Le Carnaval romain (``The Roman Carnival'')

Ouverture caractéristique

For piccolo, flutes I-II, oboes I-II, English horn, clarinets I-II, bassoons I-II; horns I-IV, trumpets I-II, cornets à pistons I-II, trombones I-III; timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourines; strings.

Composed June 1843-January 1844 in Paris. Dedicated to the Prince Hohenzollern-Hechingen, music lover and patron of the composer.

First performed February 3, 1844, at a concert produced and conducted by Berlioz in the Salle Herz, Paris.

Published by Maurice Schlesinger (Paris, 1844) as op. 9.

Duration: about 7 minutes.

Berlioz fashioned the Roman Carnival Overture for an upcoming concert season for which little of his major work in progress was quite ready. It was meant to convey (or ``be characteristic of,'' as the subtitle suggests) the excitement of the Roman Mardi Gras. Both main themes are borrowed from the opera Benvenuto Cellini, which despite its great artistic merit had failed in 1837. The action of the opera takes place on Shrove Monday, Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday.

The rapid theme in at the beginning is from the whirling saltarello in Cellini, during which the people of Rome make their way to a puppet show in the Piazza Navona. (A similar scene opens Stravinsky's Petruskha.) The great English horn solo comes from Cellini's act I love-song ``O Teresa, vous que j'aime plus que ma vie'' (``O Teresa, I adore you more than my own life.'') But the clever joining together of the two themes in a single movement is new, as is most of the metric jolting caused by throwing the into now and then. The work breathes with a vivacity of color and motion that show the composer at his best, an élan of which he was especially proud.

The concert that featured the first performance of Le Carnaval romain is equally interesting for another reason. That same afternoon Berlioz presented an early song in an arrangement for six new instruments built by the famous maker Adophe Sax. It appears to have been the public début of the saxophone.

Son of a prosperous small-town physician, Berlioz had an excellent though provincial elementary education at the hands of his father and the local bandmasters. He set out for Paris in 1821 to become a doctor, a plan hastily abandoned when he saw, in short succession, a series of grand operas and the dissecting room of the Paris morgue. He became a student of Le Sueur, the Conservatoire's excellent teacher of composition, and by 1830 had written his first and most influential symphony, the Symphonie fantastique. In the same year he won the prix de Rome and left France for his Italian sojourn, an experience from which he drew musical inspiration for the rest of his life.

The decade from 1830 resulted in one remarkable new work after another: the symphony with solo viola called Harold en Italie (1834), the Requiem (1837), the vibrant opera Benvenuto Cellini (1838), the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette; the lovely songs to Gautier's poems, called Les Nuits d'été; and a ceremonial symphony for band, the Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840), much admired by Wagner.

Berlioz spent the next two decades travelling throughout Europe to conduct concerts of his own music and, among many others, the works of Gluck, Spontini, Weber, and Beethoven. Over the course of his travels, he came to befriend Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner; in Paris, he had already formed an intimate friendship with Liszt and a passing acquaintance with Chopin. In 1846 Berlioz composed, performed, and very nearly lost his shirt over the dramatic legend, La Damnation de Faust (``The Damnation of Faust'') and in 1854 enjoyed his greatest popular success with the oratorio L'Enfance du Christ (``The Childhood of Christ''). At the end of his career, he looked back to the style of his distinguished predecessors Gluck and Spontini as a model for his grand opera, Les Troyens (``The Trojans,'' 1858) almost exactly contemporaneous with--and virtually as important as--Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Berlioz was one of the most influential minds of the nineteenth century, excelling in each of this three careers; composing, conducting, and writing music criticism. His Mémoires, posthumously published in 1870, are among the best prose left to us by any composer. His compositions were strongly influenced by the simultaneous discovery in the late 1820s of the symphonies of Beethoven and the tragedies of Shakespeare; he imagined his experiments with dramatic music, lavish performing force, and eccentric melodic and phrase structures as natural outgrowths of Beethoven's advances. Among his signal contributions to modern orchestral practice were his advocacy of sectional rehearsal, an international standard pitch for tuning, and conducting with a baton and full score.

Berlioz's personal life was altogether gloomy, particularly after he had outlived both wives, all his brothers and sisters, his beloved son, and most of his closest friends. At the end, he felt his career to have been a failure. He was always confident, however, that a century later his works would be recognized for the masterpieces that they are.

Berlioz's works are organized in a catalogue by D. Kern Holoman (New Berlioz Edition, vol. 25).