Following the break-up of his marriage in 1843 Berlioz busied himself with drawing together a manual for composers on how to write for the various instruments of the orchestra — intriguing in that, almost uniquely, he had become one of the first virtuoso orchestrators in musical history with no keyboard skills, and with scarcely any practical ability on any orchestral instruments either; he could apparently play the flute after a fashion and also had a little knowledge of the guitar, but he relied largely on flair, and had been known, for example, to write for clarinets notes outside their range. Nevertheless, his Treatise on Instrumentation became, with Rimsky Korsakov’s similar work, the seminal 19th century work on the subject.
In August 1844, still smarting from Harriet’s departure (although by now he had a new mistress), he took a recuperative holiday in Nice and, as if to reiterate his credentials, wrote while he was there one of his most virtuosic concert overtures, Le Corsaire, or The Pirate. Originally he called it La Tour de Nice, (The Tower of Nice), but then realised he needed a more flamboyant title and, feeding on his literary knowledge, named it Le Corsaire Rouge (The Red Pirate) after James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover, but then, to Europeanise it, reduced it to Le Corsaire after a poem by Byron. The overture was premiered in January 1845 under its Nice title, and, finally as Le Corsaire, has remained a staple of orchestral repertoire together with most of his other concert-openers.
The overture begins with a scintillating flourish, testing the whole orchestra, before his characteristic lyrical introduction introduces a note of romantic wistfulness. The Allegro shortly reintroduces us to the opening flourish, leading to the main theme which has an irresistible swagger and later, following the development section, returns with still further brilliance. The coda brings the work to a flashing conclusion.