French composer Hector Berlioz was one of the first romantics, and I would suggest the first romantic to fully execute the ideals of romanticism in music. While Beethoven was undoubtedly the more important social figure, and his contributions to music are immeasurable, his music is still essentially rooted in the classical tradition. Concertos, string quartets, symphonies, most of which use sonata form, theme and variations, rondo form, and other prototypical classical forms; the brilliance of Beethoven’s music is how he relies on his listener’s familiarity with his preferred forms to break with tradition. This makes it inherently reliant on that same classical tradition. Not so with Berlioz – his music borders on anarchy with how it treats structure and tradition, and some even suggested that what he was writing could hardly be considered music at all. Still, he did have his supporters – Richard Wagner once said that he felt that the only musicians of their era worth paying attention to were himself, Franz Listz, and Berlioz.
This Roman-Carnival Overture is a perfect example of what makes Berlioz’s music so special. Berlioz was the first great orchestrator – his use of percussion was revolutionary, and his understanding of the orchestra was unparalleled. There are new instruments here too – the english horn gets a huge solo at the 0:28 mark, and while Beethoven is responsible for introducing trombones into the symphony orchestra, it was Berlioz who unleashed their full ferocity (see 8:10, and the very end). This music is best listened to in a linear fashion – don’t bother trying to hear how the various themes interact with each other, or the great harmonic color – this music is all about immediacy and impact, and the Puckish way in which it jumps from idea to idea. Just kick back, relax, and let the music wash over you.