Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture

Notes by TŌN violinist Xinran Li

A Colorful Symphonic Firework
French composer Hector Berlioz wrote quite a number of overtures during his lifetime. Le carnaval romain (Roman Carnival), Op.9, was composed in 1844, an overture written in A major for large orchestra. It was premiered in Paris the same year, conducted by the composer himself. The performance was a huge success and the audience demanded an encore. Like many other great composers, Berlioz extracted materials from his earlier compositions, in this case his opera Benvenuto Cellini. The opera was forced to close after only three performances because it was not well-received by audiences at the time. Instead of completely abandoning the materials from the opera, Berlioz revived portions and concentrated them into this brilliant overture. This colorful symphonic firework is truly a nine-minute joy ride.

The Music
The name Roman Carnival comes from the carnival scene in the opera. The overture starts with a saltarello, a fast Italian dance form. Berlioz loved going on trips to rural Italian cities during his residency in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome. The Italian countryside had a huge impact on his composing after he returned to Paris. After a sneak peak of a very energetic and powerful entrance of the saltarello, we hear a beautiful English horn solo. The solo introduces the main theme, derived from Benvenuto’s aria in Act I of the opera. The saltarello then reoccurs in triple time, and becomes an increasingly hot fireball. The witty, rhythmic bombshell of a dance disrupts our usual sense of the downbeat. In the final moments of the overture, the theme from the introduction comes back and plays together with the saltarello in a fascinating instrumental dialogue. The coda then finishes the piece with exhilarating musical fireworks.