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Overture: Le Corsaire (H 101)

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    The overture which became known as Le Corsaire is one of Berlioz’s most brilliant and successful concert pieces, yet relatively little is known about the history of its composition; it is not mentioned in the composer’s Memoirs, and references to the work in his correspondence are generally brief. The overture received few performances in Berlioz’s lifetime, and unlike several of his other overtures (such as les Francs-Juges, le Roi Lear or le Carnaval romain), it did not become a regular part of his standard concert repertoire. Indeed it may have received more performances under other conductors than under the composer himself.

    Ever since his first stay in Nice in April-May 1831, where he composed his overture le Roi Lear and started work on the Rob Roy oveture and the Melologue, Berlioz had a special fondness for the city. After the stresses of the large Festival of Industry which he organised in 1844 and which took place on 1st August, Berlioz postponed a projected trip to Baden-Baden and instead, on the advice of his friend Dr Amussat, went to spend the month of September in Nice. The stay there is briefly related in the Memoirs (chapter 53), but Berlioz does not mention that he started composing in Nice another overture, called la Tour de Nice, named after the tower where he stayed and which he called the Tour des Ponchettes. The new overture is first briefly mentioned, together with several other compositions, in a letter of 5 November 1844 to his sister Nancy (CG no. 924); it received its first performance at a concert on 19 January 1845, the first in a series of concerts Berlioz gave in the early months of 1845 at the Cirque Olympique (CG nos. 934, 937). The new work was apparently not very successful, according to a brief mention in a review in the journal Le Ménestrel of 26 January. The author of another and more detailed review in l’Illustration of 25 January evidently could not make sense of the piece:

Among all the pieces played in this concert only one was new. It is a piece called Overture of the Tower of Nice, probably because M. Berlioz composed it in that city where he recently made a trip. 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.

    Berlioz was clearly not satisfied with the work as it stood, but, unlike what he had done with the overture Rob Roy in 1832, he did not discard the work but revised it extensively between 1845 and 1852, though the precise chronology of the revisions is not clear. It so happens that a complete part for first violin of the original overture as performed on 19 January 1845 has survived. It does not allow a complete reconstruction of the original version though gives some idea of its shape (see NBE volume 20, pp. XIII-XIV and Appendix III pp. 332-52); it also allows two conclusions. The first is that the original work was nearly a third longer than the final revised version (664 bars as against 463); the work of revision thus involved making the piece more concise, as Berlioz often did with works where it is possible to compare an earlier with a later version (such as the overture to Benvenuto Cellini). The second is that the basic thematic material of the revised overture was derived from the first version. In addition Berlioz decided to change the name of the work, which eventually became simply le Corsaire after Berlioz had toyed with the idea of calling it le Corsaire rouge (from Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover). There is no indication of what Berlioz intended by this change of name, nor indeed whether the new name was meant to convey any precise associations or was merely evocative of sea music in a general way. Berlioz had long been an admirer of the works of Byron; he relates for example in his Memoirs (chapter 36) how he read and admired Byron’s The Corsair at St Peter’s in Rome in 1831, though there is no mention there nor in his other writings of the overture le Corsaire being inspired or associated with Byron’s work.

    The work was published in 1852 (CG no. 1471), without having received as yet any performance in its new form. It was dedicated to Berlioz’s London friend the critic and writer James Davison (CG no. 1514). Berlioz never conducted the work in Paris, and only gave two performances of it in his whole career, the first in Brunswick on 8 April 1854 (CG nos. 1722 [NL p. 401], 1725), the second in Weimar on 17 February 1856 (CG no. 2100). Why he did not perform it more frequently is a mystery. The work was performed in Paris once only (1 April 1855); Berlioz had objected to its being given under Pasdeloup (CG no. 1930), though in the event it was Barbereau who conducted the concert. On the other hand, according to a letter of 1863 the overture was widely performed at the time in Germany: ‘my Corsair overture is performed everywhere, and yet I have only heard it once’, wrote Berlioz (CG no. 2714; in fact he must have heard it at least twice). The overture remained popular after Berlioz’s death. One of its most ardent advocates was Hans von Bülow, who knew the work well: in 1854 he had approached Berlioz with an offer to arrange the overture for piano, which he eventually did, to the satisfaction of the composer (CG nos. 2098, 2100, 2218). In his Berlioz repertoire the Corsaire overture was a staple item which he performed repeatedly (see the table of performances).

    As Tom Wotton pointed out in a detailed analysis of le Corsaire (Berlioz, Four Works [1929], pp. 44-52), the overture does not have a programme and is intelligible in purely musical terms. It 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 (in A flat major), the reflective stillness of which contrasts with the bustling energy of the allegro (in C major). 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 concluding bars sum up the contrasting tonalities of the overture, A flat major and C major. 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.

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

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

This page revised and enlarged on 1st April 2022.

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