04 Jan 2024

BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Though not easily defined as prolific when compared to the likes of Mozart or Haydn, Beethoven produced consistent work for over four decades and thoroughly explored many of the standard genres of his day. His is a highly impressive list. He wrote 9 symphonies, 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas and a respectable number of concertos, songs and choral works. Why then just a single opera, and only one ballet? Looking back, music for the stage, in any form, represents a vanishingly small part of Beethoven’s catalogue. The opera Fidelio is well known and admired today, but the excellent incidental music he occasionally wrote to accompany plays is not.        

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

THE HISTORY – In Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, the eponymous 5th-century Roman general is exiled for his enmity towards plebian and patrician alike and, after rallying his former enemies to sack his own home city, he is finally convinced by his mother to relent and make peace. Now a traitor to both sides, Coriolanus is killed by his new cohort. This is not among Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but it made an impression on the Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin. In 1804, he wrote his own version of the story in the shadow of Napoleon’s self-anointment as Emperor. Beethoven had a strong reaction to that event too, famously scratching the French conqueror’s name from the dedication page of the 3rd Symphony. The contemporary resonances of the Coriolanus legend would have been obvious to any observer of the French Revolution and the wars that followed, and Beethoven’s 1807 overture to Collin’s play seems very much “of its moment”. Like any great opera overture, Beethoven’s take on the story is elliptical, not meant to trace Collin’s (or Shakespeare’s) drama literally, but instead to present the listener with an emotional lens through which the plot can be viewed. The premiere (and revival of the play) took place at the Vienna palace of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz. Enthusiasm for Collin’s play had fallen off quickly after its brief 1804 run and Beethoven’s show of support did little to change its fate. The overture endures, modestly, and concertgoers today would be forgiven for assuming a direct connection to Shakespeare instead. At least until the ending. In Collin’s Coriolan, the general does not return to the city of his former foe to face their daggers. No, he immediately takes his own life after demurring before the gates of his once-beloved Rome and the quiet, last heartbeats of Beethoven’s overture hint at this much more solitary ending.                                                                                                    

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1807, the Embargo Act passed in the U.S., the Ottoman Emperor Selim III was deposed and imprisoned, and the Peace of Tilsit was signed, joining former enemies France and Russia against Great Britain. 

THE CONNECTION – Coriolan Overture is programmed rarely by the Utah Symphony and has not appeared on the Masterworks Series since September 2015. Thierry Fischer conducted.