Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
program notes by Chris Myers
Copyright © 2017 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.
Coriolan Overture, op. 62
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Composed 1807. First performance: March 1807, home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, conductor.
Ludwig van Beethoven had an “it’s complicated” relationship with the theater. His music was powerfully dramatic in a way that set him apart from his predecessors, and on the surface, it seemed he would be a natural theatrical composer. Despite his best efforts, though, Beethoven was unable to submit the strong personality of his music to the service of someone else’s narrative. It seems he was aware of this, which is why this vividly dramatic composer left us only a single opera (viewed as a flawed masterpiece) and a handful of pieces intended to accompany plays.
Though his dramaturgy may be suspect, Beethoven was unmatched in the musical portrayal of complex heroic characters. It's notable that, despite Fidelio’s shortcomings, his first three overtures for the opera weren't replaced because they lacked quality, but because these vivid sketches of the heroine’s story overwhelmed the ensuing stage drama. Whether in his masterful tribute to the nameless hero of the Eroica Symphony or even in his (admittedly subpar) pæan to Wellington, Beethoven infused music of unrivaled nobility with the strains of human frailty which define truly heroic figures.
Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which premiered on the same private concert as his Fourth Symphony, grew from these conflicting sides of his theatrical ambitions. Based on Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 Coriolan (and not, as many English-speaking audiences mistakenly assume, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus), the overture was an attempt to impress the playwright— and the management of Vienna’s Burgtheater— at a time when von Collin had agreed to advise the composer on the endless revisions of Fidelio.
The overture sets the scene for the tale of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the lauded Roman general. Exiled after falling out of favor with the fickle Roman populace, the general convinces the Volsci, Rome’s enemies, to attack the city. His mother and family plead with him to end the siege and, disgraced, he kills himself, a tragic hero broken by the very strength of will which had raised him to such heights.
Beethoven's overture follows the two-part structure of the play, providing a musical preview of the drama. In the opening theme, we hear Coriolan’s heroism and strength, with hints of the danger it poses. A second, more lyrical theme appears, giving voice to the pleas of his mother. The ensuing musical development portrays Coriolan’s struggle between avenging his honor and love for his family. Finally, the opening theme recurs– but this time, the strength is gone, and it fades away to silence.