Le corsaire, op. 21

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            Of all of the major composers of the nineteenth century, Hector Berlioz is perhaps the most personally interesting.  What a vivacious, unique individual he was, both in his life and in his music. He was intense and impassioned in his pursuit of the composition of music that reflected his literary interests, his interaction with his physical surroundings, and his deeply-felt emotions.  He was not a virtuoso performer (playing the flute and the guitar only passably), his early musical training having been derived largely from the study of harmony books.  However—and it is a major informing aspect of his intellect—he was a man of literature.  He read widely and with sophistication from an early age, and later became one of the most important music critics and general authors in music of all time.  Over a half dozen or more of his major works derive from some important connection with Shakespeare; he married the most important Shakespearian actress of the time, and composed his Symphonie fantastique as a response to his hopeless infatuation with her (the marriage didn’t work out).   Characteristically, he never actually set any of Shakespeare’s words to music—they were an inspiration, only, just as the local color and the expertly crafted atmospherics in his music was stimulated by nature and culture.

            His early career was driven to some degree by his frustrating quest to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which, after four fruitless attempts, he finally won in 1830.  Characteristically, having won, he dallied and resisted actually moving to Rome for the required residency there—he loathed Rome and Italian art and music.  Of Rome he wrote:  “Rome is the most stupid and prosaic city I know . . . .”  He did, however, love the Italian countryside, the sunshine, and Italian evocative legends and characters.  And it is certain that the richness of these experiences informed much of his later creativity.  He returned to Paris in 1832 and enjoyed a great success, and it is from this time, for roughly the next decade, that many of his most acclaimed works date:  Symphonie fantastique, Harold en Italie, his requiem mass, and Roméo et Juliette.  But, by the end of the 1830s he became bitter at the musical life of Paris, its banality, and the waning of his own success, so he embarked on years of travel around Europe.

            In 1844, the year of the publication of his great orchestration treatise, he took a trip to Nice--where he had spent some time more than a decade earlier, during his Prix de Rome sojourn.  There, he was surrounded by the sea and the legends of the corsairs, privateers who had attacked the ships of the enemies of the French for centuries.  During his stay he lived in a tower overlooking the sea, and so the concert overture that he composed there bore the title, La tour de Nice (The Tower of Nice).  Berlioz greatly admired the works of James Fenimore Cooper, and the overture was soon renamed Le corsaire rouge after Cooper’s The Red Rover.  Finally, the “rouge” was dropped, and it became simply, Le corsaire.

            Those familiar with the Symphonie fantastique and his Roman Carnival Overture will recognize many of the signature characteristics of Berlioz’ style in Le corsaire.  A frenzied, unison string passage followed by a few bars of “cluttered,” syncopated woodwinds opens the affair in the best Berlioz manner—you’ll it hear it again, later.  An extended, sonorous adagio, featuring the strings, follows.  Finally, a timpani roll brings on the sparkling allegro, introduced by the signature passage mentioned above, and we’re off to the races.  It’s not all blood and thunder, though, for, as the tempo continues, we hear a familiar lyrical tune, a pattern that continues:  figurative passages alternating with a real “tune,” and moments of tranquility posed against stentorian, stormy brass.  As the end nears, the main theme is heard, thumping along.  Finally, the tension builds to almost an unbearable climax, and over a “sea” of manic string figuration, the brass nails the conclusion.

            There are those whose imagination hears storms of the Mediterranean Sea and depictions of sea battles of the colorful “corsairs” in this ripping work.  Well enough.  But, when compared with so much of Berlioz’ oeuvre, Le corsaire is just pure, brilliant Berlioz, without any need of extraneous imagery.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan