LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Overture to Egmont, op. 84

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. His Egmont music was commissioned for the Court Theater in Vienna in October 1809 and was completed by the following spring. Most of the music was first performed in Vienna on May 24, 1810; the Overture was added on June 15; the first American performance of the Overture took place in New York in a concert given by Joseph Herrmann as early as April 2, 1825. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two each of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

The historical Count Egmont was the most illustrious victim of Spanish tyranny in the Netherlands when he was treacherously seized by the Duke of Alba and executed in Brussels on June 4, 1568. Goethe completed his historical tragedy Egmont, based on these events, in 1788.

Goethe’s title character is considerably romanticized (for one thing, Goethe makes him an eligible bachelor with a youthful sweetheart, while the real Egmont was a middle-aged married man with at least eight children). The play, which straddled styles between Goethe’s youthful Sturm und Drang and his more mature Classicism, was performed in 1791, but with only middling success. Today it is Beethoven’s music, composed for a Viennese production in 1810, that keeps Egmont alive to the extent that it is performed at all, and the music projects Egmont to the audience as a far more heroic figure than Goethe made him. Beethoven’s reading of the play saw the conflict between Egmont and Alba as the clash between good and evil, between liberty and tyranny; in response, he produced music of great force.

In the drama’s final scene, the imprisoned Egmont, awaiting execution sees a vision of Freedom in the likeness of his sweetheart Klärchen, and awakens emboldened to address the audience in heroic closing words, ending, “And to save all that is dearest to you, fall joyously, as I set you an example.” The poet called for music to break in immediately after these last words, to bring down the curtain with a “victory symphony.” Beethoven’s Overture is mostly tense and somber, its overall air of suspense foreshadowing the serious issues of the drama to follow. At the very end of the Overture, Beethoven suddenly brings in totally new material for his coda—the “victory symphony” that will be heard again in the last scene. This brilliant F major peroration provides a powerful dramatic lift and elevates the tragic figure of Egmont to the level of charismatic hero. —© Steven Ledbetter