The Dark Side:
Beethoven's Overture to Coriolan (1807)
Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan is the only tragic piece in our Prometheus Festival. Indeed, in spite of the intense conflict that marks much of his music, Beethoven was something of an optimist; the overwhelming majority of his large-scale works end in triumph and celebration. This follows the general ethos of his promethean ideology, in which humanity can overcome its obstacles and difficulties through the paths blazed by promethean individuals. Even when the hero seems to fail, as in the case of Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Beethoven concludes the piece with a celebration of Egmont’s ultimate victory. However, the Overture to Coriolan does not fit this mold. Its musical protagonist is defeated, and the Overture, as Beethoven Scholar Scott Burnham described it, “does not close, it expires.”1 The reason is that the central character of Coriolanus is an example of the dangers of promethean ideology divorced from the good of humanity. If someone can be a Joan of Arc, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Mahatma Ghandi, he can also could be a Hitler, a Capone, or a Coriolanus.
Beethoven seems to have been inspired to write this Overture by the 1802 play Coriolan, written by his friend Heinrich von Collin, although it is also possible Beethoven was aware of Shakespeare’s own earlier version, Coriolanus (c. 1605-1608).2 Both plays adapted the tragic cautionary tale of Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. A brilliant but proud military leader who led Roman armies against the Volsci, Coriolanus becomes unpopular with the people of Rome through his high-handed ideas of governance. Feeling betrayed, he flees the city, and joins his erstwhile enemies, the Volsci, to march upon and destroy Rome. His new allies surround the city, he prepares the final assault, but is convinced by the impassioned pleas and heroism of his mother, Volumnia, and the other women to abandon his plans. Realizing the extent of his folly, he takes his life.
Beethoven represents the ethical conflict at the heart of this story through the interplay of two very different musical themes: the first represents Coriolan’s prideful rage – music of great agitation and violence in C minor – whereas the second depicts the heroic pleas of Volumnia – lyrical, broad, and insistent. These two themes form the exposition of the work: Beethoven sets the Overture in sonata form: a classical-era structure in which material, often composed of two contrasting themes, is introduced (exposition), then changes in any number of ways: fragmented, added to, key and/or rhythm changes (development). Then the original material is re-introduced, in an altered form so that the work can end solidly in its original key (recapitulation). Hear the exposition performed by the Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Lorin Maazel.
Central to this form is a dynamic of conflict and resolution, which Beethoven exploits to maximum effect. As his biographer Jan Swafford describes, Beethoven uses this mechanism to achieve “a dramatic and psychological masterstroke.” After introducing the opposing themes of Coriolanus and his wife and mother, the development section continually transforms Coriolanus’s theme, with much of its acerbic bite taken away, indicative of his “inner battle.” The master stroke occurs though in the recapitulation and coda. Beethoven systematically renders Coriolanus’s theme more unstable, and allowing Volumnia’s pleas to emerge. In the coda, the plea returns briefly, as if Volumnia’s “anguish” is now that of Coriolanus.3 This culminates in a towering, searing climax of Coriolanus’s theme which then breaks down and fades away, symbolizing his abandonment of both his revenge and his life.4
Swafford argues that the story of Coriolan “resonated” with Beethoven; Beethoven had an often tempestuous relationship with the inhabitants of Vienna, and felt a strong pull to move to a place where he might be better appreciated.5 Given the intensity with which Beethoven set the Overture, there seems to be some truth to this. Some aspects of Coriolanus would have appealed to Beethoven: his pride, strong will, brilliance, and leadership abilities. However, Coriolanus’s dark side — hate-filled, self-centered, and traitorous to his people and ideals — almost certainly did not, and in many ways what Beethoven thought about Coriolanus might be similar to what he thought about the Emperor Napoleon. What Beethoven valued in promethean philosophy was not just power, but how that power could be used to help humanity. The pathos of the Overture’s painful end was perhaps not just for Coriolanus, but for what he represented – the destined tragic end of power unjustly used against humanity.
1 Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 179n37.
2 Musicologist Lawrence Kramer details how Beethoven was “an avid reader of Shakespeare” but resisted setting the bard to music directly. Instead, as Kramer argues, Beethoven “seems to have been willing to endow certain pieces with an underlying poetic idea taken from Shakespeare.” Lawrence Kramer, Song Acts: Writings on Words and Music (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2017), 405-406.
3 Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 470-471.
4 For a more in-depth (and theoretical) examination of Beethoven’s musical symbolism and the Shakespeare connection in the Overture to Coriolan, see Lawrence Kramer, “The Strange Case of Beethoven’s Coriolan” in Song Acts: Song Acts: Writings on Words and Music (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2017), 405-428.
5 Swafford, Anguish and Triumph, 470.
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).