BEETHOVEN: Overtures, Vol. 1
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Egmont, Opus 84
Coriolanus, Opus 62
Leonora No.3, Opus 72a
Fidelio, Opus 72
Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
Ruins of Athens, Opus 113
Consecration of the House, Opus 124
It was the theatre, as much as anythingelse, that held the cultural interests of the Viennese in the eighteenth andearly nineteenth centuries. There was a demand for opera of all kinds, in whichthe principal composers were involved. Mozart's dissatisfaction with his nativeSalzburg resulted in part from a lack of opera there and a consequent lack ofopportunity, a matter remedied when he moved to. Vienna in 1781 to joincomposers of the stature of Salieri.
Beethoven settled in Vienna in 1792,making a name for himself as a pianist and as a composer of marked originality.
He lacked the education of Mozart and of Gluck and was without their literacy,but read widely, if without discrimination, and shared something of the generalinterest in drama increasingly dominated by France.
As it turned out, Beethoven wrote onlyone opera, Fidelio, its final title the name assumed by the heroine Leonora,who disguises herself as a boy in order to rescue her husband Florestan fromthe dungeon into which his political enemies have cast him. The libretto wasdrawn from a French original, an example of the rescue opera that had becometopical and popular in Paris in the aftermath of the Revolution, and inchoosing such a subject Beethoven seems to attempt to emulate Cherubini, acomposer who dominated Paris and had won great popularity in Vienna.
Fidelio,a Singspiel, a German opera, with some spoken dialogue, is not necessarilyconvincing on the stage, in spite of the greatness of conception of the music.
It was first performed at the Theater-an-der-Wien in November, 1805, precededby an alternative overture, Leonora No.2, which replaced Beethoven'sfirst thoughts, embodied in Leonora No.1 and rejected after a privaterun-through.
The occasion of the first performance wasunfortunate. The armies of Napoleon had occupied Vienna, and there were manyFrench officers in the audience, while the second and third performancesattracted very little attention. The piece was withdrawn and underwentconsiderable revision, to be staged again the following year, with the overturenow known as Leonora No.3, which itself pre-empts the climax of theopera and is, in any case, rather too long for its purpose. Neither Cherubininor Salieri, arbiters of operatic taste, approved of the work.
There was to be yet further revision fora revival in 1814, with an intended new overture. In the event this was notfinished in time, thanks to the procrastination of the composer, who workedthrough the night before the opening to finish it, but failed to have it readyin time for rehearsal and performance. On the first night of the revivalanother overture was played, either Prometheus or The Ruins of Athens,to Beethoven's embarrassment. The new overture, however, was eventuallyfinished for the numerous later performances of the opera that year. It bearsthe name of the opera itself, Fidelio.
If opera was important in Vienna, itspopularity had long been shared by ballet. The eighteenth century had broughtto the city the most distinguished choreographers and dancers, Noverre,Hilverding, Angiolini and others, and had employed composers of the stature ofGluck. Beethoven's first stage music in Vienna had been for Vigano's TheCreatures of Prometheus, staged at the Burgtheater in March, 1801, its overturean effective example of the eighteenth century dramatic form.
In 1807 Beethoven wrote an overture tothe play Coriolan, the work of the dramatist Heinrich von Collin, brother ofthe philosopher employed as tutor to Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt.
Collin's verse plays on historical subjects enjoyed considerable popularity inVienna, where their topical patriotism found a ready response. In Coriolan hetreated the story of the Roman general Coriolanus, victorious in war, butcontemptuous of the common people. Failing to win election to the consulship,he is dissuaded from attacking and destroying-his own country by the pleadingof his wife and his mother. The treatment of the same subject by Shakespeare is, of course, much better known than Heinrich von Collin's play, a work thatachieved only ephemeral success.
The first performances of Coriolan inVienna had been given in 1801, with music arranged by the Abbe Stadler fromMozart's Idomeneo. Beethoven's overture does not seem to have been usedfor the only recorded performance of the play in Vienna in 1807, but wascertainly played in that year. Its first theme suggests Coriolanus himself, itssecond the pleading of his wife.
For Goethe's play Egmont Beethoven wrotean overture and incidental music, intended for performances in Vienna in May,1810. The music was not ready for the opening, but was used the followingmonth. Once again the subject of the play, the heroic rebellion of Count Egmontagainst Spanish domination in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, has acertain topical, political attraction, although Goethe's work had been writtenthirty years before. Egmont trusts blindly in his own judgement, urged on by apassion that transcends reason in his conflict with a state that he hashitherto served loyally. His love for the bourgeoise Klaerchen, who poisonsherself when she cannot persuade the people to rise in Egmont's defence, isassociated with notions of political freedom.
The overture to Egmont is programmatic,and some have suggested a reference to the Duke of Alva, the Spanish Governorof the province, in the opening sarabande rhythm and allusion to the rebelcause in the first subject of the following Allegro. The closing section bringsthe death of Egmont and his consequent moral victory.
The overture and incidental music toAugust von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens was written in 1811 forthe opening of a new theatre in Pesth. The occasion was a patriotic one andKotzebue's piece d'occasion showed the goddess Minerva regretting the ruins of Athens,from which art had departed, but cheered at seeingits revival in Pesth under the enlightened rule of1he Hapsburg emperor.
The Overture, The Consecration of theHouse, was commissioned for the opening of the Josefstadt Theater in 1822,under the management of Beethoven's friend CarlFriedrich Hensler. The plan was to use the music for The Ruins of Athens,written, after all, for the opening of a theatre, but in Pesth it had beendesigned as the second part of a double bill. A new overture was thereforeneeded and the music, written in Handelian style, with the traditional Baroquecontrapuntal element, was handed to the musicians on the afternoon of theperformance, leaving relatively little time for necessary rehearsal andcorrection.
On this occasion Beethoven himself,though now completely deaf, and eccentric in his isolation from society,conducted from the keyboard, assisted by the Josefstadt Kapellmeister on oneside of him and his pupil and friend Schindler on the other. The event, the composer'slast association with the theatre, was not a musical success, althoughBeethoven was greeted with great enthusiasm by a public that had begun torecognise something of his achievement.
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