About this work
Berlioz's most popular and most virtuosic overture is actually an independent concert piece, but it has close ties to an opera. After the premiere of his opera Benvenuto Cellini, based on the autobiography of the famous Italian Renaissance sculptor, Berlioz never forgave the conductor for his lifeless delivery of the second act's saltarello finale. So ten years later he used the saltarello as the opening of his Roman Carnival Overture, and took the trouble to conduct the work himself in its first performances. But even before the strings and winds can really launch the revelry, the solo horn and clarinet introduce some harmonic ambiguity, and the English horn slips in with the rapturous love-duet theme from the opera's first act. Suddenly, three swirling woodwind passages suggest that fireworks are being set off on the Piazza Colonna, and the saltarello takes over, eventually incorporating the love theme into the festivities.
Berlioz was so pleased with this overture, and with its reception as well, that he advocated using it as the prelude to the second act of Benvenuto Cellini. This practice is usually followed to this day. After the overture's publication in full score, Johann Peter Pixis arranged it for two pianos, eight hands. This arrangement received a performance by the pianistic luminaries Franz Liszt, Charles Hallé, Ferdinand Hiller, and Pixis himself -- full testimony to its status as one of the hits of its day.