Roman Carnival Overture, op. 9

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        Of all of the major composers of the nineteenth century, Hector Berlioz is perhaps the most personally interesting. What a vivacious, unique individual he was, both in his life and in his music. And, perhaps most refreshing--for one who lived such an intense and varied existence--on the whole he suffered from few pathologies in his behavior and personality. He was intense and impassioned in his pursuit of the composition of music that reflected his literary interests, his interaction with his physical surroundings, and his deeply-felt emotions. He was not a virtuoso performer (playing the flute and the guitar only passably), his early musical training having been derived largely from the study of harmony books. However—and it is a major informing aspect of his intellect—he was a man of literature. He read widely and with sophistication from an early age, and later become one of the most important music critics and general authors in music of all time. Over a half dozen or more of his major works derive from some important connection with Shakespeare; he married the most important Shakespearian actress of the time, and composed his Symphonie fantastique as a response to his hopeless infatuation with her (the marriage didn’t work out). Characteristically, he never actually set any of Shakespeare’s words to music—they were an inspiration, only. And the same should be said of his music, which is filled with local color and the expertly-crafted atmospherics that were inspired by nature and culture.

        His early career was driven to some degree by his frustrating quest to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which he finally won in 1830. Characteristically, having won, he dallied and resisted actually moving to Rome for the required residency there—he loathed Rome and Italian art and music. Of Rome wrote: “Rome is the most stupid and prosaic city I know . . . .” He did, however, love the Italian countryside, the sunshine, and the evocative legends and characters.

        While a successful composer in many genres, he always sought ultimate recognition as a composer of opera, but notwithstanding his skill in that genre his five operas never quite brought him the acclaim he deserved. And that is certainly true of his 1838 opera based upon the life of the great Renaissance artist, Benvenuto Cellini. For various reasons, it failed to please the directors and audience at the Opéra, and it was withdrawn. But it was a rip-roaring affair, full of brilliant music, masterful and exciting writing for the orchestra, and a general vivacious variety of almost everything. It was from this stimulating work whose elements, reworked, produced the Roman Carnival Overture six years later in 1844.

        The traditional saturnine carnival of catholic countries that ends with Lent (we’ve got Mardi gras in Mobile and New Orleans) was quite renowned in the 19th century; the New York Times even had a special article on it in February 1874 that marveled at the mad rush of horses driven down the Via del Corso at the end of each day’s revelry. Atmospherics driven by Berlioz’s Roman memories infuse his overture, starting with the opening lick taken from the brilliant salterello of the opera. But, we only get a taste of it before mysterious sustained tones interrupt it set up the sonorous slow theme in the English horn. This memorable tune is the “love” duet from the first act of the opera. After various treatments of the tune some little “dust devils” of scales in the woodwinds announce the re-appearance of the fast salterello, of which we heard just a taste at the very beginning. It doesn’t go away, now, and carries us triumphantly along—although from time to time Berlioz teases us with brief allusions to the slow theme in the midst of the revelry. The sparkling Italian dance rushes headlong, as only Berlioz can drive an orchestra, ending with paint-peeling passages in the brass.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan