The Kennedy Center

The Roman Carnival, Op. 9

About the Work

Image for Berlioz Composer: Hector Berlioz
© Thomas May

In his early breakthrough work, the Symphonie fantastique, the young Hector Berlioz drew on his bouts with unrequited love to depict the fate of the artist. But another important source of inspiration arrived in the early 1830s when the composer won the Prix de Rome, which required him to continue studies in the Eternal City. Despite his complaints about Rome itself, it provided a base for extended travels throughout Italy during which the composer gathered impressions that would spur his imagination for years to come.

The stimulus of this Italian sojourn provided Berlioz can be seen in such works as the orchestral quasi-viola concerto Harold in Italy and in his first completed opera. The latter demonstrates Berlioz's fascination with the Renaissance phenomenon Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the Florentine sculptor, goldsmith, musician, soldier, and memoirist. Cellini's remarkably adventurous life, recounted in his thrilling autobiography, suggested itself to Berlioz as rich source material for operatic treatment. (Camille Saint-Saëns and Kurt Weill are two later composers who likewise turned Cellini's life into works for the stage.) Berlioz naturally admired the artist's maverick attitude and staked his all-important operatic debut in Paris on the two-act Benvenuto Cellini, which centers around his fulfillment, against all odds, of a papal commission to cast his famous bronze statue of the mythical Perseus. The premiere, on September 10, 1838, was a humiliating fiasco. In his own richly colorful Memoirs, the composer later compared the experience to being "stretched on the rack" and "dragged to execution."

Yet Berlioz retained his affection for this early score, and his friend Franz Liszt attempted to revive Benvenuto Cellini in a revised version in Weimar in the 1850s, though it never did catch on in the composer's lifetime. Still, in an effort to salvage some of its excellent music a few years after the premiere, in 1843, Berlioz crafted the Roman Carnival Overture for a concert, using material from various parts of the score. This piece is also known as an "ouverture caractéristique"- a characterful (i.e., "programmatic") overture that can be played as independent concert music. This is in fact how the Roman Carnival Overture is usually encountered. Unlike the opera, it was a hit from the start when Berlioz himself conducted the premiere in a concert in Paris in 1844.        

The triumph was sweet, since one of Berlioz's main complaints about the opera fiasco had been the incompetent (as he saw it) performance led by conductor François Antoine Habeneck, a powerful figure who held the reins at the Paris Opera and with whom the composer was frequently at loggerheads. Berlioz recalled that Habeneck's inability to cope with the tricky dancing rhythm he had chosen for the first act's climactic scene amid a large public gathering (set during carnival at the Piazza Colonna) destroyed the desired effect; instead, the conductor became mired in "a sluggish tempo." At the concert premiere of the piece six years later, which Berlioz himself conducted, the audience was so taken with it that they demanded an immediate encore. With deadpan glee, the composer reported in his Memoirs what happened when he returned backstage from the podium: "I saw Habeneck standing with a slightly crestfallen air, and said casually as I went past, ‘That's how it goes.' He did not reply."

The music that had proved so problematic is exactly what Berlioz chooses to launch the Overture with its brilliantly festive dazzle. It also provides important material for the rest of the piece. The fiery opening soon yields to an introspective, wistful strain scored for solo English horn. This melody-quintessential Berlioz, a master of orchestration-represents Cellini's love for the teenage Teresa, whose father has promised her hand to a rival sculptor. An expanded version of the boisterous carnival music follows. In the opera, Cellini finally completes the great Perseus statue and is thus able to marry his beloved Teresa. Berlioz symbolizes the artist's double victory by weaving the love theme and the somersaulting carnival music together in genuinely thrilling counterpoint as the Overture builds to a swirling, jubilant climax.