Beethoven: Egmont Overture, op. 84

performed by The Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly

(cover image by Sorin Tudorut)

Beethoven’s op. 84 is actually an overture with incidental music (nine pieces) for soprano, male narrator, and orchestra for Goethe’s play of the same name.

I thought I read somewhere that Beethoven was commissioned/invited to compose this music, but the Wikipedia article seems to convey that the composer did it of his own accord. The work was composed from October 1809 to the summer of 1810, and was premiered on June 15 of that year. Goethe’s play was completed in 1787.

The completion of this work was contemporaneous with the Napoleonic Wars and the growth of the French Empire. If you’re familiar with the composer’s third symphony, the Eroica, you may recall that it had been dedicated to Napoleon until he crowned himself emperor, whereupon Beethoven furiously scratched out the dedication. He was political, and the themes of Goethe’s Egmont may have inspired him.

We won’t be discussing any of the literary business, but Wiki tells us that the play relates to us the story of “the downfall of a man who trusts in the goodness of those around him.” The play is of a Shakespearean nature, with tragedy and suicide and all the rest, and that’s really all we need to know.

Actually, we don’t even need to know that, because Beethoven’s overture conveys it so effectively. One definition of an overture is “an introduction to something more substantial.” We are thus only getting a glimpse of the story and its emotion, like a musical trailer for the entire play.

This piece is only eight minutes long, but it really doesn’t need to be any longer. I would suggest that this piece would make a fine first impression for anyone not too familiar with listening to classical music. It’s probably even less likely that someone is familiar with Goethe’s works, but really, I think all you need to be familiar with here is stories, perhaps more specifically movies.

This is kind of the classical music version of a film score. Listen to that opening, the searing first utterance, which slowly fades away, giving rise to the heroic statement from strings. Following that is a more melancholy passage featuring woodwinds, and we’re not even yet really to the theme proper.

You’ll know when the overture has begun in earnest, after a more tranquil passage. Once the nervous crunch and cracking heft of the music return… you almost cannot help but think of some kind of Hollywood-thriller version of a Shakespearean tragedy. Listen, though, for the sunnier moments that punctuate this piece, the glimpses of triumph and heroism.

It’s just eight minutes of pure excitement, really, and a discussion (or perhaps just rhetorical questions) about what makes it so can give us some insight into how to listen to other pieces of music that may not rely wholly on excitement.

For one, the music is intense, in a number of ways. There’s that opening chord, a sort of primal roar. There are breathtaking contrasts of volume, tempo and emotion, with tumultuous outbursts followed by moments of serenity. The pulsing nervousness of the strings in many places offer a texture and sense of forward motion, while the deeper voices, like cellos and low brass, will give a fullness and weight to the music. That opening roar must have been to contemporary audiences what the music of Hans Zimmer sounds like today, perhaps.

In any case, it’s a quick eight minutes, but such a moving eight minutes. Listen for the different textures, what instruments are used where, and to what effect, as well as very dramatic pauses. All of these qualities afford a very theatrical nature to the overture, not to mention the rousing, triumphant closing. Pay attention to Beethoven’s use of the brass in the regal close.

What excitement, no? We will not be discussing any of the incidental music, although we may eventually. This overture may be one of the most exciting, successful I’ve heard, and is one of only a few in Beethoven’s output. There’s the Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan, as well as the ones he wrote for Leonore, what would later become Fidelio, and a few others.

We’ve got two more chamber works from Beethoven this weekend before another milestone piece next week, so please do stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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