Beethoven’s Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, op. 43

The Overture to the Ballet

performed by the Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly, or below by the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado


So we’re not talking about the entire ballet, at least not yet. Maybe we should.

In any case, if you’ve listened to Chailly’s Beethoven cycle, which I really love, you’re familiar with his approach to this music. Abbado’s recording above is around five and a half minutes, while Chailly’s fiery (appropriate, no?) energetic, nearly-neck-snapping tempo means he finishes around 35 seconds faster, which isn’t insignificant for such a small piece.

What’s an overture, by the way? The term and the style have evolved over the years, but it’s basically the introduction to the work. Some definitions say it is nothing more than a smaller musical thing that comes before a bigger musical thing, while Wikipedia explains that in 19th-century opera, it’s just whatever happens or is played before the curtain rises. Granted, The Creatures of Prometheus is a ballet, not an opera, but this still sets the scene for what comes later. But not today.

This is actually Beethoven’s first overture, and for his only full-length ballet. There’s a introductory little section to this little overture, sixteen bars that you might feel are familiar. We’ll get to that later. It opens with two. big. punctuating. chords. The opens up to reveal a quite deliberate, broad tempo and a melody with oboe and trumpets over strings. At bar 17, the piece takes off. It’s like those first sixteen bars were the orchestra hammering away at a boulder twice, pushing it towards a cliff, and then finally, at bar 17, over the edge, where things really start to get going. But we’re talking about Prometheus, not Sisyphus.

Strings take over at bar 17. If you’re listening to Abbado, the piece picks up pace and the winds provide a nice accompaniment while violins do their runs. If you’re listening to Chailly, the violins burn rubber in five gears and are roaring like an F1 race car, which offers plenty of excitement but maybe less delicacy than Abbado’s take. There are two main sections here: the buzzing, whirling violins, full of energy, punctuated by heavy chords, and a contrasting, not nearly as forceful little melody in the winds, often accented on the weak beats. These are the two main things that go on.

The piece reaches peaks and troughs multiple times throughout the short few minutes of the work, and ends with an exciting coda. To my ear, having never watched a ballet live or otherwise, it sounds much more like the beginning to a dramatic opera than something that would be danced to, but it’s a nice crisp piece, nonetheless, finished in 1801, around the time of the composer’s first two symphonies, the finales of both also containing some fast, vibrant string work. The two most interesting points from the Wikipedia article are placed together for my copy/paste convenience, and I reproduce them below:

According to musicologist Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven’s music for this ballet is “easier and lighter than music for the concert hall…[I]t shows Beethoven exploiting instruments and coloristic orchestral effects that would never appear in his symphonies or serious dramatic overtures.”[2] Beethoven later based the fourth movement of his Eroica symphony and his Eroica Variations (piano) on the main theme of the last movement (Finale) of this ballet.

With that in mind, go back and listen to the beginning of the piece. Then go listen to the beginning of the Eroica itself. I’m not saying that every piece that begins with two crisp exclamation-point-like chords must be related, but these are opp. 43 and 55 respectively, and the above acknowledges that the finale of op. 55 came from this work, as well as the fact that he was more experimental, colorful in this work than he would have been in his symphonies. Go back and listen to the openings of symphonies 1, 2 and 4. They all have the polite, somewhat still expected more subdued introduction before proceeding to more exciting things. Could they be related? Maybe.

In any case, we don’t have time right now to get around to the entire ballet, and the feature this week is not this little overture, but something more substantial, the op. 60. Stay tuned, and see you then.

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