Heroes & Heroines – Beethoven’s incidental music

Written by Paul Cooke

Between 1807 and 1822 Beethoven composed incidental music for a number of theatrical productions. He was drawn to protagonists who dared to take action against repressive forces and displayed heroic behaviour. The music he wrote similarly finds him straining against the Classical forms of Haydn and Mozart, as he attempts to establish mood, setting and character and convey the extra-musical ideas that were so important to his Romantic successors. It has been suggested that the sonata form overtures, of which Beethoven was such a master, are more satisfying than the more disparate and subservient – the more incidental – pieces could hope to be.

The Overture to Coriolan was written in 1807 to accompany the revival of Viennese dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 drama: Coriolan is a patrician banished from Rome who is determined to exact revenge upon his former city. The overture’s first theme, rhythmic and agitated, represents his brutality and resolve, but it is gradually overtaken by a lyrical second theme which depicts the pleas of his mother and wife to desist.

Beethoven’s next commission came in 1810, with the opportunity to provide incidental music for a new production of Egmont by the highly regarded German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Beethoven eagerly accepted the commission. He was attracted by the subject matter, the struggle for freedom embodied in the martyrdom of a hero and the devotion of the woman who loves him, themes he had dealt with in his opera Fidelio and the Overture to Coriolan. Here, Count Egmont pleads for tolerance from the Spanish king towards Protestants in Flanders who are being persecuted. Beethoven was familiar with the work of Goethe and had first set his poetry to music 20 years earlier; in August 1810 he wrote that he composed the music for Egmont “purely out of love for the poet”. By the conclusion of the play, freedom is assured, reflected in exhilarating, celebratory music in a major key; along the way, we have been treated to a couple of songs sung by a soprano and an unusual amount of slow music, indicative of the sustaining love of Clara for Egmont.

Apart from some incidental music for Johann Friedrich Leopold Duncker’s play about Leonore Prohaska (another heroic woman, who fought against Napoleon disguised as a man), which appears not to have been performed at the time, Beethoven’s remaining commissions tended to be for music for theatre openings. In 1812, a new theatre was opened in Pest and Beethoven provided music for two plays by Kotzebue, both flattering the Emperor Franz. One was about King Stephan I, canonised for bringing Christianity to Hungary in the 11th century. The other, The Ruins of Athens, has Athens occupied by Turks and the Parthenon destroyed; Greek culture and reason, however, are preserved in Pest thanks to the Emperor. Finally, in 1822, Beethoven was commissioned to write music for the reopening of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. Having immersed himself in Baroque music while writing his Missa Solemnis, he paid homage to Handel in The Consecration of the House by incorporating a double fugue. The overture was a popular success, and its performance became obligatory at the openings of new concert halls and opera houses in Germany.

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