long, I used to have a similar sensation at the sight of a fine harp …”
On the title page of the autograph manuscript of his Grande Ouverture de Waverley, Berlioz had included a quotation from a chivalric romantic poem whose putative author was Edward Waverley, the central character of Scott’s novel: “Dreams of love and lady’s charms / Give way to honour and to arms.”
Ideal romantic love certainly existed in the pages of Scott, and the heroines he created gained immortality in the eyes of the reading and theatre-going public. John Millais did a portrait of the heroine of Rob Roy, Die Vernon, Diana the Jacobite huntress in a riding habit, loved by Frank Osbaldistone but with an inviolable loyalty to the Cause. In Waverley, the most memorable image of Flora MacIvor occurs in the scene where, seated not far from the waterfall at Glennaquoich, and with Edward Waverley as her audience, she sings to her own accompaniment on a small harp “a lofty and uncommon Highland air, which had been a battle song in former ages”. It is a song “which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress”.
The Rob Roy Overture opens with a hunting horn call, then the “Scots Wha Hae” theme arrives promptly. The orchestra plays a scampering, high-spirited introduction, full of rollicking vitality, which is brought to an abrupt halt. The delicate sounds of a harp are heard, and the cor anglais begins its song to the harp’s accompaniment, the song that later became “the Harold theme”.
There is one short interruption, a boisterous one, from the orchestra playing the “Scots Wha Hae” tune at the outset of the song, but the cor anglais prevails and is allowed centre stage to sing its gentle, lovely air. This musical passage in the score is marked “Larghetto espressivo assai”, unhurried, stately and with feeling. The orchestra, as if softened by its beauty, now joins in the tune to a waltz time, the strings marking out the rhythm with little flecks or fillips, in a way that brings to the mind, of this listener at least, Berlioz’s description of the teenage pifferari adding their embellishments to a central tune. The song has been transformed into a dance, a courtly and romantic interlude, which is immediately followed by the return of a more subdued “Scots Wha Hae” theme.
In his Grande Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Moderne (1844) Berlioz wrote descriptions of instruments which he felt lent themselves to orchestral music. He liked the harp for the “delicate and crystalline sound” of its top octave and the “veiled” and “mysterious” qualities which some of its lower range could achieve. The cor anglais, he wrote, had a tone:
less penetrating, more veiled and deeper than that of the oboe … a melancholy, dreamy and rather noble voice, with a somewhat subdued and distant tone. This makes it superior to any other instrument when the intention is to move by reviving images and feelings from the past, and when the composer wishes to touch the hidden chords of tender memories.
Recipients of the Prix de Rome were required to send envois, samples of their work, back to the Academy in Paris. Berlioz posted off the Rob Roy Overture just before his permanent departure from Rome to make his way back to France. He left Rome on May 2, 1832, and never returned to Italy. Walter Scott had gone to Italy for health reasons in the latter part of 1831, but wanted to return to Scotland to die. At the time Berlioz left Rome, Scott was still there: he left on May 11 and died at Abbotsford in September 1832. In Old French envoi means “sending forth”, the final section of a troubadour poem which sends the song out to the world. Though unintentional, how fitting and poignant it seems that Berlioz was sending not only his farewell to Italy, but also to the man whose work had been such a rich source of inspiration: his envoi to the Border Minstrel.
And yet the Rob Roy Overture did not meet with success. It had only one performance in Berlioz’s lifetime, on April 14, 1833, at the Conservatoire in Paris. In his memoirs, Berlioz was dismissive of the work: “long and diffuse”, he called it, and wrote that he had destroyed the score immediately after the concert. But Rob Roy lived to fight another day. The envoi from Italy to the Academy survived and the score was published in 1900. Its second performance took place in London at Crystal Palace in 1900, and then in Germany and Chicago in the same year. In 1903, the year of Berlioz’s centenary, there were two performances of it at the Conservatoire in December.
Harold in Italy
In the March 17, 1831, edition of the Gazette Littéraire, revue française et étrangère etc appeared an article headed “Le premier concert de Paganini”. Berlioz had arrived in Rome a week before. Another regret in being required by the Prix de Rome rules to quit Paris was that he was missing the Paris concert début of the sensational Italian virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840). The reviewer described the soloist’s singular appearance—a face such as E.T.A. Hoffmann might have created—and wrote of his violin skills: “C’est un démon.” Berlioz was never to hear any concert performances by Paganini.
Paganini attended a Berlioz concert in December 1832; their first meeting was at another Berlioz concert in December 1833. In January 1834, Paganini sought from Berlioz a composition for his London concerts to begin in April of that year. Earlier in the decade, he had acquired a 1731 Stradivarius viola, and the plan was for Berlioz to write a concerto for viola and orchestra. La Gazette Musicale announced a new work by Berlioz for viola, chorus and orchestra with the title The Last Moments of Mary Stuart.
By now, Berlioz was thirty years of age, newly married to Harriet, and due to become a father in August 1834. The score was half done by the time the couple moved to Montmartre in March. He completed it there on June 22, 1834. The chorus had disappeared, the projected two movements had turned into four, and only after the work was fully drafted was the association made with the brooding, cultivated persona created by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
The second, third and fourth movements may have carried the programmatic titles from their inception—the Pilgrim’s March, the Sérénade, the Brigands’ Orgy—but the first, “Harold aux montagnes. Scènes de mélancholie, de bonheur et de joie”, and the work as a whole were only titled in the final stages of composition. According to Berlioz: “No sooner was the first movement written than Paganini wanted to see it”, and expressed the view that there was “not enough for me to do here. I should be playing all the time.” At that point, Berlioz says, he decided to give the work a different emphasis. His correspondence to friends at the time gives us some idea of the stages of the symphony’s development. As early as March 19, 1834, he wrote to Joseph d’Ortigue that he had thought of a work in two movements, but that a third and fourth then came to him. On May 31 he told d’Ortigue that “the symphony should be born and baptised shortly”. To Edouard Rocher on July 31 he wrote that he had composed a new symphony called “Harold”. To Humbert Ferrand on August 31 he wrote that “Harold” had been composed for two months; “Paganini will think it is not enough of a concerto for viola.”
Harold in Italy had its first performance at the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris on November 23, 1834, with Chrétien Urhan the soloist. Paganini did not hear the symphony that he had called into being until Berlioz’s December 16, 1838, concert. By that stage, Paganini was terminally ill with cancer of the larynx and could barely make himself heard; his twelve-year-son Achille was his interpreter.
The concert was a tremendous success, and after it, in the presence of those members of the orchestra who had not yet left the hall, Paganini came up to the stage and knelt before Berlioz. Two days later, Berlioz received a visit from Achille bearing a note from Paganini which declared in Italian: “Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz can make him live again,” and bestowing as a “token of my homage” a gift of 20,000 francs. With this windfall, the equivalent of roughly two years’ income for Berlioz, he was able to set to work on a composition, free of distractions from financial pressures, and the result was Roméo et Juliette, first performed in Paris on November 24, 1839. But Paganini was never to hear the work his bounty had allowed Berlioz to create. Soon after giving Berlioz the money, and in failing health, Paganini left Paris for warmer parts and died at Nice in May 1840.
Paganini’s aim as a performer was to amaze. The part for him which Berlioz had devised in the opening of the Marie Stuart work was essentially that of a viola obbligato, allowing no opportunity for improvisational pyrotechnics. In his memoirs Berlioz wrote that, having failed to meet Paganini’s expectations, he decided to give the viola as a setting “the poetic impressions collected from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, and to make it a kind of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold. Hence the title of the Symphony.”
In his Grande Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Moderne Berlioz wrote that “when properly used, and expertly contrasted with the tone of violins and other instruments” the viola had “a valuable tone quality” but otherwise “must inevitably become wearisome, it is too lacking in variety and too tinged with sadness for it to be otherwise”. The viola had been Paganini’s choice for the work, not Berlioz’s. The work, as first envisaged, was to have a sad theme: the days before the execution of the Franco-Scottish Mary Stuart. A discarded overture with a Scottish theme, with that cor anglais and harp interlude: Berlioz commandeered his Rob Roy to use in a work also notionally inspired by a Scottish theme. With Paganini’s disavowal, and Berlioz’s decision to change course completely using the inspiration of his Italian sojourn, the destiny of the cor anglais theme was sealed: it became indelibly associated in the mind of the French, and later that of the wider audience, with the symphony Harold in Italy.
“Harold” was by no means an inappropriate setting for the melody, but let us examine the first movement in the context in which it was conceived by Berlioz, based on the tragic figure of the condemned woman. The movement begins in a mist of instrumentation, brooding and amorphous, and then the interlude theme taken from the Rob Roy Overture is announced by the orchestra in a minor key. The first two notes are struck like a ship’s bell in a fog—a warning bell—and the beautiful and haunting minor key theme intensifies, building to another announcement, signifying a change from minor to major. The orchestra stops, and from the mist emerges a solitary viola playing to harp accompaniment the theme in a major key, presumably originally intended as a theme representing Mary, Queen of Scots.
With the change of course Berlioz took, Mary, a figure in history, was replaced by Childe Harold, a persona strongly identified in the public’s mind with its creator, Lord Byron. In his memoirs, Berlioz recalls that during his time in Rome, he would escape the heat by retreating to “the great cool air” of the “serene and majestic” St Peter’s Cathedral, taking with him a volume of Byron. “I adored the extraordinary nature of the man, at once ruthless and of extreme tenderness, generous-hearted and without pity, a strange amalgam.”
Although Harold in Italy is not illustrative of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, there happens to be a similarity between the progress of the narrative in the poem and the way in which the theme in major key is introduced in the first movement. The orchestra’s rendition of the minor key theme serves as a build-up to the entrance of the viola. And in Canto I of the poem, the first occasion on which the narrator’s voice cedes to that of Childe Harold occurs when he takes his harp and sings to his own accompaniment, “Adieu, adieu, my native shore …”
In the symphony, the theme, which appears in a different guise in each movement, pervades the whole work and is a fixed point of reference in the scenes through which the wanderer passes. In 1852, when corresponding with Franz Liszt about the arrangement of the score for piano and viola, Berlioz stipulated that the viola had to remain outside the action, a witness rather than a participant: “se renfermer dans son radotage sentimentale” (enclosed in its sentimental meanderings). Of the first movement, D. Kern Holoman has written: “The opening is as strict a fugue as the century produced, curiously ahistoric in purpose—the fugue as evocation of wandering, rather than erudition …”
Harold in Italy had its first performance on November 23, 1834, at the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris, before an appreciative audience dotted with such luminaries as Hugo, Liszt, Chopin and Heine. It was the second movement, the “Marche des Pèlerins” which received the ovations and which caught on with nineteenth-century audiences. The orchestral score was published in 1840, and the symphony had its première in London on December 7, 1848, with Berlioz conducting.
After Berlioz died in 1869, the conductor Édouard Colonne (1838–1910) became his champion with the establishment of the Concerts Colonne at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1873. Colonne had known Berlioz, and had seen him conducting at the Opéra and the Salle du Conservatoire. In 1877, the Colonne orchestra performed Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, which immediately became a favourite with the public. By the centenary of 1903, it had been performed over a hundred times at Concerts Colonne. The Symphonie Fantastique aside, other Berlioz works did not catch on to nearly the same extent.
Colonne became the most celebrated symphony conductor of his day in Paris, gaining ascendance over Jules Pasdeloup (1819–87). Colonne and his concerts were of critical importance in the interpretation and dissemination of Berlioz’s work, and, as David Cairns has written, “the line held”. Colonne continued to conduct the concerts till his health failed in 1908. Gabriel Pierné had been involved with the concerts for eight years before he took over as conductor in 1910, remaining at the helm until 1932.
In the early 1930s, a gamin de Paris from the rue de Lappe by the name of Nathan Korb was a regular in the “poulailler” of the Théâtre du Châtelet at the weekly Colonne classical music concerts. A painting by André Devambez of the Châtelet interior as viewed from “the gods” or the “henhouse” gives a vivid impression, with its plunging perspective, of the vastness of the auditorium, its seating capacity and the kind of performance experience young Nathan would have had from his vantage point in the cheapest seats. As a street performer noted for his natural whistling ability, here at the Châtelet were opportunities to expand his repertoire, listening to excerpts of Wagner, Beethoven, Delibes, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Chabrier and Berlioz. It would be hard to imagine a more receptive audience member than this boy who, as Francis Lemarque (1917–2002), would become celebrated in France for his work with that symbol of his generation, Yves Montand.
“Waltz-ing / Waltz-ing / Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?” “An evocation of wandering” is an apt description of Australia’s greatest folksong, and “Harold’s theme” echoes the swagman’s envoi. If I were to select a painting which I found the most in tune with Harold in Italy, it would be the famous one of a man standing on a precipice with his back to the viewer, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by the Pomeranian artist Caspar David Friedrich. No matter that the man is surveying a mist in the Elbe Mountains rather than the Abruzzi; when I look at the lean, alert figure with its high thatch of bright hair, I am reminded not of Byron, nor of Harold, but of a young Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, on his Wanderjahr high in the mountains of Italy, contemplating sublime and awe-inspiring Nature.
Her bright smile haunts me still
Guillaume Tell by Rossini had premièred in Paris in August 1829. Berlioz was to become well acquainted with the score. In order to supplement his scanty income, he obtained work with a publisher proof-reading the piano vocal arrangement of the opera. In June 1831, his companion during his six-day visit to Tivoli in the hilly country east of Rome was another student from the French Academy, Antoine Étex. “One day after walking in the hot sun to Tivoli,” Étex recalled, “we could not resist the temptation of swimming in the limpid blue waters of the lake.” As they swam they sang the famous duet from William Tell, “O Mathilde! Idol of my soul”. “But in those icy waters we suddenly turned blue, our teeth chattering … We got out as quickly as we could and went to our dinner.”
In my previous essay, I told the story of how “Waltzing Matilda” inspired Francis Lemarque to compose his “Matilda”, which became a gramophone hit for Yves Montand in 1949, and was sung by performers in nightclubs all over Paris in the late 1940s. Quite apart from the attractions of both songs, the name “Matilda” has had a special significance in France, having figured prominently in Norman history.
In the eleventh century, Matilda of Flanders married William the Conqueror, and thus became Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England. Their son, Henry I of England, married Edith, the daughter of Scottish King Malcolm III. At her wedding to Henry in 1100, she was crowned as Matilda, and is known in history as Matilda of Scotland. Their daughter, known to us as the Empress Matilda, married Geoffrey of Anjou, and their son Henry II of England named his eldest daughter Matilda, and so the tradition continued. And thousands of miles away, just as “Matilda” in various guises had made her mark in Europe, her name also carried a special significance in a small pocket of Australia’s vast territory.
In Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane stands a white crucifix monument. The cross stands on three tiers; a sculptured wreath is looped about the cross. On the two tiers nearest the cross is inscribed, in large letters, “Sacred to the memory of Matilda”.
Rose Paterson, Banjo’s mother, had a younger sister Nora, who was the second wife of Thomas Murray-Prior. Nora and her husband lived on a property called “Maroon” in south-east Queensland. The sisters kept up a regular correspondence. Murray-Prior’s first wife was Matilda, née Harpur, a niece of the poet Charles Harpur. She was the mother of eight children who reached adulthood, including Rosa Praed. Matilda died of consumption in 1868 aged forty-one. Three years before her death, she gave birth to a daughter also named Matilda, who lived but five months.
Matilda Murray-Prior encouraged her children to write, setting up a handwritten monthly magazine, “Maroon”, to which her own children and some Queensland cousins contributed. From this beginning, her daughter Rosa was to become a successful and prolific novelist.
Nora Paterson married the widower in 1872, and their first child was born five years after his first wife’s death. The child was given the name Matilda Aimee. She was born at “Montpelier”, a house at Kangaroo Point which the family used as their Brisbane base. It was also the house in which Murray-Prior’s first wife had died.
Matilda Aimee was always called Meta, and her mother’s delight in her first-born extended to writing a poem about her when Meta was about five years old. The poem begins: “I’ll sing of my sweet little Meta”. She was apparently a lively little girl with an active imagination. At seven, she stayed with her Aunt Rose and Uncle Andrew at Illalong in November 1880, by which stage her cousin Banjo, aged sixteen, was finishing up at Sydney Grammar. In a letter from Rose to Nora about the visit, Rose observes: “Andrew and I succeeded in moderating the transports of the ‘Aesthetic’.” In 1896, the year after “Waltzing Matilda” was written, Meta married a solicitor, Arthur Hobbs, and Banjo stayed with them in Brisbane while on his travels through Queensland.
Matilda, both in name and presence, hovering over his aunt’s marriage; the instinctive choices made by Banjo when finding words to fit Christina’s melody; it might be drawing too long a bow to connect the two things, but, for me at least, that white cross in the graveyard at Toowong merits a place in the tale of “Waltzing Matilda”. And in the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, the brothers in music, Yves Montand and Francis Lemarque, lie side by side.
Matilda and La Marianne
In April 1792, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a French army captain of engineers, was garrisoned at Strasbourg. He responded to a call from the mayor requesting a marching song for the French troops quartered there. In one night, April 25, he composed “Le chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin”. The song spread through Alsace in handwritten or printed form, before being taken up by several Paris publishers, but it was after the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, that Rouget’s song came into its own with the French public.
Among those who took part in the uprising was a battalion of about 500 fedérés, or volunteers, who had tramped up from Marseilles to Paris, singing the song along the way. Once in the capital, such was the powerful effect of their singing on the Parisians that the original song title was superseded.
In the early stages, people described it, variously, as the march, song, hymn or battle cry of the men, or people, of Marseilles—“L’Hymne des Marseillais”, “La Marche des Marseillois”, for example. A proclamation in November 1793 decreed that the hymn should be sung regularly at each state function or at such time as the people demanded it.
Not wanting “La Marseillaise” to inspire a revolution against him, Napoléon disowned it, and the song was forbidden by monarchs who followed. It had a brief recovery in 1830 after Charles X was overthrown in the Three Glorious Days uprising; in 1879, it was restored as France’s national anthem.
At the time of the 1830 July Revolution, Hector Berlioz was twenty-six. So fired up was he by events in the capital that he orchestrated the song, giving his arrangement the title: “Hymne des Marseillais, an arrangement of the patriotic song with text and music by Rouget de Lisle for chorus and orchestra”. On the score, above the choir’s first entry, he wrote: “everyone with a voice, a soul and blood in their veins”. In December that year, Rouget de Lisle, living in obscurity and near-destitution, sent Berlioz a letter of appreciation. The revival of interest in the song led to a benefit being held for the old soldier, and King Louis Philippe I granted him a pension.
In 1927, the story of Rouget de Lisle’s song and its creation was given an allegorical treatment in Abel Gance’s silent film masterpiece Napoléon. The great chanteuse of the day, Damia, appeared as the incarnation of “La Marseillaise”.
After the insurrection of August 1792, and the rejection of monarchy as the societal linchpin, the revolutionaries had to hunt around for a narrative that defined the new order, and for images that could best describe and represent it. In Ancient Rome, a cap of felt, or pileus, was worn by slaves emancipated from their masters, and whose descendants were therefore considered citizens of the empire. In Latin, “libertas” meant “belonging to the people; free”. As the personification of liberty, statues of the goddess Libertas showed her carrying two symbols of freedom: the rod placed on a slave’s head in the ceremony bestowing freedom, and the pileus, which the goddess holds, rather than wears.
In September 1792, the Republican government issued a decree stipulating that the state seal was to be changed, and would henceforth depict France in the guise of a woman clothed in the garments of antiquity, and holding a pikestaff surmounted by a Phrygian or Liberty bonnet. The name “Marianne” became identified with this feminine embodiment of Liberty. Paris did not call her Marianne: it was a name she was given outside the capital, and a popular name at the time. The reasons for its adoption remain unclear, but at the time of the founding of the Republic, a song with the title “La garisou de Marianno” had made its appearance. “The Healing of Marianne” was written by a cobbler-poet, Guillaume Lavabre, in the Occitan language of southern France. The lyrics were in essence a sustained metaphor with a political slant: the new régime as a cure for the ills of the old one. In the collective consciousness of the French, Marianne became an archetype, embodying the great republican ideals—la liberté, l’égalité, la fraternité—the ideals which lent fervour to the singing of the féderés on their march from Marseilles into Paris.
Freedom, a fair go, mateship: in the Australian national mythology too, “Waltzing Matilda” became identified with these ideals. There is a black-and-white film clip of Australian soldiers on the march during the Second World War, six abreast, singing our song. The only accompaniment to their singing is the rhythmic tramp of their boots on the road. The soldiers change from singing to whistling the chorus. The camera lifts, and now, as far as the eye can see into the distance, the scale of their numbers is apparent: serpentine columns of lean men in slouch hats weaving in and out of the curves of the road and whistling the familiar refrain.
Marianne is a concrete, visible presence in France. Statues and portrait busts of her adorn town halls and municipal squares. Her image appears on postage stamps, coins and banknotes. But while individual songwriters have composed tributes to Marianne, the French collectively do not sing of her as Australians sing of Matilda.
Banjo’s Matilda owes her existence to the words and tune of a song; she is heard but not seen. Even within the song itself, she is an incorporeal presence; she exists in a bush soundscape. When Francis Lemarque heard the song in the early days after the war, its idiosyncratic local words made the lyrics, beyond the name “Matilda”, inaccessible. His response to the tune was a ballad swiftly composed and in simple language, in which, like the swagman’s Matilda, the essence of the troubadour’s beloved is her intangibility. She comes before us as a fusion of sound and image. The memory of her is conjured up by windsong; she is an Ariel, as weightless and ethereal as thistledown floating and twirling on a light breeze. Over a hundred years before Lemarque wrote his song, Berlioz had written a letter to a friend describing this synthesis of the senses as a “double idée fixe”.
When he was twenty-four, Berlioz wrote a cantata with the title La Morte d’Orphée. It was a theme which had been set by the Academy for applicants seeking the Prix de Rome, but in any case, as Berlioz wrote: “It was Virgil who first found the way to my heart and opened my budding imagination, by speaking to me of epic passions for which instinct prepared me.”
His cantata of 1827 did not meet with success and he discarded it, retrieving some of it four years later to use in Lélio, his sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique. The section in Lélio titled “The Last Sighs of the Harp”, later called “The Aeolian Harp”, is taken from the earlier work. Virgil’s account of the death of Orpheus describes a disembodied head and a lute floating down the River Hebrus: “the pallid visage in its eddying flood”, and the lute whose strings are touched by the sighing winds. “The faint, expiring voice sends forth the mournful cry”, and the name “Eurydice” re-echoes from the river banks.
Banjo once described his poem as a “ditty”. His Matilda did not covet the limelight; she was the soldier’s choice, the people’s choice, and it is the people who have conferred upon her the status of an Immortal. In Walter Scott’s romance, Flora MacIvor sang and played the harp for Edward Waverley beside a Highland waterfall. In 1895, Christina Macpherson, playing a tune on a borrowed autoharp at Dagworth station in outback Queensland, inspired a song which is an echo of a far-off ancient tale—the song of a swagman, an Orpheus of the Antipodes. O Matilda, companion on my journey. O Matilda, idol of my soul.
Diana Figgis lives in Sydney. Her previous article on this subject, “Capturing Gossamer: A Waltz with Matilda”, appeared in the January-February 2020 issue.