Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Opus 9

Louis-Hector Berlioz was born December 11, 1803, in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France, and died March 8, 1869, in Paris. He completed his concert overture Roman Carnival in January 1844, and it was premiered February 3, 1844, with the composer conducting in a concert he produced himself at the Salle Herz in Paris. The North American premiere took place April 13, 1856, at the Assembly Rooms in New York City, with Carl Bergmann leading an unnamed orchestra. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in December 1912, were conducted by Henry Hadley; the most recent performances, in April 2012, were led by Stéphane Denève. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, timpani, cymbals, two tambourines, triangle, and strings. Performance time: about nine minutes.

Hector Berlioz’s father was a physician in a town not far from Grenoble, within view of the Alps; and since the father assumed that his son would follow in the same profession, the son’s musical inclinations were largely ignored. As a result, Berlioz never learned to play more than a few chords on the piano, and his practical abilities as a performer were limited to lessons on flute and guitar, both of which he played with some accomplishment but short of virtuosity. His unorthodox musical background surely contributed to his nonconformist musical language.

He was sent to Paris to attend medical school, hated the experience, and enrolled instead in private music studies and, beginning in 1826, the composition curriculum at the Paris Conservatory. The seal of approval for all Conservatory composition students was the Prix de Rome, and in 1830 (after several failed attempts) he was finally honored with that prize. Apart from providing a measure of recognition for his skills and a welcome source of income, the award included a residency in Italy, a nation whose cultural lineage was considered at that time to wield an indispensable influence over the formation of the creative intellect.

The fifteen months Berlioz spent in Italy proved in some ways as inspiring to him as the Prix de Rome foundation could have hoped, though the grantors were disappointed that the composer produced little serious work while there. Both the remnants of antiquity and the vivacity of modern Italian life left an indelible imprint on his taste, and depictions of Italian history, art, and landscape would surface often in his music in ensuing decades, including such works as the symphony Harold in Italy, the “dramatic symphony” Romeo and Juliet, and the opera Benvenuto Cellini.

To qualify as successful, French composers of Berlioz’s day needed to meet a second requirement apart from winning the Prix de Rome: a hit in the opera house. Berlioz never quite managed to achieve that, although he completed three operas. Benvenuto Cellini (a two-act “opéra semi-seria,” Berlioz called it) was the first. For the plot, Berlioz and his librettists (Léon de Wally and Auguste Barbier, assisted by the poet Alfred de Vigny) went directly to the source: the autobiography of the sixteenth-century Italian sculptor, goldsmith, and musician. Cellini was an iconoclastic, egotistical artist, and Berlioz viewed him as a kindred Romantic soul, swept up in a rarefied world of art and ardor, a genius forever trying the limits of politics and social propriety. What’s more, both Berlioz and Cellini played flute. At its 1838 premiere, Benvenuto Cellini received a run of only four performances, though it did get a second life some years later after Berlioz made severe revisions. In its revised form it was unveiled in Weimar on March 20, 1852, and then, with further alterations that turned it into a three-act opera, on November 17, 1852, both times with Franz Liszt at the helm.

Berlioz wrote Roman Carnival,identified in its subtitle as “a characteristic overture for large orchestra,” in 1843-44 as a stand-alone piece to be performed in a concert of his own works. He fashioned it out of music from Benvenuto Cellini, and it later served as a prelude to the second act for productions of that work. The opera’s second act is, in fact, set in a carnival in Rome. The overture’s introductory flourish is a quotation of the saltarello, a wild dance that would soon be enacted onstage. Then we hear music from the love duet “O Teresa, vous qui j’aime,” which had been sung in the first act by Cellini and Teresa, the girl he is courting; here it is transformed into an extended, warm-hearted solo for English horn. After a passage of surging scales Berlioz quotes some choral material from the opera, and then the saltarello returns to mingle with the love aria as the overture progresses. In the end it is the spirit of the dance that wins out, and the overture concludes in a flurry of energy.

Roman Carnival quickly staked a place as one of Berlioz’s most-played works, though early listeners could be baffled by its idiosyncratic language. Not atypical is an account from an unidentified San Francisco newspaper, preserved as just a press clipping, reporting on a performance on January 10, 1882—the work’s premiere in town—in which a nameless orchestra was conducted by Louis Homeier: “He exorts [sic] from his players frenzies, grotesque and uncouth humors, of whose expression they would have believed no human being capable; and the Roman Carnival is a mad conglomeration of all these things. One could only be surprised at the success attained by the Homeier orchestra in this first rendition of so motley a festival sound.”

Nor did all performances meet with the composer’s approval. Berlioz recounted in his Memoirs (as translated by David Cairns):

In Austria the Roman Carnival overture was for long the most popular of my compositions. It was played everywhere. I remember several incidents connected with it during my stay in Vienna. One evening Haslinger, the music publisher, gave a soirée at which the pieces to be performed included this overture, arranged for two pianos (eight hands) and physharmonica [a kind of harmonium]. When its turn came, I was near the door which opened onto the room where the five performers were seated. They began the first allegro much too slowly. The andante was passable; but the moment the allegro was resumed, at an even more dragging pace than before, I turned scarlet, the blood rushed to my head and, unable to contain my impatience, I shouted out, “This is the carnival, not Lent. You make it sound like Good Friday in Rome.” The hilarity of the audience at this outburst may be imagined. It was impossible to restore silence, and the rest of the overture was performed in a buzz of laughter and conversation, amid which my five interpreters pursued their placid course imperturbably to the end.

James M. Keller

An earlier version of this note appeared in the programs of the New World Symphony. © James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Colin Davis, with either the Dresden Staatskapelle (on RCA Red Seal) or the London Symphony Orchestra (Philips Duo)  |  Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor Gold Seal)  |  Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (Decca)

Reading: Berlioz, by David Cairns (two volumes, University of California Press)  |  Berlioz, by D. Kern Holoman (Harvard University Press)  |  The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns (Everyman’s Library)  |  Selected Letters of Berlioz, translated by Roger Nichols and edited by Hugh Macdonald (W.W. Norton)  |  Bibliography of Hector Berlioz, by Cecil Hopkinson (Edinburgh Bibliographic Society/Richard Macnutt)

DVD: For more on the composer, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in the DVD Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media)