Le corsaire (Overture, Op. 21)
Composed: 1844; 1852
Length: c. 9 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: March 11, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
Berlioz wrote his most famous work, Symphonie fantastique, inside a hurricane of obsession with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. His fantasy became reality when they got married three years later – but like most fantasies, this one was too good to be true. By 1844 the marriage was in shambles, Smithson had taken to the bottle, and Berlioz’ nerves were frayed after a highly stressful – albeit successful – two-day concert festival he produced with Felix Mendelssohn. Berlioz survived the fest with a surplus of 800 francs, but when he ran into his friend Dr. Amussat, the good doctor told him he looked terrible. Amussat encouraged Berlioz to go south and find some relaxation in the sea air. “Forget all about these things that overheat your blood and overstimulate your nervous system,” the doctor said, “which is highly strung enough already.”
Berlioz took his advice and escaped to Nice with the money from the festival, where he spent a month “as far as possible undoing the harm it had done to my health” (as he recounted in his Mémoires). He booked a room in the same hotel where he had composed the King Lear overture in 1831 – this after another severe strain on his nerves, when his first fiancé left him for a wealthy piano maker (and he had just abandoned a plot to murder the man, his fiancée, and her mother). “It was a moving experience for me to see again all the places I had seen 13 years before... on the occasion of another convalescence,” he wrote. “I swam a great deal in the sea and made many expeditions to places near Nice... I revisited the exquisite little bays and inlets where I had bathed in former times, and where the rocks are a carpet of emerald seaweed.” He lodged in a room “in a tower perched on a ledge of the Ponchettes rock, and feasted myself on the glorious view over the Mediterranean and tasted a peace such as I had come to value more than ever.”
He translated this peaceful experience into the aptly titled overture La tour de Nice, then, feeling restored, returned home to Paris (“to resume my role of Sisyphus”). He premiered the work that January at the Cirque Olympique, where one critic ecstatically deemed it “an extremely original composition, full of weird effects and bizarre flights of fancy.... It plunges you into an indefinable malaise; it torments you like a bad dream, and fills your imagination with strange and terrible images.” Berlioz set the work aside for years, revising it in spurts until it emerged in 1851 with a new name: Le corsaire. (Originally it was Le corsaire rouge, the French translation of The Red Rover by James Fenimore Cooper, whose work Berlioz adored.) Berlioz premiered this new incarnation in Brunswick in April 1854, and while it became popular elsewhere in Europe, it was never heard in Paris during his lifetime.
The musical waters of Nice flood out of the first bar in dizzying string rapids, which quickly calm into a placid, serene melody, patiently traveled. Over the groundswell of timpani, precocious woodwinds roil the orchestra. A playful, bouncing plane through sunshine and passing shadows yields to the return of those string runs, and the overture lifts and lifts to heights of brassy, swashbuckling fanfare – cresting wave after wave and bounding towards a happy port.
— Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.