Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Born December 11, 1803 in La Côte Saint-André.
Died March 8 1869 in Paris.

Roman Carnival Overture (Le carnaval romain)

Composed June 1843 – January 1844.

First Performance: February 3, 1844 at the Salle Herz, Paris conducted by Berlioz.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, 2 tambourines, triangle), and strings.

Hector Berlioz grew up in a small town located between Lyon and Grenoble. His father was a noted physician who wanted his son to follow his profession. In his youth Hector always had a keen interest in music – composing, playing the flute and guitar (but not the piano!). When he left home for Paris in 1821 it was for medical training. A turning point was when he attended his first performance at the Opéra: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. He then spent his time copying Gluck’s scores at the Conservatoire. In 1824 he abandoned his medical studies and after a few years of private music study he became a student at the Conservatoire in 1826.

His first real success came in 1830 with his Symphonie Fantastique. After several attempts he finally won the Prix de Rome which required him to live in Italy. He moved to Rome in March 1831. Italy proved to be a source of inspiration for many of his works such as Harold in Italy.

In 1836 he began work on an opera loosely based on the memoirs of Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). The libretto reflected his own struggles as an artist to overcome obstacles to create his work. For various reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the work the premiere at the Paris Opéra in September 1838 was a disaster. It lasted for only a few performances before he withdrew it.

Berlioz was never shy about repurposing his music. In 1843 he extracted two sections from Benvenuto Cellini to form a concert overture – or perhaps as a new introduction to Act II. The premiere in 1844 conducted by the composer was a resounding success.

The overture opens with a brief opening flourish that is a truncated version (just up to the bracket in Example 1) of the Saltarello – an Italian “leaping” (You may have eaten saltimboca which “leaps into your mouth”) folk dance in 6/8 – from the carnival scene (the end of the second act or first act in the Paris version) of Benvenuto Cellini. The full statement of this theme comes later.

Example 1.  Saltarello

The setting immediately becomes tranquil. A solo English horn then introduces a reworking of the duet between Cellini and Teresa from the first act “O Teresa, vous que j’aime plus que ma vie” (O Teresa, whom I adore). Actually the second part of this theme is borrowed (so we hear a borrowing of a borrowing!) from a Cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre that he wrote for one of his failed Prix de Rome competition attempts.

Just before Berlioz composed this overture he completed his influential treatise on orchestration – the Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes. His description of the English horn is apt:

“It is 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.”

Example 2. O Teresa, whom I adore

The theme is picked up by others instruments sometimes canonically. Note that the English horn still plays a countersubject as the texture thickens.

We hear the woodwinds play a swirling rising and falling passage which sets the expectation for a contrastingly loud section. The meter does change with the return of the Saltarello but it is presented softly with muted strings.

Example 3.

We then hear the full Saltarello theme (all of Example 1) now played fortissimo by the strings. In fact this music was originally written for his Messe Solennelle, which was then adapted into a Saltarello for his opera.

It is very interesting to compare this orchestral incarnation of the Saltarello with the Opera’s carnival scene in Rome’s Piazza Colonna which is presented by a full chorus. When performed at the proper tempo the music is very exciting with the chorus sounding like something between Rossini’s Factotum della città and Paul Lansky’s Idle Chatter.

Berlioz felt that one of the reasons for the failure of the opera was the inability of the conductor François-Antoine Habaneck to achieve the correct tempo. As Berlioz wrote in his memoirs: “’Faster! Faster! Put more life into it!’ Losing his temper Habeneck would hit the desk and break his bow. In the end, after seeing him explode four or five times, I said to him with a coolness that exasperated him: ‘Sir, you might break another fifty bows but your tempo would still be too slow by half. This is a Saltarello.’” Habeneck was present at the premiere of the overture. After this resounding success Berlioz said to him “That’s what it sounds like!”

The music becomes quiet again and we hear the O Teresa theme return in the bassoons accompanied by the Saltarello.

A brilliant coda brings the work to a rousing conclusion but not before we get one of his famous curveballs. Right before the final chord (we don’t know it’s the final chord yet) we hear a fortissimo chord which makes us think that perhaps a new section is coming. But it is not to be. It immediately resolves into the final A major chord.

The overture is more than a mere parergon. Berlioz’ exceptional orchestrational talents – choosing the appropriate instruments, settings and keys (e.g. The carnival music is in F major in the opera but transposed to the more brilliant A major for the orchestra) are on full display here. Added to this is his harmonic adventurousness and rhythmic nuances which elevate the overture to a true work of art.