Overture Egmont


In the autumn of 1809, Beethoven received a commission from the management of the Vienna Court Theatre to write music for Goethe’s tragedy Egmont. The idea of staging the play, which had actually been published two decades earlier, was prompted by current events: in early May 1809 the French army, led by Napoleon, made a rapid approach on Vienna. The imperial family and court officials left the city and on May 12, after a two-day siege, the capital of the Austrian Empire surrendered. The events depicted in Goethe’s play took place in the sixteenth century. They relate how the Dutch people rebelled against the oppressive domination of Spain. The rebellion was headed by Lamoral, Count of Egmont, who was killed shortly into the campaign, but nevertheless the Dutch prevailed and as a result gained their independence.

Beethoven held Goethe’s literary work in the highest of esteem, having met repeatedly with him and set his lyrical texts to music both in the early and central periods of his creative activity. He accepted the commission and worked on it from the end of 1809 until the spring of 1810, in his own words, “out of sheer love for his poetry.” The incidental music to Egmont, created by Beethoven, comprises an overture and nine numbers. It was first introduced at the fourth performance of the drama on June 15, 1810, at the Vienna Court Theatre.

Egmont attracted Beethoven’s attention on account of many moments for which the composer felt a special affinity. The central idea of the entire musical-dramatic composition is the struggle for freedom and the joy of having earned it. It is concentrated in the overture, the piece which Beethoven completed last of the entire cycle. The monolithic form of this overture is attended by a distinct sense of its separate sections, which resemble the separate acts in Goethe’s drama proper. I – Slow introduction (Sostenuto ma non troppo) – presents the inception of the action in the drama; II – Allegro: active dramatic action that culminates in a tragic denouement; III – Allegro con brio: triumph and celebration of victory. Two contrasting musical images, stated in the slow introduction, embody the irreconcilably inimical forces. They also represent the source of dramatic development and the thematic foundation of the overture.

The Egmont Overture, along with other overtures, such as Coriolan and Leonore 3 before it, belong to the finest exemplar of the genre and are perceived as most typical of Beethoven’s thinking as a symphonist. The overture quickly gained its rightful place on the concert podium, where it became one of the favourite symphonic works by this composer. It embodies most fully and concisely the typical features of Beethoven’s ideas and style: the heroics of the struggle for freedom, which requires the mobilization of all forces and cherished sacrifices; vibrant, distinctly defined subject matter and clarity of form targeting the widest audience possible. Refined to the last detail, with its deep inner idea, this overture represents a remarkable phenomenon even for Beethoven’s music. The underlying idea of transition from darkness to light and from suffering to joy is identical to the basic idea in the composer’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.

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