LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture, op. 62

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed the Coriolan Overture early in 1807, and the work was first performed in two different subscription concerts given at the home of Prince Lobkowitz and possibly also in a private concert at the home of Prince Lichnowsky in March of that year. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.

Beethoven knew and admired the works of Shakespeare in the prose translation of Eschenburg, but his Coriolan Overture was not inspired by the Bard’s Coriolanus. He composed it for a much less elevated text, a play by Matthäus von Collin that had enjoyed a brief vogue in Vienna as a vehicle for a star actor during the years from 1802–1805. Originally the play was performed with secondhand music adapted from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Beethoven apparently admired Collin’s somewhat hackneyed poetic tragedy for the ideals of Classical virtue embodied therein, and the author was, in any case, a friend of his, and an influential one at that, since he served as Imperial Court Secretary.

The only information we have for the precise date of the work is Beethoven’s own indication “1807” on the manuscript and the fact that it had been performed by March of that year not once but twice in subscription concerts given at the home of Prince Lobkowitz. It seems also to have been given early in March (a press notice appeared on the 8th) at a private musicale sponsored by another aristocrat with whom Beethoven had not been on the best of terms in recent months, Prince Lichnowsky. The preceding autumn, while staying at Prince Lichnowsky’s country home near Troppau, Beethoven was pestered by other guests to play the piano for them. He refused, objecting to their evident expectations that he undertake “menial labor” as if he were a servant. A threat of arrest—certainly made as a joke—caused him to explode and leave on the spot. He walked to the nearest town and took the post carriage back to Vienna. The outburst was characteristic, but it blew over quickly. By March Beethoven was happy to allow the prince to use his new manuscript of the Overture.

The program of the two subscriptions concerts sponsored by Lobkowitz included the first four symphonies, a piano concerto, arias from Fidelio, and the new Overture. According to an evaluation in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden (Journal of Luxury and Fashion):

Richness of ideas, bold originality and fullness of power, which are the particular merits of Beethoven’s muse, were very much in evidence to everyone at these concerts; yet many found fault with lack of a noble simplicity and the all too fruitful accumulation of ideas which on account of their number were not always adequately worked out and blended, thereby creating the effect more often of rough diamonds.

Yet the Overture must have made a strong impression, for by April 24 the management of the Imperial Theater mounted a single performance of Collin’s drama, using Beethoven’s Overture, so as to unite the play with the music that it inspired. It is most likely that this happened at the suggestion of Prince Lobkowitz himself, who was a director of the theater.

The combination of music with drama seems to have been no improvement over the music alone; the play has apparently never been performed since. Beethoven’s Overture, on the other hand, recognized from the first as being “full of fire and power,” is one of his most admired short orchestral works, a probing essay in musical drama. The tension of Beethoven’s favorite

dramatic key, C minor, is heightened by orchestral chords punctuating the weakest beat of the measure at the phrase endings in the allegro theme. Formally the design is striking in that the second thematic group, representing Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia, is the only part of the exposition that is recapitulated. Finally, the opening theme returns in the home key, but it is transformed rhythmically into a short series of lamenting fragments, and the whole Overture ends with a wonderfully dramatic use of silence—a musical suggestion of tragedy far more potent than that accomplished by the prolix rhetoric of Collin’s verse. —© Steven Ledbetter