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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Incidental Beethoven

In Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the middle class emerged as a major social stratum in its own right. This large subsection of society demanded access to its own entertainment, and pastimes such as plays, ballets and operas which had hitherto been the domain of the nobility started to become available to masses of people.

The theatre required music, and not just for the obvious pursuits of opera and ballet. Plays were often performed with elaborate musical accompaniment - called "incidental music" - and often there was so much music that the line between a play with music and a musical piece with spoken dialogue was rather blurred.

Belotto: Vienna (c. 1760)

Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770) lived at exactly this period in European history which saw theatre become a major part of the lives of the middle classes. With most of our attention drawn to Beethoven's works designed for the concert hall or the home - the symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber music - we can easily forget that he too wrote a not-insubstantial amount of music for the theatre.

Music for the three major genres of theatre music - ballet, opera and incidental music - can be found in Beethoven's works. His major contribution to ballet was the relatively early but still fascinating The Creatures of Prometheus, while his one opera, Fidelio, is now part of the standard repertoire. In this post I want to concentrate on Beethoven's other theatre music, his incidental music for plays, because it's a corner of the repertoire not often heard apart from a few famous bits and pieces. This music sheds light on a different side of Beethoven's craft, and it's music almost never performed today.

Beethoven was clearly attracted to theatrical subjects which had personal resonances for him. The Prometheus ballet concerned a classical hero, and Fidelio portrays the fight of an individual against unjust oppression. Beethoven saw himself as taking a heroic stand against fate, needing to struggle against the odds to be what he was meant to be, and fighting his deafness and other chronic illnesses with constant struggle and effort. These sentiments were painfully and heart-breakingly given voice in the document Beethoven wrote in 1802, known now as the "Heiligenstadt Testament", and they are sentiments which pervade his best works for the theatre.

Hornemann: Ludwig van Beethoven (1803)

In 1809 Beethoven received a commission from the Vienna Court Theatre to compose an overture and incidental music for Goethe's play Egmont. He responded with amazing energy and interest; he adored Goethe and adored the play. So personal was his involvement and so glad was he to write the music that, despite his financial difficulties at the time, he refused to receive any payment for his work. In all, the music for Egmont comprises an overture and nine other pieces totalling some 40 minutes of music.

Egmont contains heroic struggles such as would have fired Beethoven's imagination. Set in the 16th century when The Netherlands were under Spanish control, the Dutch Count Egmont is the hero who valiantly stands against oppression. Based on historical events, the play includes a fictional love interest with a woman called Clärchen who loves the Count but who poisons herself when her plot to escape fails. Egmont himself is executed at the end of the play but dies in the knowledge that the rebellion has started and that victory for his cause is assured.

Beethoven's mighty overture for the incidental music is often heard in concerts today. It is a microcosm of the plot, with the slow introduction depicting the oppression under which Egmont and his country are suffering. In the fast main section we seem to be hearing the violence and turmoil of the majority of the play. The ending of the overture prefigures the triumph of the rebellion at the end of the play. In this YouTube posting of the complete incidental music, the overture covers the first eight minutes. [listen]

Anon: Count Egmont (1564)

The overture to Egmont is the only part of Beethoven's incidental music for the play which is still regularly performed today, but there's another half hour or so of music designed to accompany and enhance the action on stage. Most interestingly, the actress playing the part of Clärchen needs to be a more than average singer, as Beethoven provides her with two songs. For the premiere, Beethoven personally coached the actress playing the role, and despite her only passable skills as a singer, declared himself pleased with her performance. The first of her two songs starts at 8’05 in the YouTube video. [listen]

As well as the overture and two songs, Beethoven composed four entr'actes, as well as music to underscore Clärchen's death scene. This last is beautifully delicate, showing Beethoven's ability to capture in music a tragic moment with subtle orchestral colours. Note in particular his use of the oboe. It starts at 28’21 in the YouTube video. [listen]

Near the end of the play there is a "melodrama". This word has a completely different meaning to use today; we use it to denote ham overacting ("Don't be so melodramatic"). In the purely theatrical context of Beethoven's music, a melodrama is music which is designed in such a way as to have parts of the text spoken oven over it. The melodrama in Egmont is spoken by the Count himself as he is in prison awaiting his execution. Egmont sleeps and dreams of Clärchen, who appears to him as the spirit of liberty. The nobility of Beethoven's music for his hero is evident from the first note; this is music from the heart. It starts at 31’05. [listen]

The final section of Beethoven's music is designed to accompany the victorious rebellion after Egmont's death, and for this he used the triumphant conclusion of the overture, thus rounding off the night with music from its beginning.

Beethoven's music for Egmont, first performed in 1810, was successful and popular in its day, and had a life in the concert hall apart from performances of the play during the composer's lifetime. Goethe himself praised it highly but the Egmont music was, sadly, the only incidental music Beethoven wrote for a play which really fired his imagination.

A work often thought of in connection with the Egmont overture is Beethoven's earlier overture to Collin's play Coriolan, written in 1807. Strictly speaking, though, this is not incidental music but concert music. The overture is inspired by the events in the play but it was designed as a concert work, and there is no other incidental music for the play. The piece was premiered in a concert but there was also one at least one occasion performed before the play in a theatre.

The year after the premiere of the Egmont music Beethoven was commissioned to write music for two short plays being performed as a double bill in the Hungarian city of Pest. The occasion was the opening of a new theatre and the plays, written by August von Kotzebue, were designed to flatter the Austrian emperor and dampen Hungarian nationalism. They didn't bring from Beethoven his greatest music he seems to have written it in a great hurry.

The first play was King Stephen, a play which starts by eulogising the medieval Hungarian king Stephen I and ends with praising the Austrian emperor and his wife. For this Beethoven wrote an overture which is only very rarely heard today, as well as eight other movements, most of which are choruses. The overture is a piece which deserves to be played more often; I for one can't recall ever having heard a live performance of it. It covers the first six and a half minutes of this posting of the complete music for the play. [listen]

Portrayal of King Stephen I of Hungary on the coronation pall (1031)

The remaining music for the play - another eight movements - is largely ceremonial and laudatory. The final chorus - starting at 24’50 in the YouTube video - gives a good indication of the mood of the piece which didn't inspire Beethoven's muse anywhere near as well as Egmont. [listen]

The second play which formed the double bill with King Stephen was The Ruins of Athens. The play glorifies the city of Pest at the expense of Athens, which had been overrun by the Turks. Again, like its companion piece, The Ruins of Athens did not meet Beethoven's need for a heroic struggle against the odds in order to inspire from him truly great music. The overture to The Ruins of Athens is occasionally played today but only one movement of the remaining incidental music, the Turkish March, has gained any popularity.

The Turkish March is preceded by a Chorus of Dervishes, and the sequence can be heard from 14’46 in the following link. In the chorus Beethoven attempts to create a Turkish ambience by the use of so-called "Turkish" percussion instruments (cymbals in particular) and unusual intervals such as the augmented fourth. [listen]

Composers who worked in the theatre often wrote music for insertion into works by other composers. This is something which seems odd to us, as we tend to think of theatrical works, even incidental music, as being self-contained and "finished". However revivals of works sometimes required extra music and if the original composer was not able, for whatever reason, to oblige, then there was no problem with asking someone else to do the job.

Many of Mozart's so-called "concert arias" were in fact originally written to be inserted into operas by other composers, usually at the request of a singer who wanted something tailor-made. Beethoven, too, was occasionally asked to compose individual pieces for insertion into plays where the rest of the music had been written by others. These pieces are very hard to make work in any other context and so have largely remained unknown to the music-loving public at large.

In 1813, for example, Beethoven was commissioned to write a couple of short pieces for insertion into a now-forgotten tragedy called Tarpeja by Christoph Kuffner. The pieces are a march-like Introduction to Act 2 and this music, a Triumphal March for use at the end of the play. [listen]

Vienna (1800)

Tarpeja may be long-forgotten today but at least it was performed in Beethoven's lifetime. In 1815 he was persuaded by the poet and politician Johann Duncker to compose music for his tragedy Leonore Prohaska. Duncker hoped that the play would be performed in Vienna but by the time Beethoven had rather unenthusiastically written four pieces for the play it become obvious that the performance wasn't going ahead, so he abandoned the project. There's no evidence that the play was ever performed.

The play, based on recent true events, contains elements well-known from Beethoven's opera Fidelio. In the play a woman - called Leonore, as in the opera - disguises herself as a man, but unlike the opera she is killed. Before the cancellation of the project Beethoven managed to compose a Chorus of Warriors, a soprano song, a melodrama, and a Funeral March. The music is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the instrumentation, or in the case of the first movement, the lack of instrumentation. The Chorus of Warriors is completely unaccompanied, something virtually unique in Beethoven's music. [listen]

The song which follows is a Romance for solo soprano. The accompaniment is one of Beethoven's rare uses of the harp. [listen]

Most unusual of all is the melodrama which follows, in which the spoken voice is accompanied by a glass harmonica. This rare, ethereal instrument had a brief period of vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. [listen]

The final movement Beethoven provided for Leonore Prohaska is the only one of the four to require an orchestra; obviously he intended to use an orchestra in the rest of his incidental music but it was at this point the project was abandoned. The Funeral March for the play is Beethoven's orchestration of the heroic funeral march movement from his piano sonata op 26. [listen]

It wasn't until 1822 that Beethoven had one more opportunity to write theatrical music. By this time his energies had been well and truly focused elsewhere, with the ninth symphony, the late quartets, the last sonatas and the Missa Solemnis crowding his mind. However the newly-refurbished Theater in der Josephstadt was looking for a new piece with which to commemorate its reopening and eventually Beethoven was persuaded to update and rearrange his music from The Ruins of Athens to fit a new play called The Consecration of the House.

Theater in der Josefstadt

The most important addition to the earlier music was a new overture which is today occasionally heard in concerts. As the first music to be heard in the new theatre, Beethoven decided to adopt a manner which saw as an adaptation of Handel's overture style: the slow, ceremonial introduction is clearly meant to invoke the music of Handel, which Beethoven was at the time studying in some detail. The main fast section begins with trumpet fanfares and scampering bassoon lines which create a festive atmosphere appropriate to the occasion.[listen]

The incidental music Beethoven composed for plays comprises several hours of music, the majority of which is not widely known today and much of which could be usefully heard in concerts, if not in the theatre. In researching this topic I've heard much of this music for the first time and it renews my respect for the greatness of Beethoven. He was clearly not always the composer at odds with, and isolated from, his world that we often imagine him to have been. His theatrical involvements - among other things - show him to have been a man of his time and his place, immersed in Viennese musical life at every level. There's a common touch in this music which we don't always get in the more famous works. I like that.

Waldmuller: Ludwig van Beethoven (1823)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2009.

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