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Overture: Benvenuto Cellini (H 76B)

This page is also available in French

    See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz Libretti; Christian Wasselin, "Benvenuto Cellini" (in English); Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    The failure of Benvenuto Cellini at the Paris Opéra in September 1838 was a major setback in Berlioz’s career – henceforward the doors of the Opéra were more or less closed to him, and one of his most vital and inventive scores was never again performed in Paris in his lifetime. Subsequently his friend and champion Liszt staged the work successfully in Weimar in 1852 and again in 1856, but in a revised version. The modifications that Berlioz made for these performances contained some improvements but also sacrificed some fine music from the original version, and considerable changes were made to the sequence of scenes of the original second Act (which now became Act III, while Act I was subdivided into two Acts).

    The overture, published separately already in 1839, is dedicated to Berlioz’s friend Ernest Legouvé; as Berlioz relates in his Memoirs, Legouvé had provided Berlioz with a loan of 2,000 francs at a crucial moment in the composition of the work, and this enabled him to complete the opera. The overture became quickly a successful concert piece which Berlioz performed in Paris and in his concert tours abroad, including a performance at St Petersburg in November 1867 during his last trip to Russia. It was the most brilliant concert overture he had written so far, remarkable for its imaginative and varied orchestral writing, its rhythmic vitality and its abundant melodic inspiration. The version known nowadays represents the result of rewriting by Berlioz – there survives a copy from the archives of the Paris Opéra of an earlier version, similar to the final version but with numerous differences in detail and orchestration, and longer by nearly fifty bars. As often, Berlioz’s second thoughts were more effective by being more concise.

    The thematic material of the overture is partly original, and partly taken from the opera (this follows Weber’s practice). The main theme and its development (bars 1-16, 91-134 etc.), which clearly stand for Cellini himself, are not found in the opera. The two themes of the slow introduction are derived respectively from the Pope’s aria in Act II/III (À tous péchés pleine indulgence; bars 23-36, 64-78 then again in the allegro, bars 355-88) and Harlequin’s arietta on the cor anglais in the carnival scene in Act I/II (bars 34-54, 78-88) – a theme which recalls the opening of the Damnation of Faust and which had already been used by Berlioz in a melody he published in 1834 (Je crois en vous H 70). The second subject in the allegro (bars 159-99, 228-66) is derived from a duet between Cellini and Teresa in Act I, but characteristically Berlioz changes its time signature from triple to duple time and gives it much fuller development in the overture than it receives in the opera.

    In order to achieve the correct note values on playback all triplets and sextuplets have been notated in full wherever they occur.

    Overture: Benvenuto Cellini (duration 9'52")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 6.6.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

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