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Overture: Le Corsaire (H 101)

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    Berlioz first composed this work in 1844 during a stay in Nice, the second since his stay of 1831 when he had composed the overture to King Lear. He originally gave to the new overture the title of La Tour de Nice. The work was first performed under Berlioz’s direction at a concert at the Cirque Olympique on 19 January 1845. One reviewer was evidently out of his depth and commented:

It is an extremely original composition, full of weird effects and bizarre flights of fancy. It is like a tale by Hoffmann. It plunges you into an indefinable malaise; it torments you like a bad dream, and fills your imagination with strange and terrible images. It must be the case that nowadays this tower is inhabited by hundreds of owls and ospreys, and the surrounding ditches must be filled with snakes and toads. Maybe it served as a lair for brigands or was the fortress of some medieval tyrant. Perhaps some illustrious prisoner, some innocent and persecuted beauty, expired there in the pangs of hunger or under the executioner’s sword. You can imagine and believe everything when you hear these strident violins, croaking oboes, lamenting clarinets, groaning basses and moaning trombones. The Overture of the Tower of Nice is perhaps the strangest and most peculiar composition to have been created by the imagination of a musician.

    The work was subsequently revised between 1846 and 1851 and acquired its present name (which has no connection with Byron’s The Corsair, which Berlioz had read in Italy in 1831). It was published in 1852 and dedicated to his friend James Davison. The work follows the form common to all of Berlioz’s overtures from Benvenuto Cellini onwards: a brief anticipation of the main allegro, followed by the slow introduction, the reflective stillness of which contrasts with the bustling activity of the allegro. The two parts of the overture are unified by the return of the theme of the slow introduction as the second subject of the allegro, but now modified in character (bars 196-255, with its anticipation in bars 174-195, then again  in bars 319-345). The brilliant string writing (bars 1-17, 72-88, 266-282) may owe something to the example of Weber (cf. the overtures to Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon), but the overture has an exuberant vitality that is all Berlioz’s own. Surprisingly the work, one of Berlioz’s most brilliant and popular orchestral pieces, received only very few performances under Berlioz’s direction in his lifetime. It received its first performance in Brunswick in April 1854 under Berlioz’s direction; but he never performed it in Paris in his lifetime (a single performance on 1st April 1855 was under another conductor). On the other hand it received a number of performances elsewhere in Europe, as Berlioz remarked in a letter of April 1863. Hans von Bülow gave numerous performances of the work in Germany in the 1880s.

    Overture: Le Corsaire (duration 8'6")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 22.02.2000; revised 14.09.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

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