The Kennedy Center

Roman Carnival Overture

About the Work

Image for Berlioz Composer: Hector Berlioz
© Richard Freed

The concert overture Le Carnaval romain, based on themes from Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini, was composed in January 1844 and introduced at the Salle Herz in Paris on February 3 of that year, Berlioz conducting. The National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of this work was conducted by Hans Kindler on February 9, 1933; the most recent one was given at Wolf Trap on July, 13, 2000, under Anthony Aibel. The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, and strings. Approximate duration, 9 minutes.


In January 1844 Berlioz published his famous handbook on the art of orchestration, the Traîté d’instrumentation, and in the same month, by way of concise and brilliant demonstration of the techniques set forth therein, he composed the scintillating ouverture caractéristique he called Le Carnaval romain. He drew virtually all the material for this piece from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, a grandly conceived work that occupied him intermittently for more than three decades.

The opera’s unsuccessful premiere was given in Paris on September 10, 1838; by the time Liszt introduced the first revised version at Weimar, in 1852, The Roman Carnival had been in the orchestral repertory for eight years and Berlioz suggested that it might serve as prelude to the opera’s second act, a carnival set in the Piazza Colonna. Most of the overture’s more vigorous sections were drawn from that part of the opera, while the lyric theme introduced by the English horn is from the duet between Cellini and his beloved Teresa at the end of Act I. This second theme is one of those Berlioz recycled from his early Messe solennelle for use in Cellini and other works; once it is taken up by other elements of the orchestra, it comes to assume a more extrovert spirit, and the concluding portion of the piece is in the form of a grand saltarello, set forth with glorious abandon.

In his Memoirs Berlioz reported that he was once treated to a performance of this orchestral showpiece at a party by five musicians who distributed themselves among two pianos and an early form of harmonium called the physharmonica:

They took the allegro far too slowly; the andante went well, but when they resumed the allegro at a still more dragging speed than before, the blood rushed to my head, I grew scarlet and, unable to keep my temper, cried out, “It is not the Carnival, it is Good Friday they are playing!” I leave you to imagine the mirth excited among the audience by this exclamation. It was impossible to restore silence, and the overture was finished amid the laughter and noise of the assembly, but still quite slowly, and apparently without my five placid interpreters having been in the least disturbed.