Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus (1801)
Perhaps the most overt example of Beethoven’s interaction with the idea of Prometheus was his only published ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. This ballet was the fruit of a collaboration between him and Salvatore Viganò, Vienna court ballet master and fellow artistic progressive. Viganò’s adaption of the Prometheus myth for Beethoven’s ballet was based on a French Enlightenment-era retelling that cast Prometheus as both the creator of humanity and its guide in becoming truly human through the power of the performing arts.
The connection between Prometheus and Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus is not programmatic, but is instead abstract and philosophical. Two aspects of the overture, as highlighted by musicologist Paul Bertagnolli, contribute to this interpretation. The first is found in the overture’s opening chords, as can be heard in this audio clip. Beethoven violates orthodox harmonic practice by starting the overture with a sequence of chords that harmonize a different key than the rest of the overture. This “transgression” against the old musical order mirrors that of Prometheus against the gods. The second is the energetic theme that Beethoven introduces in the faster allegro section. This theme prefigures the main theme used for joyful conclusion of the ballet, in which the “creatures of Prometheus” have attained true “animation through the power of the arts.”1 These two features, as well as the overture’s high spirits, help connect the overture to the ballet’s uplifting Promethean ideal.
1 Paul Bertagnolli, Prometheus in Music: Representations of the Myth in the Romantic Era (New York: Routledge, 2007, 2016), 36-38.
You can get a sneak peek of the Prometheus Festival at the all-Beethoven January 19 Fridays@7 performance, featuring his Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus as well as the First and Third Symphonies. Tickets can be purchased via the phone 216-231-1111 and online.
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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