2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
Composed 1809-1810. First performance: June 15, 1810.
That Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of dramatic abstract music, was never completely successful in writing for the stage was probably a great disappointment to him. He had no difficulty in writing a purely abstract overture, but once beyond this point, his powers seemed to elude him. Today, we infrequently hear his only opera, Fidelio, and virtually never the music for the ballet Creatures of Prometheus or the stage plays King Stephen, Egmont, or The Ruins of Athens. The overtures, however, have become staples of the orchestral repertoire and examples of some of Beethoven’s best dramatic music.
The unevenness may have been due, ironically, to the fact that Beethoven was such a complete master of the classical sonata principle of composition. This style, the common rhetoric of classical period composers, allowed for the establishment of a tonic key using various themes, their development in distantly related keys, and the eventual resolution of all tension in a tonic key recapitulation. It was an arch-shaped form and resulted in a satisfying symphonic movement. After a sonata-form overture, however, the drama on the stage must be reflected in the accompanying music. The problem is obvious—dramas don’t always conveniently follow the dramatic curve of a sonata. Mozart was able to modify the form through the subtle use of modulations to mirror accurately the stage drama and still end up with a satisfying musical statement. Beethoven, despite his great powers as a composer, was never able to make his abstract instrumental inspirations take a subservient role to the action on the stage—hence his failures as a stage composer.
The five-act tragedy Coriolan, for which Beethoven wrote only an overture, has been forgotten for so long that many erroneously assume it is Shakespeare’s play rather than one by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. It is not known if Beethoven wrote the overture for an actual performance of the play or simply because he was inspired by it. The work comes from a particularly fertile year, 1807, between the composition of the Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5. The powerful chords that begin the work are followed by an agitated theme in C minor and a lyrical on in E-flat major. The tension is maintained near the end by bringing back the opening theme in F minor instead of C minor and then following it with a dramatic coda that gets continuously softer and more fragmented.
Many of Beethoven’s contemporaries held to the belief that the work was a depiction of Coriolan complete with his last gasps before death. Others suggested that the work was a portrait of the composer. That Beethoven provided no other music for the drama and may have been inspired only by the character marks the work as perhaps the first purely abstract overture and an archetype for similar works to follow by Wagner, Liszt, Dvořák, and others.