The French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was the very model of a 19th-century Romantic artist. Brilliantly gifted and extravagantly temperamental, he lived a storybook life. In fact, if there had not been a real Hector Berlioz, some novelist probably would have invented him. But what fiction writer would have dared to present a hero who, for example, upon hearing rumors about the behavior of his fiancée, Camille Moke, planned to travel from Rome to Paris disguised as a lady's maid for the purpose of killing both Camille and her presumed lover? Or have his readers accept the account of his fanatical infatuation for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, that had him lapsing into wild ragings, roaming the streets of Paris as one possessed? And then, in order to purge himself of the violent emotions that swamped him when he was advised of her indiscretions, decided to bare his soul in a symphony (his Fantastique) by defiling the woman in a bizarre musical indictment?
Berlioz's behavior was reflected in a larger-than-life music - music whose flamboyance and innovation quite bewildered his contemporaries. The Parisian public who in 1838 saw his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, reacted predictably: with decisive disapproval. The vital Overture fared much better, being greeted with what the composer called "exaggerated applause," a remark reflecting understandable pained cynicism, for after all, the success of an overture is not likely to compensate for the failure of the opera it precedes.
Aside from the enormous amount of creative energy he spent on the opera, Berlioz apparently was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of its hero. Clearly, after reading the memoirs of the Florentine Cellini, who lived the kind of vibrantly romantic life Berlioz easily identified with, he must have thought the fabulous Benvenuto an ideal operatic hero. Pity the poor composer, then, whose labor of love is treated in such cavalier fashion.
A capsulized portrait of Cellini, the master craftsman and rogue, is painted in the blinding flash of brilliance with which the Overture begins. This opening impetuosity is withdrawn suddenly to make way for a slow section containing themes from the opera. The remainder of the Overture is worked out with Berlioz's typically dazzling orchestration and vivid pictorialism operating at peak form.
Ironically, considering the quality of the present Overture, when Berlioz wrote - years after the 1838 Cellini premiere fiasco - another overture, which he called The Roman Carnival, to prelude the second act, it became the favored orchestral excerpt from the opera.
-- Orrin Howard annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives.