10 Sep 2013

Beethoven – Overture to Egmont, op. 84

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.

Duration: 9 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – With Vienna under French occupation during much of 1809, Beethoven was forced into an uncomfortable sort of seclusion. Though he chose to stay behind, many of the city’s elite had fled, including the court. Among them was Beethoven’s patron, friend and student Archduke Rudolf. The composer wrote most of the 5th Piano Concerto during his time alone and dedicated it to his absent compatriot.   

THE HISTORY – Near the end of that troubling year, Beethoven received a commission to write incidental music for a theatre production of Egmont. This must have come as a refreshing diversion from his sadness and solitude. Not only did the opportunity provide a chance to deeply connect with the words of his most favored writer Goethe, the subject of the drama was particularly poignant for Beethoven. In the play, Count Egmont is a Dutch resistance fighter bent on the liberation of his country from Spanish occupation. He dies heroically while making his stand. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between the character of the Duke of Alva and the real-life “Emperor” of France. Beethoven had long since lost his admiration for Napoleon and the bombardment of Vienna would certainly have confirmed his worst fears about the man. Goethe’s play, and the honor of providing it with some suitably powerful incidental music, was perfect medicine for the composer after such dark, lonely months. The score of Egmont was completed in 1810 and performed in its entirety that June. Only the overture still receives frequent performance attention as a stand-alone concert piece. It is a wonderfully intricate world in miniature, one that successfully samples all the coming drama of the story.         

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1810, Argentina began a chain-reaction in South America by claiming independence from Spain, the first Oktoberfest was held in Bavaria and Lord Byron made his famous swim across the Hellespont in Turkey.

THE CONNECTIONEgmont Overture is programmed fairly often by the Utah Symphony but has not appeared on the Masterworks Series since 2001. Keith Lockhart conducted.