Fear No More:

Beethoven's Egmont Overture (1810)

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is one of his many concert overtures depicting different kinds of heroic individuals. The Egmont Overture is derived from the incidental music Beethoven wrote for Goethe’s play of the same name (Egmont, 1788). The play is a historical drama of the sixteenth-century struggle of the Count of Egmont against the Duke of Alba for the freedom of the Netherlands. In the play, Egmont boldly confronts Alba’s tyranny, knowing that it will cost him his life. His sacrifice is not in vain: it will ensure the downfall of Alba. Beethoven condenses one of the primary messages of Goethe’s play into a searing overture: the only way to defeat tyranny is through an equally strong gesture of defiance, although such an act carries with it great peril. Egmont resembles Prometheus, whose resistance to tyranny through his theft of fire led to his imprisonment, but also humanity’s salvation. However, this connection goes farther, as Franz Welser-Möst describes below:

Egmont Overture: Heroism and Fear

Franz discusses examples of promethean heroes and the difficulty of freedom. Features an excerpt of the Orchestra’s 60th Anniversary TV Special (1978), with Lorin Maazel conducting a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.
Video compiled and edited by Alexander Lawler. All audio, images, and pictures courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Franz describes another aspect of being a promethean hero, – the ability to conquer fear. To stand up against tyranny and the status quo is difficult and frightening. Any act of resistance requires that one defeat fear doubly — in standing up to tyranny and facing the unknown consequences. Promethean figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Joan of Arc, and Egmont stood up and, through their heroism, and sacrifice, gave others the strength to stand. Although they ultimately lost their lives in pursuit of freedom (just as in the stirring conclusion to the Egmont Overture), the fire that their heroic spark started would become a blaze.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands at a podium and speaks into several microphones. Several other African-American people stand beside and behind him. Joan of Arc is hailed by the people of Orleans as she rides through. She holds aloft her white- and-yellow flag, and is clad with metal armor. Her horse is draped with a blue flag emblazoned with Fleur-de-lys and wears a crown of olive branches. Mahatma Gandhi stands at the center of a large number of Indians marching in the direction of the camera.
Left: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1968. Photograph by Rowland Scherman. Center: Joan of Arc returns to Orleans after her triumph over the English, 1429. Painting by Jean-Jacques Scherrer, 1887. Right: Mahatma Gandhi leading the Salt March, 1930. Scan of historical photograph by Wikimedia user Yann.

You can listen below to the rest of Egmont’s promethean journey — conflict, hope, despair, and salvation — through a selection of audio clips from the Orchestra archives.

A youthful Louis Lane conducts the Orchestra. Everyone wears a serious, intense expression.t
The industrious Louis Lane served in a variety of conducing and performing capacities with the Orchestra between 1947 and 1973. This preserved photo positive depicts a young Lane conducting a particularly intense moment sometime during his first years with the Orchestra. Photograph by Dick McCullough, date unknown
Beethoven's Egmont Overture – Part 2
The Cleveland Orchestra, Louis Lane
Archival Recording: Severance Hall, December 8, 1967



George Szell is conducting. He is looking to the left with a severe expression, and is dramatically cueing a performer.
George Szell, the Orchestra’s fourth music director (1946-1970), conducting the Orchestra at a concert at Severance Hall in 1963. Photograph by Epic Records. The archival audio recording below is from the opening weekend of the Blossom Music Center, which featured three nights of Beethoven’s music.
Egmont Overture – Part 3
The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell
Archival Recording: Blossom Music Center, July 20, 1968



Franz is conducting the Orchestra. Franz and the Orchestra all look very intent.
Music Director Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Orchestra during one of the final concerts of the 16/17 season. This photo comes from the same concert (July 14, 2017) as this recording. Photograph by Roger Mastroianni, 2017.
Beethoven's Egmont Overture – Part 3
The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell
Archival Recording: Blossom Music Center, July 20, 1968


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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