Berlioz: Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Opus 23
BORN: December 11, 1803. Côte-Saint-André, Départment of Isère, France
DIED: March 8, 1869. Paris
WORLD PREMIERE: September 10, 1838, at the Paris Opéra under the direction of François-Antoine Habeneck
US PREMIERE: November 9, 1867. Theodore Thomas led the Brooklyn Philharmonic
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1919, led by Alfred Hertz. MOST RECENT—September 2006. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets and 2 cornets à piston, 3 trombones, ophicleide (replaced in modern performances by bass tuba), timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings
DURATION: About 11 mins
THE BACKSTORY In the words of the Berlioz scholar David Cairns, L’Académie Royale de Musique, more familiarly known as the Paris Opéra, was "the most prestigious operatic centre in the world and the ultimate goal of a composer's ambitions during the greater part of the nineteenth century. . . . [It was,] at the same time, a byword for splendor of spectacle combined with musical negligence and shoddiness."
In 1833, there appeared a new French translation of the Vita di Benvenuto Cellini, the crackling, uninhibited, sometimes taller-than-life autobiography of the sixteenth-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor. The Vita, a paean to a self-willed artist's lust for independence, had a tremendous vogue among Romantic artists and intellectuals. When Berlioz read it in 1833, he responded to its vitality and passion. He also (in his own words) "had the misfortune to believe [it] would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera." He asked his friends Henri-Auguste Barbier and Léon de Wailly to write a libretto; they in turn enlisted the aid of Alfred de Vigny. The Opéra accepted the work but, as usual, could not deliver an adequate performance. "The Overture was extravagantly applauded," writes Berlioz, "the rest was hissed with exemplary precision."
THE MUSIC Benvenuto Cellini's Overture has never been long absent from concert halls. The quick music we hear first was composed especially for the Overture. The two slow themes are previews of the opera itself, the solemn music beginning with plucked cellos and basses being associated with Cellini's patron, Pope Clement VII, the lovely woodwind melody being Harlequin's plaintive air in the carnival scene. The decisive and impetuous allegro, of which we have had just a hint, then takes over, introducing in its course one of Berlioz's most magnificently sweeping and inspired melodies. At the end, the Pope's theme in slow notes bestrides the scurrying string figurations and the pounding kettledrum rhythms. Not even the conductor Habeneck (who led the premiere) is likely to have missed this; Berlioz does, however, proudly mark it in the score as "Thème de l'adagio réuni au second thème de l'allegro." —Michael Steinberg
LISTEN AGAIN: Colin Davis conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (RCA Victor Red Seal)