Berlioz – Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9

by Max Derrickson

Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9

Hector Berlioz
(Born in La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France, in 1803; died in Paris, France, in 1869)

Berlioz’s arrival in Rome, Italy in 1831 should have been a triumph.  As a recipient of the coveted Prix de Rome award in composition, it provided him with a 5-year stipend and two worry-free years spent absorbing the culture of Rome.  But his travails at trying to win that prize took him four attempts, making him run up against a music establishment in Paris that could barely even tolerate the music of Beethoven.  For Berlioz, who wrote the groundbreaking Symphonie fantastique (1830), these repeated snubs were more than infuriating, further making him feel like an “outsider.”  And when he arrived in Italy, he found himself still more of an outsider than in Paris, as his fellow prize winners were entirely “too mannered” (snobbish) for Berlioz’s tastes.

Despite his lack of enthusiasm, Berlioz managed to slip out into the countryside to several other fabled Italian towns during his tenure.  These sojourns, though simply “escapes,” in fact did more for his musical inspiration than almost any other cultural experience in his life.  From those jaunts came the roots for several of his later works: his wonderful Harold in Italy (1834), for one, as well as bringing him face to face in Florence with the magnificent sculpture, Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545), by the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571).  No doubt, the gory scene of the sculpture, with the Greek hero Perseus holding the hideous head of the fabled snake-haired Medusa, while standing on its blood spewing corpse, appealed to Berlioz’s own graphic depiction of beheading at the scaffold in his Symphonie fantastique.  But the revelation also fostered [. . .] Italian-inspired works, his opera Benvenuto Cellini (1838).

The opera failed to win much interest, despite being filled with some of Berlioz’s most melodic writing.  So in 1844 he took two themes from that Cellini opera and fashioned them into a concert overture – Le carnaval romain; ouverture caractéristique, or Roman Carnival Overture, and it was [. . .].

After a brief and fiery opening, the work settles [. . . ] Carnival in Rome’s Piazza Colonna.  Berlioz here uses a saltarello form, a folk dance of wild abandon, [. . .] – in this case, at the end of phrases, giving the listener the feeling of a freight train launching off a cliff.  The two themes come       [. . .].