Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Egmont Overture
Overture in F Minor-F Major, Op. 84, No. 1 (1810), from the Incidental Music to Goethe’s Tragic Play, Egmont, Op. 84 (1809-1810)
World Premiere (of Incidental Music): 6/15/1810, Vienna Burgtheater (play premiered 5/24)
The first of three incidental music scores from Beethoven (The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113, and King Stephan, Op. 117, being the others), this one to the c. 1775-1787 5-act historical tragedy, Egmont (first staged in 1788), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), is famous for its mostly brooding overture, the last number composed in time for the third performance of the 1810 Viennese-premiere run – Vienna then being occupied by French forces (since 1809). The entire score, for soprano solo, male narrator (in lieu of a full production of the play), and orchestra, consists of an overture and nine numbers.
Egmont was Lamoral, 4th Count of Egmont (originally, Egmond), Prince of Gavere (1522-1568), the Flemish general and statesman (who appealed to Beethoven, he of Flemish ancestry) whose fight and execution sparked a revolution that eventually led to the 1581 independence of the Netherlands from Spain. That Beethoven himself, like Egmont against the Spanish, rebelled against the French domination of Vienna can be felt throughout this sonata-form overture, which starts almost hesitatingly with a slow introduction and ends with a triumphant coda, where he incorporates the Siegessymphonie (Victory Symphony), the final number of the incidental music. In fact, this overture sounds so defiant and heroic, it has been used in several situations that are looked upon as taking a stand against tyranny and oppression, serving as unofficial anthem for the (failed) 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union, and being played at the memorial service for the slain Israeli athletes at the terrorist-stained 1972 Summer Olympics. Along with the Leonore No. 3, the Egmont is one of the most-performed Beethoven overtures. Yet Beethoven’s anger against the French actually began six years ago, with a man named Napoleon (next work below).
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica,” Op. 55 (1798, 1801, 1803-1804)
World Premiere (semi-private performance): 2/12/1805, a banker’s home.
World Premiere (public performance): 4/7/1805, Theater-an-der-Wien, Vienna, composer conducting.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony appeared like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere. There was nearly no hint that his musical development would head in a totally different direction after his first two, very Haydnesque/Mozartian symphonies. With the earliest idea going back to 1798, the symphony was begun in earnest in 1803, when titled “Buonaparte,” in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), his then-hero, but whose May 1804 self-declaration as Emperor of France enraged the composer. This political betrayal did not prompt Beethoven’s change to the dedication of the symphony; he had already changed it the previous fall from Bonaparte to Prince Josef von Lobkowitz, to whom he also would dedicate seven string quartets, his only song-cycle, two symphonies (Nos. 5 and 6) and the Triple Concerto (he needed the Prince’s money). But it certainly brought about a title change – to “Sinfonia eroica” (Heroic Symphony), with a further subtitle (also in Italian): “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” What man? The Napoleon Beethoven thought he was? A “great man” in general? Beethoven was equally mysterious about the inclusion of a funeral march for the second (slow) movement. For whom? Napoleon was still very much alive. Perhaps, as far as Beethoven was concerned, the Napoleon he so admired was most definitely dead with that proclamation.
Beyond the whole Napoleonic affair, the symphony is most revolutionary in its length and makeup. While entire symphonies of that time had traditionally taken under a half-hour, the “Eroica” doubles the playing time. It has a long expositional repeat in the first movement and likewise lengthy repeats in the scherzo. The coda of the first movement is 136 measures long – fully its own section, comparable to an exposition or recapitulation. The form is also unusual. There is a funeral march (the second-most famous, after Chopin’s piano solo) for its slow movement. (Beethoven also wrote an unrelated “Funeral March on the Death of a Hero” as the slow movement of his Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26, written a little earlier, in 1800-1801, and which was played during Beethoven’s own funeral procession in 1827.)
Then there is a theme-and-variations for its finale rather than the more usual sonata, rondo or sonata-rondo. (The same Sonata No. 12 opens with a theme-and-variations movement.) The movement’s theme, though original, was well-worn by 1804: written 1801, it is the seventh of the 12 Contredanses for Orchestra, WoO 14, also used as the Finale of his 1800-1801 two-act (and only full-length) ballet, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), Op. 43, and once more as the basis of his (15) Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E-flat Major for Piano Solo, Op. 35 (1802), known as the “Eroica” Variations due to its association with this symphony. That is the most mileage he extracted from any theme in all his works: to him, it must have represented something truly heroic and epic – and, therefore, perfect with which to end his “heroic” symphony: he, a freedom-loving individual, surmounting all manner of obstacles (tyranny, oppression) to become ultimately and truly victorious.