In 1812, Ludwig van Beethoven received a letter from a young pianist named Emilie M. Her letter, enclosed with a home-made embroidered pocketbook, expressed her fondness for, and appreciation of, his music. Taking this gesture to heart, Beethoven responded with a heartfelt missive in which he, in a mentor-like way, described his conception of art and humanity. The quote above, taken from the start of the letter’s central paragraph, is remarkable for its concise explication of Beethoven’s Promethean ideas about the power of art to transform humanity and society.
Prometheus was the last of the Titans in Greek mythology. He sided with the younger upstart gods, led by Zeus, in their war against the Titans. After this war, Prometheus showed sympathy with, and loyalty to, another downtrodden group, humanity. To aid them, Prometheus shared the secrets of fire so that they might raise themselves up from the earth like the gods. The myth differs in each telling — some have Prometheus sharing other secrets, such as art or metalworking, and some, that Zeus took away fire from the humans and Prometheus stole it back for humanity — but virtually all agree that it was the fire of Prometheus that illuminated humanity and allowed civilization to develop.
For Beethoven, the story of Prometheus held an answer to the question of how to reform society and uplift mankind. As Friedrich Schiller, an older contemporary philosopher-poet whom Beethoven read and admired (and would later immortalize in the “Ode to Joy”), argued in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794): Political revolution could not bring about a transformation of society but that only aesthetic education, an appreciation of “The Good, The True, and the Beautiful” as found in Art could do so.2 Central to this was the metaphorical figure of Prometheus, an enlightened figure who could guide others by sharing with them the gift of fire. Beethoven saw himself as such a figure, and sought through his music to expose his listeners to higher emotions and higher ideals: freedom, human rights, and an appreciation of the wonder, beauty, and joy of the world.
It is this conception of Beethoven and his music that inspired The Cleveland Orchestra’s Prometheus Festival. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst has described his conception of Beethoven’s music as a “philosophy put into sounds” inextricably entwined with this Promethean ideology. To that end, the core of the festival is a Beethoven cycle: performances of all nine symphonies, as well as four other significant orchestral pieces. Each work has a different connection to Prometheus and a different message for us to consider.
1 As found and discussed in Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 9.
2 Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: A Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 266.
Alexander Lawler is a Historical Musicology PhD student at Case Western Reserve University. This is his third year working in the Orchestra’s Archives, having previously written “From the Archives” online essays (2015-2016) and designed a photo digitization and metadata project (2016-2017).