About this work
Although Berlioz was one of the greatest proponents of music that adhered to a detailed program, this concert overture actually has nothing to do with Lord Byron's narrative poem about the pirate Jean Lafitte, from which the title comes. Berlioz sketched this work during a visit to Nice in 1844, and called its first version The Tower of Nice, having written it in the ruined fortification on the city's coastline. Berlioz provided this description: "I discovered the ruins of a tower built on the edge of a precipice: in front of it is a tiny level spot where I stretch myself in the sun and watch, at my ease, the approach of the distant ships; I count the fishing-boats and gaze with admiration on the sparkling, gleaming tracks, which (as Moore says) should lead to some happy and peaceful isle."
The overture turns out not to be an entirely placid seascape, though. When Berlioz rewrote it for an 1851 performance in London he called it Le Corsair rouge, after James Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover, in which a cliff-side tower figures prominently. But Berlioz soon felt this title was misleading, so he deleted the adjective -- giving rise to the misconception that the music is based on Byron's work. The final title fits well, though, for the overture is particularly swashbuckling. The brilliant opening is a rushing passage for the strings (no fewer than 59, Berlioz specified), punctuated by syncopated wind chords. The ensuing string-caressed Adagio is far more serene, apparently representing the sea as viewed from Berlioz's tower on a summer day. The initial Allegro material bursts back onto the scene, and the themes are rapidly developed up to a coruscating finale.