Le corsaire (The Corsair), Op. 21 is an overture composed while Berlioz was on holiday in Nice in August 1844. It was first performed under the title La tour de Nice (The Tower of Nice) on 19 January 1845. It was then renamed Le corsaire rouge (after James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover) and finally Le corsaire (suggesting Byron’s poem The Corsair).*
Berlioz scholar David Cairns writes: “Under whatever title, the music celebrates the dangers and excitements of the imagined life of the privateer. The pirate or brigand as free man, in contrast to the citizen of bourgeois society hemmed in by convention and the daily cares of profit and loss, was a favourite Romantic theme. Perhaps, too, Berlioz projected himself imaginatively into the sea-adventurer’s existence the more eagerly because of the frustrations of his own professional and domestic existence during this period.”
Herbert Glass describes the music thusly: “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.”
The instrumentation is two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in C, four horns (in C and F), two bassoons, two trumpets in C, two cornets in B-flat, three trombones, ophicleide, timpani and strings.*
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The featured image is “A Barbary Pirate” (1885) by Giovanni Guida (1837-1895), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been enhanced for clarity.