Berlioz, like the better French chefs, never threw anything away. If a tune or movement or aria he liked didn't work in one place (or even if it did), it could serve elsewhere. This was the case with Le carnaval romain - The Roman Carnival.
The Roman Carnival is nine minutes of dashing music, orchestrated in Berlioz's brightest colors, intended as the prelude to the second act of his opera Benvenuto Cellini - as an extra added attraction in the revivals that the opera would surely have. The opera was, however, so decisively savaged at its premiere in Paris in 1838 - "hissed with admirable energy and unanimity," according to its composer - that only two revivals, neither being much more cordially received, took place during Berlioz' lifetime, and there have been few revivals since.
The present Overture was introduced under the composer's baton as an independent concert piece in Paris in 1844. It was a resounding success, as indicated by the fact that it had to be encored immediately.
The Overture seamlessly stitches together themes from the opera, including Cellini's first-act aria in praise of his beloved - the luscious melody now sung by the English horn - and the wild saltarello, a folk dance in triple time, which is the recurring, cymbals-punctuated theme. The latter is taken from the second act of the opera, where it dominates the carnival scene being played out in Rome's Piazza Colonna.
- Herbert Glass