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Overture: Roman Carnival (H 95)

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    The history of the composition and performance of the Roman Carnival overture is well documented in Berlioz’s writings, and it is appropriate to begin with a few quotations from the composer’s letters.

To the publisher A. J. Benacci-Peschier (CG no. 850; 24 September 1843):

I am writing at the moment a brilliant overture which is not very difficult; it is called the Roman Carnival overture. If by chance you were willing to publish it this winter after I have performed it in one of my concerts, I will be delighted to come to an agreement with you for this.

To George Hogarth, secretary of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London (CG no. 1567; 13 February 1853):

I am almost ashamed, dear Mr. Hogarth, to write to you about these kind of details [the cost of hiring the material for performing the overture], all the more so as it is a real joy for me to know that this overture is in the hands of M. Costa who is really the man in the world most qualified to convey the character of the work and to give it this fuoco transteverino (Roman fire) without which it does not produce a quarter of its effect.
You should also know that to perform this piece, in addition to the instruments which the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society already has, you need two cornets with first-rate players (for example Kœnig and another player), and also a tambourine, a triangle and a pair of cymbals. But there is no need for an ophicleid or a bass drum.
The solo for cor anglais does not require a special player; it should be played by the 1st oboe (who changes instrument). M. Barré will play it very well.

To George Hogarth (CG no. 1571; 23 February 1853):

I am very pleased to inform you that this overture is that to the second act of my opera Benvenuto Cellini; it is built from two themes from this score. The andante is derived from the duet between Benvenuto and Teresa, the allegro is built from the double chorus of jugglers and masks, which is sung and danced on Colonne Square on the last evening of the Carnival. But the blending of the two themes which you will notice in the middle of the allegro is only to be found in the overture.

    These letters call for a few words of comment. Berlioz started writing the overture in the autumn of 1843, at a time when he was still writing up for the Journal des Débats his letters on his recent travels in Germany. The composition of the overture took several months, and was completed in early January 1844, as emerges from a letter dated 10 January to his publisher Maurice Schlesinger (CG no. 878) in which he says ‘I am now rid of my overture, I am finishing it this very moment’. What is striking is that months before the work was completed, and long before he would hear it performed (the first performance took place on 3 February 1844), Berlioz was confident of its success and was already looking for a publisher (whereas earlier in his career he had been deliberately slow in publishing his symphonies). The overture was published the same year (1844), not by the publisher he is known to have approached (CG no. 850) but by Schlesinger. It was dedicated to the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, who in winter 1842-3 had invited Berlioz to his residence in Hechingen to give a concert; Berlioz related the visit in his second letter about his German travels (Journal des Débats, 20 August 1843, which he later reproduced in his Memoirs). Berlioz was right to be confident about the quality of his work: the Roman Carnival overture is the most brilliant of all his overtures; it was the one most frequently performed in his lifetime (see the Performance history below). It has remained popular after his death up to the present, and has been recorded many times.

    The overture is a masterpiece of imaginative orchestral writing, and the score repays close study. As always with Berlioz, he is very selective and purposeful in his choice and use of instruments. The work is written for a normal symphony orchestra, as Berlioz’s first letter to George Hogarth shows (CG no. 1567), but with the addition of a few particular instruments. The very distinctive tone of the cor anglais is used to introduce the melody of the andante (bar 21 and following), and later to provide a counterpoint to its second statement by the violas (bar 45 and following), but thereafter is silent for the whole of the allegro, for which the player changes to the first oboe. The two cornets are chosen partly for their ability to play all the chromatic notes within their compass (for example bars 152-8, 249-55), unlike the natural trumpets which were available to Berlioz at the time, and partly for their great agility in fast–moving music such as that of the allegro of the overture (bars 343-8, 352-5. 397-400): hence Berlioz’s insistence on having first-rate players. Berlioz deliberately omits the ophicleid, to keep the overal texture light and prevent the music from being bass-heavy. The trombones are used to electrifying effect, but at the same time sparingly: they are silent in the andante and the earlier part of the allegro, begin to be heard briefly later (bars 158-60, 255-6, 274-5), enter again at bar 315 but quietly at first (bars 315 and following), then in an exciting crescendo which leads to a triumphant return of the main theme, with a thunderous counterpoint by the trombones in their upper register (bars 344 and following). The analysis could be pursued through to the end of the overture (see bars 372-87, 403-46). The role of the percussion is no less distinctive: Berlioz deliberately omits the bass drum, which would have been too heavy and disruptive in this style of music, but as well as the cymbals includes the triangle and the tambourine, light percussion instruments which give the music its sparkle and dancing character. As often with Berlioz the percussion is frequently made to play softly, and not just loud to add to the volume in tutti passages; see for example the wonderful passage in the slow introduction where they accompany unexpectedly the main melody played in canon (bars 53-60), or in the allegro the gradation of dynamics from ppp to pp then p to suddenly ff (bars 194-225).

    The overture is also perhaps the finest example of Berlioz’s skill in translating vocal music to instrumental use. As the letter to Hogarth says (CG no. 1571), the work is constructed essentially from two themes, or groups of themes, from the opera Benvenuto Cellini. The introductory andante is derived from the duet between Cellini and Teresa in Act I, and the allegro from the music of the carnival in Act II. Characteristically Berlioz changes the original keys of the music (from A flat major to C, then E, then A for the duet; from F major to A major for the carnival music). He also manages to make the instrumental version improve on the original. The treatment of the theme in the slow introduction is much more varied and colourful than the version in the opera, and the same is true of the carnival music. Whereas in the opera the carnival music starts loud and only later introduces dynamic contrasts, in the overture Berlioz starts softly with muted strings and delicate interjections by the wind (bar 78 and following), builds up a feeling of suspense, only to surprise the listener with the sudden arrival of the main ritornello fortissimo (bar 128 and following). He uses the multiple resources of the orchestra to make the music more varied and colourful than it is in the opera. He also surprises the listener by bringing back the theme of the andante, at first softly in a fugato led by the bassoons (bar 304 and following), then later forte on the trombones (bar 372 and following). And how many listeners are aware that the music of the saltarello was originally in the opera a chorus sung to words? The use of orchestral instruments allows a greater clarity in articulation than is possible with a chorus on stage.

Performance history

    As mentioned above, Berlioz was right to expect that the work would be a success: it became almost instantly popular, received no less than six performances in the early months of 1844, two of which were a transcription for two pianos. As it was quickly published, other conductors were tempted to perform it themselves. In the tables below the performances that were not conducted by Berlioz are identified with an *asterisk.

Performances in Paris and in France

(All performances in Paris unless otherwise indicated)

1844: 3 February (Salle Herz; Memoirs chapter 48); *1 April (arrangement for 2 pianos by Pixis); 6 April (Opéra-Comique); 12 April (Salle Herz); 4 May (Salle Ventadour): *11 May (arrangement for 2 pianos by Pixis)
1845: 19 January (Cirque Olympique; see the comments of Charles Hallé on this performance; 20 & 24 July (Lyon; CG no. 977)
1849: *16 April (CG no. 1256)
1850: *20 January (Société Sainte-Cécile. cond. Seghers; according to Peter Bloom, Mémoires de Berlioz [2019] p. 800 n. 51. this is the performance that is referred to by Berlioz in the Post-Scriptum of his Memoirs
1853: *20 February (conducted by Pasdeloup); *4 December (conductor unknown)
1859: *17 February (conducted by Mohr); 8 June (Bordeaux)
1862: *2 March (conducted by Pasdeloup)
1863: 8 February & 22 February (Salle Martinet; CG no. 2699)
1865: *8 April (Liège; conductor unknown)
1866: *4 February (conducted by Pasdeloup)
1869: *7 February (conducted by Pasdeloup)

Performances abroad

1845: 16, 23 & 29 November, 17 December (Vienna; CG no. 1011; Memoirs chapter 56)
1846: 11 January & 1 February (Vienna); 19, 25 January & 31 March (Prague; CG no. 1031; 15 & 20 February (Pest); 20 March (Breslau); 24 April (Brunswick)
1847: 15 & 25 March, 5 May (St. Petersburg; Memoirs, chapter 56); 29 May (Riga; CG no. 1113)
1848: 7 & 9 February, 29 June (London; CG no. 1162)
1853: 30 May (London; CG nos. 1567, 1568, 1571, 1598; 11 August (Baden-Baden); 23 or 30 October (Brunswick; CG nos. 1636, 1644); 22 November (Bremen); 1 December (Leipzig)
1854: 29 April & 1 May (Dresden)
1855: 17 March (Brussels)
1856: *13 April (New York; conducted by Carl Bergmann)
1857: *24 January (Boston; conductor unknown)
1861: *9 November (New York; conducted by Carl Bergmann)
1862: March (London; conductor unknown)
1863: 19 April (Löwenberg)
1864: *date? (New York; conductor unknown)
1866: *11 February (Brussels; conducted by Adolphe Samuel; CG no. 3100); *15 December (New York; conducted by Carl Bergmann)
1867: 14 December (St Petersburg); *28 December (Philadelphia; conducted by Theodore Thomas)
1868: 8 January (Moscow)

    The last word may be left to an admirer of Berlioz, Félicie Houry, who wrote to him after hearing one of the last performances of the overture that Berlioz conducted in Paris in February 1863 (CG no. 2699; 3 March 1863):

The overture to Carnaval Romain, which might be called more justly the great Roman Symphony (I have also heard it at the Pasdeloup concert) [2 March 1862] is a real masterpiece. What vehemence in the inspiration, what fire, what spontaneity — how moving it is to hear! — this music will never grow old!

    In Berlioz’s score the metronome mark for the main Allegro is dotted crotchet = 156. Hugh Macdonald has however suggested that this is a mistake for 152, the tempo given in the score of Benvenuto Cellini for the carnival music. Besides, 156 does not exist on the metronome scale (see Berlioz Studies, ed. Peter Bloom [Cambridge University Press, 1992], p.22). This suggestion has been followed here.

    Overture: Roman Carnival (duration 8'38")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 11.06.2000; revised 18.09.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page

This page revised and enlarged on 1 March 2022.

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