After marinating on the themes for years, Hector Berlioz was simply not willing to let go of the musical ideas from his failed 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini. January of 1844 was an important month for the composer, as he published his landmark orchestration book Traîté d’instrumentation. Weeks later he also took the reinvigorated themes from the earlier opera to create what would become the Roman Carnival Overture. Later writing about it in his memoirs Berlioz stated: “I have just reread my poor score carefully and with the strictest impartiality, and I cannot help recognizing that it contains a variety of ideas, an energy and exuberance and a brilliance of color such as I may perhaps never find again, and which deserved a better fate.”
The score calls for the typically large Berlioz orchestration of 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, and strings. Berlioz opens with a favored device of a short-lived bold flourish before settling into a lengthy Andante Sostenuto that showcases one of the most memorable aria- like English Horn solos in all of the repertoire. The slower section is nicely balanced by a rustic Spanish-tinged saltarello dance that both moves and swings in a 6/8 triple-meter. Based off of the “Carnival Chorus” from the second act of Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz keeps this driving theme interesting with asymmetrical phrasing and his trademark brilliant orchestration. The tune begins in the woodwinds over a backdrop of muted strings as the orchestration gradually gets larger and the string mutes come off for a full-throated forte version of the tune. Suspense is maintained by numerous shifts in dynamics that lead to an exciting and frenzied ending.
The concert overture was dedicated to Austrian military officer and Napoleonic war veteran Prince von Hohenzollern-Hechingen, and was premiered at the Salle Herz in Paris on February 3. One to famously lament the tempo choices others took with his works, Berlioz himself conducted. While he may have hoped to use it in a future opera production, the popularity and success of the overture with conductors and audiences cemented Roman Carnival’s permanent position as a favored concert-opener.