Prometheus’s Prelude

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.

A painting; Prometheus is sculpting out of clay a life-size figure of a man.
Prometheus Creating Man in Clay (c. 1845), painting by Constantin Hansen.
Faded handbill for the premiere performance of The Creatures of Prometheus (March 28, 1801).
Handbill for the premiere performance of The Creatures of Prometheus (March 28, 1801).

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.

Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
The Cleveland Orchestra, Louis Lane
Archival Recording: Severance Hall, June 28, 1966

A close-up of Louis Lane conducting a concert at Severance Hall. He is bent forward slightly and gesturing to the players to play softly.
Louis Lane (1923-2016) first joined The Cleveland Orchestra as apprentice conductor in 1947. From 1947 to 1973, he was a strong supporting presence in the Orchestra as well as northern Ohio’s musical scene. This archival recording, from when he was associate conductor, is taken from a fundraising concert held by the Orchestra in support of the Mount Sinai Hospital. The Mount Sinai Hospital, located in Cleveland’s east side, was founded in 1903 and provided healthcare to the area’s underserved population, as well as serving as a center for medical advancement and education. Photograph by Peter Hastings, Date Unknown. Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

video preview image of Franz Welser-Möst
This archival recording was taken from “Violins of Hope,” a special concert in 2015 by The Cleveland Orchestra that marked the opening of the Maltz Performing Arts Center. Central to the event were the titular violins: violins played by Jews in the concentration camps, now restored and able to freely sing. Photograph by Roger Mastroianni, 2015. Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

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
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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