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Berlioz (1803-1869) – Overture “Le Corsaire”
For many folk the word "Corsair" - meaning either a pirate or a seagoing mercenary - conjures lurid images of swashbuckling adventures on the high seas though, I’ll warrant, nothing quite so lurid as the story behind the composition of this overture.
While in Rome in 1831, Berlioz received word that his latest paramour, Camille Marie Moke, was imminently to become Madame Pleyel. Understandably a mite miffed, Berlioz set off, hell-bent on murdering her. However, at Genoa his resolve dissipated, so instead he tried to kill himself. Having been rescued from the clutches of the Mediterranean, and feeling somewhat chastened by the experience, he took a holiday in Nice (well, you would, wouldn't you?).
There, it seems, relaxing beneath a ruined coastal tower, he read a pirate romance. Back then, these were very popular, and James Fennemore Cooper, author of The Red Rover, was a particular favourite of Berlioz’s. The upshot was that he started sketching possible stage works. Thirteen years later, under doctor’s orders to rest, he rediscovered that tower and worked these sketches into an overture, The Tower of Nice. By the mid-1850s it had been refined, through Le Corsaire Rouge, to a nice, neat and tidy Le Corsaire.
Inasmuch as it’s possible with the eruptive Berlioz in full sail, the overture itself is also neat and tidy, because virtually everything in it derives from a single basic idea. This idea is less obviously announced by the introductory sword-slashing strings and woodwind than by the succeeding, breathtakingly extended slow melody, whose surface calm is increasingly disturbed by uneasy undercurrents. Any implied fear of attack is, of course, fully justified: further sword-slashing heralds the insurgence of the buccaneers, epitomised by the bravado of a bristling, brazen allegro.
Bullied along in the wake of a passage for bassoons punctuated by percussive chords, dispossessed of both calm and valuables, the returning slow tune is soon engulfed by the reprise of the allegro. Its third appearance, however, is supplanted by massed brass blaring fragments of the allegro theme. Thence, buckles all a-swash, Le Corsaire romps jubilantly to its sonorous conclusion. Never, before or since, has Roger been so Jolly.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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