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The Prometheus Project

As part of the Centennial Season’s celebration, Franz Welser-Möst has created “The Prometheus Festival,” examining Beethoven’s music through the metaphor of Prometheus, a daring Titan who defied Zeus to bestow on humanity the gift of fire. For Beethoven, this represented the beginning of human civilization, the spark of creativity that has powered the imagination of generations, the warmth of justice and goodness, and the fight for individual rights and freedoms.

In support of this project, the Archives is excited to offer a series of essays designed to enrich the concert experience and to provide in-depth historical information for anyone interested in the Orchestra’s performance history and its archival audio recordings of Beethoven repertoire. Curated essays link the Orchestra’s rich audio legacy to the Prometheus cycle.

The Cleveland Orchestra gratefully acknowledges generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of this project.

Beethoven: The Prometheus Connection

“Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort. For only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.”
— Ludwig van Beethoven in a letter to Emilie M. [surname unknown], 18121

Portrait of Beethoven in pastoral ancient Greece. He is holding a lute with one hand and gesturing to the viewer with the other.
Portrait of Beethoven (1804/05), by Joseph Willibrord Mähler.

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.

A painting; on the right side stands Prometheus holding aloft the stolen fire. On the left is a slumped human figure shrouded in darkness.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind (c. 1817), painting by Heinrich Füger.

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
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).

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