Composed: 1844; 1852
Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 21, 1949, with Franz Waxman conducting
During the summer of 1831, Hector Berlioz, that least fettered of Romantic spirits, was doing his own thing yet again, in the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, hardly an unusual place for a French tourist to be. But he was not only examining the cathedral’s artistic and architectural wonders. He was, as he informs in his compulsively readable Memoirs, seated in a confessional, not to unburden himself to one of the holy fathers, but with a book of the writings of Lord Byron, then all the rage throughout Europe. “I used to spend whole days there,” the composer noted, “to get away from the heat of day outside. I sat enjoying the coolness and stillness, unbroken by any sound except the faint splashing of the fountains in the square outside. There, at my leisure, I sat drinking in the burning poetry”.
What particularly burned was The Corsair, a narrative poem dealing with a pirate chief who disguises himself as a dervish to gain entry into a sultan’s palace, is caught in some attempted thievery, and rescued by the sultan’s favorite concubine, who fancies him. The corsair (i.e., pirate) braves storms and further contretemps, winding up in Greece, where he leads a rebellion – suggesting Byron’s own real-life escapades. (Verdi’s 1848 opera, Il corsaro, draws on the same source.)
Berlioz ate it up as near-personal experience, having reached Italy after a voyage during which his ship almost sank and one of his fellow passengers was a reformed, or retired, Venetian corsair (one tends to take Berlioz’s “true stories” on faith). Arriving in Livorno, Berlioz learned that his fiancée, Marie Moke, had married Camille Pleyel, the celebrated pianist-piano builder-publisher (son of the composer Ignaz Pleyel). Berlioz relates that he planned immediately to return to Paris, murder Marie and Camille, then kill himself. But he changed his mind and, Baedeker and Byron in hand, decided instead to tour Tuscany and Latium.
Memories of that time were later recalled in this dashing concert overture, first performed in 1845, as La tour de Nice, after which it was withdrawn for further polishing. When Berlioz took it up again, the program now embraced not only the sea/Byron-related matter but also an homage to the recently-deceased (in 1851) James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote not only fanciful novels about American Indian life but also a pirate story called The Red Rover: in French, Le corsaire rouge.
The final score, first heard in 1852, is a marvel, not least for its seeming spontaneity, in fact achieved over a period of years. It is music filled with dazzling sonic and dramatic effects from the get-go, with those two whiplash opening chords followed by a great rushing-scale passage that together are quintessential Berlioz, leading – as is the composer’s way in most of his overtures – to a gorgeous melody that segues into more allegro bustle, returns in expanded form, and is then rudely pushed aside by the final up-tempo fireworks.