In 1977, the acclaimed violist Donald McInnes joined the Orchestre National de France and Leonard Bernstein for an exhilarating performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie en quatre parties avec alto principal (better known as “Harold en Italie”!) at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs Élysées.
Three years after the premiere of his revolutionary Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz received a personal request from Paganini himself for a viola concerto. As the composer later recounted, Paganini had recently acquired “a marvelous viola, an instrument by Stradivarius, and I would like to play it in public. But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a viola solo? I trust only you with this task.”
Berlioz happily began composing, but the work that he developed proved disappointing for the virtuoso: Paganini had expected the viola's role to dominate that of the orchestra, with the soloist playing constantly. It was for this reason that another musician, Chrétien Urhan, would premiere Harold en Italie in 1834. Even so, upon finally hearing the piece in 1838, Paganini was overwhelmed: he dragged the composer on stage after the performance for a bow, kneeling before him and kissing his hand. Then, a few days later, Paganini sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations with a check enclosed for 20,000 francs!