Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Berlioz - Roman Carnival Overture

In many ways Hector Berlioz was unique among the 19th century classical composers. He was not a child prodigy and only began his musical studies at the age of 12. He was groomed by his father (who was a physician) for a career in medicine, so he was discouraged from learning the piano in his youth and never learned to play the instrument. He learned the guitar and flute on his own, and never had any formal training in harmony and trained himself with text books.

In the France of Berlioz's day there was a government scholarship for artists called the Prix de Rome. It was originally for painters and sculptors but was extended to include music composition in 1803. Many French composers vied for the scholarship as the winner traveled to study at the French Academy in Rome for two years with all expenses paid by the French government. The entrants had to compose a fugue and a cantata to a text supplied by the judges, a group of conservative French musicians. There was also a pension provided to the winner for the duration of their study, which was one of the reasons Berlioz applied for the prize. He tried four different times before he finally won in 1830. This was after he had composed and premiered the first version of the piece he is most well-known for, his Symphonie Fantastique

While Berlioz composed very little music while in Rome (he detested the city and took every opportunity to travel
Bust of Benvenuto Cellini
elsewhere in the country), he came to love the surrounding countryside which served to inspire much of his later music such as Harold In Italy. An expectation for a returning Prix de Rome winner was the composition of an opera. Berlioz's first operatic effort was Benvenuto Cellini, with the libretto based on the autobiography of the 16th-century sculptor, poet and musician. Berlioz looked upon Cellini as a kindred spirit which acted as an inspiration to the composer. The opera was premiered in 1838 and received four performances before the rest of the scheduled ones were canceled, as the opera was a complete failure. Berlioz drastically revised the score for a revival of the opera under the direction of Franz Liszt, and made further revisions for another performance by Liszt in 1852 and the opera became a success.  

After the initial premiere of 1838 (and before the successful revival of 1852), not wanting to let some of good tunes go to waste that he had composed,  Berlioz composed a stand-alone overture from some of the themes of the opera in 18.  He called it Le Carnaval Romain  (The Roman Carnival). The second act of the opera does take place in a carnival in Rome. The opening of the overture is a fragment of a saltarello  from the original opera. Berlioz then uses music from a love duet of the opera played by the English horn. He then quotes some choral music, where upon the opening saltarello returns and combines in a dialogue with the love theme. The saltarello overpowers the love theme, and the music gets wilder and wilder until the brass and woodwind loudly trills out the final chord with the strings. 

The Roman Carnival Overture was a success for the composer, and it was used as a prelude to the second act of Benvenuto Cellini in its revival, but it did have its detractors. Berlioz's music could be wild in content and unique in orchestration. His knack for orchestral innovation was not always easy for listeners to comprehend, nor was it easily understood by some contemporary conductors and musicians. Indeed, Berlioz became a conductor initially because he was so dissatisfied with the way his music was performed. As with so many other aspects of this composer, he was self-taught as a conductor.  But through hard work and natural ability, he became one of the best conductors of his era as well as being one of the most important and influential composers of the Romantic era.  

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