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Berlioz (1803-69) - Overture "Le Carnaval Romain"

"Oh, not turkey again!" resounded across the land in the aftermath of Christmas. It takes a culinary genius to persuade the average family to devour "the remains" with any enthusiasm. Berlioz was a genius, though with not food but music, and the Roman Carnival Overture his tastiest recipe for revitalising leftovers. Composed in 1844 and premiered on 3rd February that year, he must actually have written it during "Turkey-fest". 

Berlioz' "turkey" was his unsuccessful opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1838), the particular scraps coming from the Act 3 prelude: a curvaceous melody and a sizzling salterello. Berlioz' astonishing, utterly unprecedented aural imagination can still mesmerise audiences even today. This overture is stuffed with characteristic ingredients: shrill woodwind swirls, surprising string effects, blistering brass, percussive precision (and incision!). Who before Berlioz had even come near cooking up such a dish? And exciting? It still blows my socks off. 

A festive flourish prefaces three statements of a singularly beautiful melody, firstly on cor anglais and strings, secondly on 'cellos with woodwind arabesques, and thirdly in string canon haloed by rhythmic brass and scintillating percussion. A whirl of woodwind and percussion kick-starts the salterello, hair-raising brass stretti whipping it along like a top. After a repeat (!), the rhythm is left ticking under a timely re-entry of the cor anglais tune, building an orgiastic coda where the violins try to out-tambourine the tambourines. The audience at its first performance demanded "seconds".

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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