Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

It's Mardi Gras Time!

A colorful assortment of elaborate masks for Mardi Gras arrayed on a table
Llanydd Lloyd
Mardi Gras masks

Traditionally, Mardi Gras, (“Fat Tuesday”), also known as Carnivale, is the last day of food indulgences and wild festivities before the somber season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday in the western Christian church. The Macmillan Dictionary Blog further explains:

"The word carnival was first used in English in the mid 16th century. It came from the Italian ‘carnevale’, which was seemingly derived from a medieval Latin word, ‘carnelevamen‘. The Latin literally refers to ‘putting away flesh’, a reference to the practice of abstaining from meat during Lent."

So Mardi Gras/Carnivale was understood to be the last day to eat meat and enjoy “earthly pleasures” until Easter Sunday.

In 2023, the Mardi Gras celebration falls on February 21st.

I’ve been to New Orleans twice, a decade apart. Loved both times, as I indulged in chicory coffee, beignets, and made-right-in-front-of-you-pralines, (and that was just breakfast). I never traveled there for the city’s storied Mardi Gras celebrations, but reminders of the holiday’s hallmarks could still be seen everywhere. For example, you can tour Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World,a parade floats museum any time. And you can be treated to Mardi Gras marching bands playing impromptu “moving concerts” around any corner of the French Quarter.

You can also buy a plane ticket for Venice, Italy, or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, two other cities known internationally for their celebrations of “Carnivale.”

Or, sit back in the comfort of your favorite listening chair and enjoy this list of music describing Carnivale.

Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture is actually a rewrite of music he had included originally in his 1838 opera about the Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. The opera was a flop with critics and audiences, but Berlioz always liked the music of the opera’s carnival scene, which takes place in Rome. After reworking it a bit he produced a festive overture that has outlived his critics. Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra:

Another piece that didn’t start out specifically for Carnevale was Antonín Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. Dvořák wrote a set of three pieces that he originally titled Nature, Life, Love. When it came time to publish them, however, he split them into three separate pieces. The one meant to represent “Life” was retitled “Carnival.” You definitely understand his intention to describe a festive, even boisterous, scene. But he also hides what I call a mini-scene in this piece. See if you can find the section describing a couple who sneak off for a romantic moment, and then return to the festivities. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Unlike the two pieces above, Robert Schumann’s Carnaval was specifically designed to paint the musical scenes of revelry at a masked ball just before the Lenten season begins. I remember WCRB’s late, great announcer David MacNeill telling the story of these 21 short piano pieces. He said that Schumann took the liberty of naming, or somehow representing, some of the pieces after himself (in the form of the contrasting characters of Eusebius and Florestan), his wife Clara (Chiarina), some of his friends, and finally, some of the characters from Italian renaissance theater known as “commedia dell’arte,” including Harlequin (the court jester), his girlfriend Columbine, and even the greedy Pantalone. Here’s a 1961 video of pianist Claudio Arrau playing the whole set.

Schumann’s Carnaval has been orchestrated for ballet, and as stand-alone orchestral piece, most notably by Maurice Ravel, but most performances today are of the original solo piano.

New York-born Ferdinand “Ferde” Grofé, who became well known as a pianist, assistant conductor, and orchestrator for the Paul Whiteman orchestra in the 1920s, considered himself a composer first. His 1926 Mississippi Suite, a Tone Journey, follows the mighty Mississippi River, from its beginnings in Minnesota, all the way South through our country until it finally meets the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. That fourth and final part of the Suite is titled “Mardi Gras,” to represent the party city. Here’s the Boston Pops Orchestra led by Keith Lockhart.

And finally, we can’t describe Carnivale season without a nod to Venice, a city that, to this day celebrates “The Carnival of Venice” for 2 to 3 weeks before Ash Wednesday. The celebration originated there in 1162. The Venice festivities are known, in particular, for their amazing masked balls where party-goers don Renaissance-inspired masks and elaborate gowns and outfits. As for a piece of music that goes along with this? The story goes that the great violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was so charmed by an old Neapolitan tune that he wrote a set of 20 variations on it. A couple of decades later, Jean-Baptiste Arban, inspired by Paganini’s work, wrote his own set of variations for the cornet, making “The Carnival of Venice” one of the cornerstones for that instrument. Here’s New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, with John Williams conducting the Boston Pops.

In the nearly 200 years since Paganini’s variations, a number of other composers have also tweaked the main theme in their own style, including Franz Liszt and Edward Elgar.

Whether or not you fly into the leading cities that celebrate Carnivale/Mardi Gras, you can at least get into the spirit by yelling out “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (Cajun French for “Let the good times roll!”)

Coda: While the Venice celebrations have been described as “elegant,” and those in Rio “raucous,” Mardi Gras in New Orleans seems to bridge the two. Here’s a description of the festivities there from National Geographic.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.