Overture to Egmont

Op. 84, Ludwig Van Beethoven

My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill spiritual feelings not only in the singers but in the listeners.


A famous painting by Carl Rohling painted in 1887 was titled “The Incident at Teplitz”, capturing the famous meeting between Goethe and Beethoven on July 21, 1812 in that city.  Beethoven, wearing his hat, is in the foreground moving away from Goethe, who is bowing to royalty with hat removed. Twenty-one years separated the two men, and but far more than two decades separated their political positions. “Goethe delights in the court atmosphere far more than is becoming to a poet,” Beethoven stated to his publishers, Breitkopf and Hartel.  At the time, Beethoven explained, “I waited for you [Goethe]because I respect you and admire your work, but you have shown too much esteem to those people…” For Goethe, Privy Counsellor at the Weimar Court, it was absolutely correct to show deference and respect.

The meeting at Teplitz was the first time the two men had met in person, primarily to go over music Beethoven had composed for a re-staging of his play “Egmont in Weimar.” In 1822, reminiscing with the critic Friedrich Rochlitz, Beethoven remembered, “How patient the great man was with me…how happy he made me then! I would have gone to death, yes ten times to death for Goethe. Goethe… he lives and wants us all to live with him.  It is for that reason that he can be composed.”  The admiration was not mutual.  Goethe, in a letter to the critic Carl Zelter, noted that Beethoven “had an absolutely uncontrolled personality, he is not altogether wrong in holding the world detestable, but surely he does not make it more enjoyable for himself or others by his attitude.” He grudgingly admitted, however, that, “Beethoven has done wonders matching music to the text.”

In the past, Goethe had often found Beethoven’s music to be “overblown and incomprehensible.”  How then, did Beethoven receive a commission for this project?  In fact, the commission came from Joseph Hartl, manager of the Court Theaters in Vienna, who wanted to bring plays by Goethe and Schiller to the theatre. Beethoven was enthusiastic; the topic aligned perfectly with the composer’s morality, sensibilities and political views.

On April 12, 1811, Beethoven wrote to the poet, “I am in a position to approach you only with the deepest reverence…You will shortly receive from Breitkopf and Hartel [for which he received 1,400 gulden] the music to Egmont… I should like to know your opinion…”  (information derived from Chicago Symphony Orchestra program notes, 1921–22). Hence, the face to face meeting in Teplitz came naturally in the course of musical decisions. Goethe’s play with Beethoven’s nine incidental pieces and Overture was fully staged in 1814 but critical response was bleak.  Only the Overture took off in the musical world after its premiere, and the incidental pieces were performed at the Hofburg Theatre on May 24, 1810. Beethoven had written the music in 1809.  The play, originally penned by Goethe in 1787, eventually sank into obscurity.

For Beethoven, this composition was a chance to provide a musical counterfoil to the contemporary Napoleonic juggernaut. Count Egmont deserved to be remembered for his fighting for human freedom (against Spanish Oppression),  and it was time to highlight the relevancy of his martyrdom.  His Overture chronicles the sixteenth century story of Lamoral, Count Egmont of the Netherlands who defied a Spanish attack captained by the Duke of Alva.

The Overture opens with a long-held, heavy, F minor chord (Egmont in prison) followed by a slow Sarabande in a 3/2 meter. The weight of Spanish occupation is clear.  After a repetition, the Spanish dance leads directly into a triple meter Allegro filled with lyrical tunes. Their poignancy clearly insures imminent tragedy.  These gentle melodies provide no freedom from destiny. As the music progresses, the measured rhythms from the opening gain urgency and momentum which leads to a huge climax that explodes during the Egmont-Spanish battle. Eventually, the woodwinds chant a somber funeral prayer. Egmont has been defeated, and in fact, beheaded.  His lover, Claechen, is represented in a gentle set of melodies… and, in the drama, she promises that Egmont’s death will provide fuel for a later revolt.

But, Beethoven has a surprise for us­­—all is not lost.  Goethe had specifically asked that the ending not be a lament, and Beethoven took him at his word. In place of a summarizing coda, the composer adds new material in a Victory Symphony, emerging in high spirits in the sunny key of F major.  Horn and trumpet fanfares abound. The righteousness and vitality of Egmont’s struggle survived the moment of defeat. Theodore Adorno, the great German social thinker wrote, “If music tries to stay strictly within its autonomous confines, it becomes co-optable, living a harmless life in its appointed niche.” Beethoven did not let that happen, and in the Overture to Egmont he provided both lesson and hope.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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