The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

Carnival masks in Rome. © Charles Thibo
Carnival masks in Rome. © Charles Thibo

The bigot is powerless against the fool. The fool can speak freely since he has neither wealth nor reputation to lose. I can understand that you are frustrated or even frightened by the idea that the world’s only superpower might turn into a rogue state. Let’s not be frightened! Let’s be foolish! Let’s laugh into the face of the egocentric millionaire, the spoiled son of a rich daddy, the real estate agent turned into expert on immigration and macro-economics. He will soon find out that he is much less relevant than he and his supporters believe. And it will drive him mad!

Now, please close your eyes for a few minutes and stretch out your hands! A friendly fool will take you… to Rome! Hear the music! Imagine streets full of crowds! Masks everywhere! Exuberant joy, laughter, celebration all over the city! Dance! Sing! Drink! Live! The Roman Carnival. What a pleasure it is to live in Europe and to benefit of more than 2000 years of cultural refinement.

A row at the Paris opera

The French composer Hector Berlioz has composed in 1844 a lovely little piece that will light up this grey month of November. “Le Carneval Romain”, op. 9 (The Roman Carnival), has the form of an overture and is composed in A major. The main theme is an old dance, a saltarello, that Berlioz had already used in his opera “Benvenuto Cellini”. That dance led to a serious row between the composer and the conductor of the Paris opera, François Habeneck. According to Berlioz’ “Mémoires”, Habeneck had the orchestra play the saltarello theme exasperatingly slow, so slow that it confused the dancers on the stage and enraged the composer.

Rehearsing with half an orchestra

Berlioz furthermore explains that some years later Habeneck had come to a performance of the “Carneval Romain” expecting a disaster. As a matter of fact, he had heard that Berlioz had to rehearse the piece without winds, the players having been requisitioned by the French National Guard that day. When the winds later showed up for the concert they felt rather uncomfortable. “Don’t worry!” he told them. “The scores are correct, you are all talented people, look at my baton as often as possible, count your pauses and all will be well.” Apparently all went well and, according to Berlioz, Habeneck seemed disappointed  when he left the concert. “This is how it should be played”, Berlioz hissed when he passed by Habeneck leaving the venue.

A déjà-vu in Vienna

However, Habeneck was apparently not the only one having trouble with the piece’s tempo. Once, while Berlioz was assisting a performance of the piece in Vienna, he was shocked to hear the allegro played even slower than the previous andante. He exploded in the concert hall: “This does not sound like carnival, this sounds like Lent, like Good Friday!” A few days later he conducted the piece himself at the Vienna Conservatory and remarked: “I want to make you forget the Lent [of the previous evening].”

True, Berlioz was a proud and at times arrogant man. But he was brilliant at capturing an emotion and expressing it in a melody. The “Carneval Romain” is such a miniature, full of lovely details and warm feelings. Several recordings exist, and the best I found is the one by the Orchestra of the Teatro Communale of Bologna.

© Charles Thibo

Published by

de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.