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Personal passions swell below the surface in Berlioz’s ‘Corsaire’

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The coming weekend's Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts — beginning Thursday, and conducted by Tugan Sokhiev — include Hector Berlioz's 1844 overture “Le Corsaire” (“The Pirate”). Berlioz wrote it during a vacation in Nice, originally calling it “La Tour de Nice” (“The Tower at Nice”), after his lodgings overlooking the Mediterranean. The title changed, more than once. Then again, it was not Berlioz's first trip to Nice.

Berlioz previously visited Nice in 1831. He began the year anxious over his engagement to pianist Camille Moke; traveling to Italy — having won, finally, the prestigious Prix de Rome — Berlioz found himself so distracted that he left. In Florence, word came that the engagement was off. Furious, despairing, Berlioz acquired pistols, intending to return to Paris, gain admittance (disguised as a maid) to Moke's house, and kill Camille, her parents, and himself. On the way, the frenzy dissipated; Berlioz instead spent a month relaxing in Nice. He later called that month the happiest time of his life.


He returned in 1844, exhausted from organizing the massive concerts that had become his trademark; from trying to convince his wife, actress Harriet Smithson, to agree to separate; from trying to placate his mistress (and future wife), singer Marie Recio. But, as Berlioz's preeminent biographer, David Cairns, put it, while the 1831 visit was “a clean break,” by 1844, “life's complexities could be evaded no more than momentarily.”

He did draft the new overture, a swashbuckling seascape. Berlioz would first retitle it “Le corsaire rouge” — after “The Red Rover,” James Fenimore Cooper's hit novel of pirates and revolution — and then simply “Le corsaire,” in apparent homage to Lord Byron's poem “The Corsair,” telling of Conrad, a pirate, captured by the Turkish warlord Pasha Seyd. Berlioz may have been searching for better marketing, or just nostalgic for youthful adventure, literary or actual. (On his 1831 voyage to Italy, Berlioz sailed with an actual corsair who claimed to have been Byron's confederate.)


But both sources — and the overture's pervasive, jittery syncopation — also, perhaps, echoed Berlioz's contemporary circumstances. The Cooper could have signaled a kind of career justification, Berlioz identifying with the titular rogue who turned out honorable. Byron's poem, though, just maybe, hinted at the relationship tangles that drove Berlioz to Nice — and an imaginary absolution. After all, in “The Corsair,” the decisive blow is struck not by Conrad, but by a woman: Gulnare, the so-called queen of Pasha Seyd's harem, kills Seyd, enabling Conrad to escape.

Matthew Guerrieri

Tugan Sokhiev conducts cellist
Johannes Moser and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Jan. 22-24 at Symphony Hall.
Tickets $30-$104; 888-866-1200; www.bso.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.